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Darwin Correspondence Project

From G. C. Oxenden   8 July 1862


July 8. 1862

Dear Sir

I do assure you, you expressed a desire to know if Insects visited “Epipactis palustrisat Night1 We have not seen even One instance of any such Visits—but I feel sure that they are thus visited—& that their absence on the nights in question was due to the very disturbed state of the atmosphere

—As regards the access of Insects in the day time— I have spent two whole days in a Marsh Containing these plants in flower, without detecting so much as one insect upon them—But then, the days were each damp & lowering

—In this splendid Marsh, I yesterday found four Mowers hard at work— —I tried to save the flower crop by a very large Money Offer—but the Farmer assured me he really needed the rough rush & reed for thatching purposes—

If I live ’till next year, I will spare no pains to secure this Marsh—

As it is, all that I could do was to cause them to leave (untouched) certain patches, here & there, where these lovely Plants most abounded—

—You say you suppose that I do not 〈    〉 “Fens”— I do believe I have h〈  〉 explored more of the principal 〈    〉 Europe, from the Arctic Circle 〈    〉 dangerous Morasses of Southern 〈    〉 than any Man living

—Botanists seem determi〈ned〉 that “Arachnites” shall not exist 〈    〉 independent Country Gentleman

You accuse him of dup〈licity〉 and of being one year a true Be〈e〉 in the next, a Spider2

—And Mr Woollaston asserts the 〈    〉 Existence of Intrigue between “Ar〈achnites〉 and Aranifera”—3

four lines excised

—But, even if there were sufficient accordance in the flowering-times, to render the thing possible, is it probable that the Union of two very delicate Orchids (of which One is of very low small habit, & the other small as to flower, & moderate as to stem) shd., by their Union, produce a flower of the size and strength and ferocity of “Arachnites”—& which stands aloof from its Congeners in the proudest Isolation?

—In like manner, if you meet a “Birdologist” tomorrow, he will tell you, that “Scolopax Major” (the Solitary Snipe) is not a species but a Cross

—In all these matters, the dissecting knife has large powers of deciding the dispute—but a much larger power resides in the Man who is incessantly face to face with these objects in their living & natural habitats—

—The fight about the Origin of Tetrao medius” is interminable—4

Sincerely | G. C. Oxenden


CD’s letter has not been found. In 1861, CD had sent Oxenden a ‘memorandum’ containing queries relating to Epipactis palustris, but although this included a question about the kind of insects that visited the flowers, it did not make reference to nocturnal visits by insects (see Correspondence vol. 9, letter to A. G. More, 4 June 1861).
Having previously disputed the claim of some botanists that the late spider orchid, Ophrys arachnites, was a variety of the bee orchid, O. apifera, CD had recently speculated that these two forms might be crossing and self-fertile forms of the same species (see letters from G. C. Oxenden, [before 30 May 1862] and 21 June 1862, and letter to A. G. More, 7 June 1862). CD’s letters to Oxenden on this subject have not been found, but in the letter to J. T. Moggridge, 13 October [1865] (Calendar no. 4914), CD reported that some years previously he had written ‘to an acquaintance asking him to mark some Spider orchises and observe whether they retained the same character’. CD recalled: ‘he evidently thought the request as foolish as if I had asked him to mark one of his cows with a ribbon to see if it would turn next Spring into a horse.’
Wollaston 1855. ‘Woollaston’ is a misspelling; the reference is to George Buchanan Wollaston.
Tetrao medius is the name that was given in 1811 by the German naturalist, Bernhard Meyer, to a form of grouse subsequently widely regarded as a naturally occurring hybrid between Tetrao urogallus and Lyrurus tetrix (see Index animalium, and Elliot 1865).


Calendar: A calendar of the correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821–1882. With supplement. 2d edition. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994.

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

Elliot, Daniel Giraud. 1865. A monograph of the Tetraoninae, or family of the grouse. New York.

Index animalium: Index animalium sive index nominum quae ab @A.D. MDCCLVIII@generibus et speciebus animalium imposita sunt. By Charles Davies Sherborn. 10 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. London: British Museum. 1902–32. [Vols. 10,11]

Wollaston, George Buchanan. 1855. Various notes on British Orchideæ. Phytologist\ n.s. 1 (1855–6): 225–7.


Has not found insects visiting Epipactis palustris either at night or in the day.

Reality of hybrid plants and birds in nature is controversial.

Letter details

Letter no.
George Chichester Oxenden
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Broome Canterbury
Source of text
DAR 173: 56
Physical description
4pp inc

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3647,” accessed on 20 November 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 10