Describes the flower and mode of action of a particular orchid.
Has been examining Spiranthes and is experimenting to see whether insects are necessary for its fertilisation.
It seems that Oncidium is designed so as not to be fertilised.
March 20th 1864
My Dear D
I received a few days ago yours of the 16th ult. containing
Dr. Hooker's note which I have answered so much at length that perhaps he'll
dub me a ``bore'' but I felt that I could not well reply to his questions
without doing so. I shall trust to your kindness to forward it
when you have occasion to write a line yourself. We are now
about at the end of the dry season. The savanas are now newly
burnt over & yield nothing. Forest trees are changing their attire: some are
flowering[.] Orchids & Tillandsias begin to grow anew. I have at last found one
(orchid) in some respects more remarkable than those so graphically described by
Mr. Darwin— sorry I cant give you the
name tho' I believe it is in my collections The stigmatic surfaces are very sticky & are widely
separated by the rostellum which projects downwards or even a little backwards if any
thing but nearly parrallel with the column which is thick & short
(proportionally) The downward movement of the pollinia is almost
instantaneous so that I extracted a number without discovering it till I did it under
the microscope. Sometimes it is slower sometimes quicker (according to the age of the
fl. or time of day?) but it always ends with a jerk through
Day after tomorrow I expect to go to the coast (south) for two or three or more days if I find many things to collect This is the season when the people eat fish (flesh being prohibited) & a neighbor of friend Blain goes to improve the fiesta and make a little money by the sale of his ``catch'' & at the same time obey the precepts of his church & the dictates of his conscience!!! He used to be engaged in the slave trade smuggling & piracy a little I believe. I have long wanted to visit that coast for a short herborisation & once knowing the way I can return if it promises much for another & more favorable season of the year
It is pretty dry though the grass is not yet very short and a pretty good shower came the other night to give it a start. My horses are in good condition against the time when I shall want to set out on some long tour. I proposed to Gundlach a run to the north in the summer after making our excursion westward. He says he can't go yet, but I am inclining more & more to go it alone if he wont accompany me. I have twice traversed the western end of the island in the latter part of the year, & after a spring excursion through the same places I might well afford to spend a few months visiting my friends & equipping myself anew for another two or three years absence fr. home & residence in the island. We have dates fr. New York on the 12th inst & am beginning to fear that Mexico poor priest-ridden Mexico will have just cause to laugh at us. The war seems to be degenerating into a systematic practice of pillage & devastation to end perhaps in one of vengeance & retaliation
In my last excursion of about 25 sp. of shells collected in a season unfavorable 8 are new species
I examined again our little Spiranthes. From the flowers just opened the pollinia come out best. Those of older flowers wont stick but they project far over the stigma & being powdery or at least friable it is not unlikely either that the pollen falls naturally onto the stigma or that the upper edge of it unites with the loosened pollen in some way or that minute insects crawling over it may carry some of it to the stigmatic surface. However it may be some have the pollinia removed others close up & retain them in place while all or nearly all set their fruits.
Don José has covered a spike of buds of the plant I first mentioned to test the matter of fertilization & see if insects are absolutely necessary to insure seed from that orchid
25th. I didnt go to the coast. Our fisher friend sent word that he had sickness in his family & couldnt leave. So I went into the hills picking up mosses Lichens &c. Got one new Rubiaceæ—a Bertiera probably. & some fruiting orchids.
26th. I have just examined an oncidium—the largest if I mistake not in the island on one scape or panicle I counted more than 200 fl. The mechanism is plain The object is that it shall not be fertilized—and it isn't I have never seen a fr. & Don José says the same. It is common The fl. spreads wide open has no nectary & I dont know what an insect should visit it for. But suppose a bumble-bee should but his nose against the big disk it will stick there & if he raises his head a very little the anther jumps off sometimes to a distance at other times still clasps the pollinia. Do you suppose that now these pitch forward in order to hit the next stigma he runs against? Not at all. They fall back over Mr. Bumble-bee's knowledge-box & if he goes to a thousand other flowers the pollen doesn't reach a stigma with his good will. Let Mr Darwin explain this if he can.
April 1. Suspecting I had drawn hasty conclusions from the above experiments, I last night extracted a large number of the pollinia & left them till this morning when they had all undergone the movement of depression showing the correctness of Mr. Darwin's observations. Today I expect to dispatch this which will go to Havana tomorrow probably
Yours ever | Charles Wright
- f1 4433.f1Transcripts of letters from Gray to Wright are in the Gray Herbarium archives, Harvard University; portions of their correspondence have been published in Howard 1988. A letter from Wright to Joseph Dalton Hooker, dated 16 March 1864, is in Supplementary foreign letters, vol. 218, doc. 364, Library and Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and is reprinted in Howard 1988, pp. 2--4.
- f2 4433.f2The letters from Gray to Hooker are in the Director's Correspondence, Library and Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Much of Wright's correspondence was forwarded through Gray, who also purchased his collections and sent him books and supplies (see Dupree 1959, pp. 165--6, 211, and Howard 1988, p. 20).
- f3 4433.f3Wright had been collecting plants in Cuba since 1856. In March 1864, he was living at Retiro, a property of his friend José Blain's in Pinar del Rio, the westernmost province of Cuba (Howard 1988, p. 37).
- f4 4433.f4Wright refers to Orchids.
- f5 4433.f5For information on Wright's collections from Cuba, see Howard 1988, pp. 66--77 and Appendix 1.
- f6 4433.f6Orchids, p. 80.
- f7 4433.f7An excerpt of a letter from Gray to Wright of 30 March 1864 appears in Howard 1988, p. 72:
Yes, all observations are important. I will send your notes to Darwin who has been so sick we gave him up. But now he is better. He, if well enough, will give some special directions for experiments.Only one query from CD to Wright has been found (see letter to Asa Gray, 28 May , and letter from Asa Gray, 11 July 1864).
- f8 4433.f8It was customary for Roman Catholics to abstain from meat during Lent, which in 1864 ended on 27 March.
- f9 4433.f9Blain's neighbour has not been identified.
- f10 4433.f10Johannes Christoph (Juan Cristóbal) Gundlach, a friend of Wright's, was a well-known naturalist in Cuba (Howard 1988, pp. 36--7, NDB; see also Correspondence vol. 7, letter from Richard Hill, 26 November 1859 and n. 6).
- f11 4433.f11Wright arrived in New England in August 1864 and left for Cuba again in May 1865 (see Howard 1988, pp. 15, 37, and Appendix 2).
- f12 4433.f12On the key role played by the Catholic church and the issue of church property in the civil and economic strife and foreign interventions in Mexico at this time, see Knowlton 1976, pp. 129--48. Wright also refers to the on-going American Civil War.
- f13 4433.f13Wright's Spiranthes was probably a tropical or sub-tropical species. CD discussed Spiranthes autumnalis, a British species, in Orchids, pp. 116--29, and in `Fertilization of orchids', p. 151 (Collected papers 2: 148). In Orchids 2d ed., pp. 106--15, CD discussed S. autumnalis and an Australian Spiranthes. He acknowledged Gray's help with two North American species in Orchids, p. 123 n., and Orchids 2d ed., p. 111 n.; see also Correspondence vol. 9, letter to Asa Gray, 17 September  and n. 8.
- f14 4433.f14José Blain (see n. 3, above).
- f15 4433.f15An excerpt of a letter from Gray to Wright of 18 April 1864 (see n. 1, above) appears in Howard 1988, p. 72:
Tomorrow I shall mail that to Hooker and at the same time send on yours to me to Darwin tho' the poor man is sick; it will enliven him. I suspect that he will say that Oncidium (that won't fertilize) is a male plant—its pollen fertilizing some other more feminine individual. Keep up obs. and soon I will tell you what Darwin says.See n. 16, below.
- f16 4433.f16CD recorded Wright's initial conclusion that CD had made an error, and his later confirmation of the movement of pollinia that enabled the pollination of Oncidium and many other orchids, in `Fertilization of orchids', p. 152 (Collected papers 2: 149), and Orchids 2d ed., p. 156.
- f17 4433.f17In addition to CD's pencil annotations, there are blue crayon annotations that appear to have been made by Gray to draw CD's attention to particular sections of Wright's letter: the fifth paragraph, from `it is not unlikely . . .'; the sixth paragraph; the eighth paragraph, from `I have never seen …'; and the ninth paragraph.