skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Gardeners’ Chronicle   [before 9 February 1861]1


I am much obliged to Mr. Marshall, of Ely, for his statement that the 15 plants of Fly Orchis (Ophrys muscifera) which does not grow in his neighbourhood, but which flourished in his garden, had not one of their pollen masses removed.2 The Orchis maculata, on the other hand, which likewise does not grow in the neighbourhood, had all its pollen masses removed. Mr. Marshall is not perhaps aware that different insects haunt different Orchids, and are necessary for their fertilisation.3 From the wide difference in shape of the flower of Orchis and Ophrys, I should have anticipated that they would be visited and fertilised by different insects. In Listera, for instance, it is chiefly Ichneumonidæ, and sometimes flies, which by day perform the marriage ceremony. In the case of most Orchids it is nocturnal moths. Orchis pyramidalis, however, is visited by Zygæna, and I have examined one of these day-sphinxes with three pair of pollen-masses firmly attached to its proboscis. There can hardly be a doubt that the Butterfly Orchis is visited by different moths from most of the smaller Orchids; and I have recognised its peculiar pollen masses attached to the sides of the face of certain moths. It is probable that the same kind of moths would visit all the species of true Orchis, which closely resemble each other in structure. Thus the Orchis conopsea, planted in a garden some miles from where any native plant grew, had its pollen masses removed; so this is a parallel case with that of O. maculata given by Mr. Marshall. I have also transplanted the rare Malaxis to a place about two miles from its native bog, and it was immediately visited by some insect, and its pollen-masses were removed. On the other hand, the Epipactis latifolia, growing in my garden and flowering well, had not its pollen-masses removed; though in its own home, several miles distant, the flowers are regularly visited and thus fertilised. We thus see that the seeds of an Orchid might be carried by the wind to some distant place, and there germinate, but that the species would not be perpetuated unless the proper insects inhabited the site. I have now Goodyera repens growing in my garden, and I shall be curious to see next summer whether our southern insects discover or appreciate the nectar of this Highland Orchid.4

C. Darwin


The date is given by the publication of the letter in the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 9 February 1861. It was headed: ‘Fertilisation of British Orchids by Insect Agency’.
CD refers to a letter by William Marshall of Ely published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle on 20 January 1861 under the heading ‘Fertilisation of British orchids by insect agency’. Marshall was responding to CD’s notice, printed in the issue of 9 June 1860, in which CD requested readers to observe the bee or fly orchis (Ophrys apifera and O. muscifera) to see whether the pollen-masses of the flowers had been removed by insects, ‘for it seems a strange fact that a plant should grow pretty well, as it does in this part of Kent, and yet during several years seldom be fertilised.’ (see Correspondence vol. 8, letter to Gardeners’ Chronicle, [4–5 June 1860]; Collected papers 2: 34).
CD identified various insects that pollinated different species of orchids in Orchids, pp. 36–8. He mentioned Marshall’s case on page 38.
See Orchids, pp. 112–16.


Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett. 2 vols. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1977.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 26 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Orchids: On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1862.


Discusses the possible explanation of why fly-orchid plants in a correspondent’s garden had no pollen-masses removed while Orchis maculata had all of its pollen-masses removed. CD points out that different orchids are fertilised by different insects. The insects needed to fertilise the fly-orchid may not have inhabited the site of the correspondent’s garden.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Gardeners’ Chronicle
Sent from
Source of text
Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 9 February 1861, p. 122

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3061,” accessed on 22 October 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9