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Darwin Correspondence Project

From G. C. Oxenden   8 April 1872

Broome Park | near Canterbury

April 8. 1872

Dear Sir

Being a mere stupid Plant hunter, I hardly take courage to write to you— The Works you have so kindly given me, have been largely in my hands this Winter—& often have I felt both enlightened & bewildered—1

—One result of actual Observation has been this—that all such Wild Plants as dwell on the Confines of Civilization, undergo lowering & debasing process, as to their natural average standard of height & vigour—

—In the case of Wild Orchids— —Any Lady Botanist, & any Planthunting Gentleman—with the accursed Trowel in his hand, will tell you that the Average stature of Bee, & Spider, Orchis, is Six or2

—I myself, on close-bitten, sheep haunted Hills, find them so utterly dwarfed & bullied, as to be almost trailing plants—& very pretty they are—

But on such portions of our own Forest Ground as no Hoof ever invades “Arachnites” becomes a very tall upstanding Plant, with large & splendid Flowers3—and even Bee Orchis often exceeds two feet in height— I think I sent your One, a year or two since, 26 inches high—4

A day or two ago, by chance, I found the stem of One which grew close to my own Door almost, which last year was over 2 feet high—and I now send it to you

—A great deal of my own Early life was spent at Downton Castle with that cleverest of V. Physiologists, Thomas Andrew Knight, so long President of the Horticultl.—5

—One day he said to me, “Mr Oxenden, you are fond of Gardens, & you are young— —If you like to experimentalize, & will begin with the White Currant I will promise you that in twenty years you shall have them as large as Sweetwater Grapes, & as sweet6

—This past atrocious Winter Spring has nowise injured or affected the Wild Orchids— —On the, Contrary, I have never seen them so healthy or so abundant— Of the truly wonderful & lovely “yellow Bee” I know of over 50 Plants—& only hope they may evade their Ovine Persecutors—7

Your’s very faithfully & obliged | G. Chichester Oxenden


Oxenden received a presentation copy of Orchids (Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix IV). His name does not appear on any other presentation list up to and including 1872.
The bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) can grow up to 30 cm (12 inches); the spider orchid (Ophrys aranifera; now called the early spider orchid, O. sphegodes), can grow up to 30 cm, but is typically between 5 and 15 cm (2 and 6 inches) tall in grazed fields (Hutchings 2010, p. 868).
The plant known to CD and Oxenden as Ophrys arachnites was probably what is now known as O. fuciflora (the late spider orchid; see CD’s description in Orchids pp. 72–3). Ophrys arachnites of Miller 1768 is now O. apifera. Ophrys fuciflora can grow up to 40 cm tall.
Knight was president of the Horticultural Society of London from 1811 until his death in 1838; from 1808 or 1809 he lived at Downton Castle in Herefordshire (ODNB). Vegetable physiologist was an old term for a botanist who studied the physiology and morphology of plants rather than systematics.
The white currant is a cultivar of the red currant (Ribes rubrum); sweetwater is a grape cultivar of Vitus vinifera with both white and black varieties.
Oxenden may refer to Ophrys lutea, but this species is native to Mediterranean regions. See also Correspondence vol. 19, letter from G. C. Oxenden, 21 July 1871 and n. 1. On the positive effects of sheep-grazing on orchid populations, see Hutchings 2010.


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

Hutchings, Michael J. 2010. The population biology of the early spider orchid Ophrys sphegodes Mill. III. Demography over three decades. Journal of Ecology 98: 867–78.

Miller, Philip. 1768. The gardeners dictionary: containing the best and newest methods of cultivating and improving the kitchen, fruit, flower garden, and nursery; as also for performing the practical parts of agriculture: including the management of vineyards, with the methods of making and preserving wine … together with directions for propagating and improving, from real practice and experience, all sorts of timber trees. 8th edition. London: the author.

ODNB: Oxford dictionary of national biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000. (Revised edition.) Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. 60 vols. and index. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

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.


Wild plants that live at the edges of civilisation, e.g., forest flowers growing on grazed land, are always reduced in size.

Letter details

Letter no.
George Chichester Oxenden
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Broome, Canterbury
Source of text
DAR 173: 69
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8281,” accessed on 18 November 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 20