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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Gardeners’ Chronicle   [before 15 June 1861]1

I do not know whether any exotic Vincas seed, or whether gardeners would wish them to seed, and so raise new varieties. Having never observed the large Periwinkle or Vinca major to produce seed, and having read that this never occurs in Germany, I was led to examine the flower. The pistil, as botanists know, is a curious object, consisting of a style, thickening upwards, with a horizontal wheel on the top; and this is surmounted by a beautiful brush of white filaments. The concave tire of the wheel is the stigmatic surface, as was very evident when pollen was placed on it, by the penetration of the pollen-tubes. The pollen is soon shed out of the anthers, and lies embedded in little alcoves in the white filamentous brush above the stigma. Hence it was clear that the pollen could not get on to the stigma without the aid of insects, which, as far as I have observed in England, never visit this flower. Accordingly, I took a fine bristle to represent the proboscis of a moth, and passed it down between the anthers, near the sides of the corolla; for I found that the pollen sticks to the bristle and is carried down to the viscid stigmatic surface. I took the additional precaution of passing it down first between the anthers of one flower and then of another, so as to give the flowers the advantage of a cross; and I passed it down between several of the anthers in each case. I thus acted on six flowers on two plants growing in pots; the germens of these swelled, and on four out of the six I have now got fine pods, above 112 inch in length, with the seeds externally visible; whereas the flower stalks of the many other flowers all shanked off. I wish any one who wishes to obtain seed of any other species that does not habitually seed try this simple little experiment and report the result.2 I shall sow the seeds of my Vinca for the chance of a sport: for a plant which seeds so rarely might be expected to give way to some freak on so unusual and happy an occasion.

Charles Darwin,

Down, Bromley, Kent.

Footnotes

The letter was printed in the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 15 June 1861, under the title ‘Fertilisation of Vincas’. See also Collected papers 2: 40.
A response to CD’s letter appeared in the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 27 July 1861, p. 699. The letter was signed ‘C. W. C., Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.’ The author was Charles William Crocker, foreman of the propagating department at Kew. In fact, CD had already suggested that Crocker might like to undertake these experiments (letter to Daniel Oliver, 27 May [1861]). The text of Crocker’s letter reads as follows: Following the suggestion made by Mr. Darwin at page 552, a week or two ago, I thought that I would try if the tropical kinds of Vinca could be induced to produce seed, which is never the case under cultivation if left to themselves. I impregnated eight flowers, and in the course of a few days had the satisfaction of seeing that the pistils in seven cases were swelling well. The erect double follicles are now in several instances more than an inch long; in one they are not yet ripe. The plant upon which I tried the experiment was the white-flowered variety of Vinca rosea. I used the pollen from the same plant as I wished also to see if this variety would reproduce itself by seed, or if it will revert to the normal colour of the species. I merely passed a hair down the tube of one flower after another as an insect might insert its proboscis in its search for nectar.

Summary

Reports his experiment with fertilising the large periwinkle (Vinca major), which he had never known to produce seed. He found that the pollen could not reach the stigma without the aid of insects, which in England never visit the flower. CD produced seeds by inserting a fine bristle, like the proboscis of a moth. Asks readers to repeat this experiment with other species that do not habitually seed and to report the result.

Letter details

Letter no.
DCP-LETT-3182
From
Charles Robert Darwin
To
Gardeners’ Chronicle
Sent from
Down
Source of text
Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 15 June 1861, p. 552

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3182,” accessed on 13 November 2018, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-3182

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

letter