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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Hubert Airy   3 December 1872

27. Dacre Park. Lee. S. E.

1872. Dec. 3.

My dear Sir

I am ashamed to have kept the books and papers you lent me, for such a length of time, and I fear my delay may have inconvenienced you—1 I have only just done with them, for I found so much to study and take notes of, esply. in the tough Teuton tongue, that the perusal took much longer time than I expected— Moreover I have had but little spare time lately, and am likely to have still less in the future, for I have recently been appointed a medical inspector under the Local Govt.2 Board, which is a capital thing in itself but unfavourable to the study of Phyllotaxy. I don’t know when I shall be able to write and publish what I have to say.3

De Candolle has done well in demonstrating geometrically the numerical relations between leaves that successively approximate to the vertical through one taken as startg. point, when certain conditions are granted, but his general conclusions rest on a very partial and imperfect survey of the facts of leaf-arrangement, ignoring any distinction between leaf-orders so different as those of elm and Scotch fir. (not that he mentions those or any others, but that is the upshot of his argument.)4

Kerner’s Alpine studies are delightful— How beautifully he accounts for the rarity of Alpine Annuals! I say Amen to his “Vorwort.”5

Braun’s “Rejuvenescence” gave me great pleasure. I was so glad to meet with a good discussion of vine growth.6

But it made my heart beat when I saw Fig. 144 in Sachs’ “Lehrbuch der Botanik,” and still more when I read “Auf den ersten Blick erscheinen solche Stellungsverhältnisse wie zweizeilige, die durch Drehung des Stammes verändert worden sind,”—my own idea, exactly, and I cannot conceive how he could leave hold of it, as he does in the next words—“was in diesem Falle kaum annehmbar scheint.”

I have taken the liberty to mark the relevant passages in Sachs, in case you might care to look at them—7 —But that figure 144 is worth a Jew’s eye:8 some of my diagrams of ivy are exactly like it; and it would fairly represent the leaf order in a lateral twig of Sp. Chestnut or Portugal laurel.

Among your own MS. notes, which you were so kind as to trust to my care, I found some words which interested me very much as showing that you yourself were disposed to regard the relative positions of leaves as determined by conditions of mutual pressure. The fragment is dated June 11,/63, concerning Euphorbia amygdaloides, and the words (if I read them aright) are these:—“Now I can no more believe there is special law than for marbles shaking together, standing in intervals on others so as to pack closest.”9

My own ‘marble’ experiments have had rest of late, but I hope to carry them out some day, though I do not regard them as of primary importance— I think the oak galls suffice for ocular demonstration.10

I wish, if I have time, to offer an essay on this subject to the Royal Society, though I fear my views are too crude, and I do not see how I can devote time and study enough to bring them to maturity.11

Your books are packed, and shall be sent by rail to Orpington tomorrow— Accept my best thanks for your kindness in lending them to me, and believe me with kind regards to Mrs. Darwin and your family, | Yours very sincerely | Hubert Airy

Chas. Darwin Esqre. MA., FRS.


CD had lent Kerner von Marilaun 1864 to Airy (see letter from Hubert Airy, 24 September 1872). The other books and papers have not been identified but are possibly the items mentioned in this letter. Airy may have borrowed these when he visited CD at Down on 1 October 1872 (Emma Darwin’s diary (DAR 242)).
The Local Government Board, which had the power to appoint inspectors and other officers, had been created by Parliament in 1871 to oversee public health and local government responsibilities (EB).
Airy had been discussing phyllotaxy with CD since 1871 (see Correspondence vol. 19 and this volume); see also n. 11, below.
Airy refers to Casimir de Candolle’s paper ‘Théorie de l’angle unique en phyllotaxie’ (C. de Candolle 1865), a copy of which is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
There is no explicit reference to the rarity of Alpine annuals in Anton Kerner von Marilaun’s work on Alpine plants (Kerner von Marilaun 1864), but Airy may have inferred this from Kerner von Marilaun’s description of the unusual conditions of the Alpine environment (ibid., pp. 10–29). In the preface (Vorwort) to his book (Kerner von Marilaun 1864, pp. iii–vi), Kerner von Marilaun discussed his love of Alpine plants, his aim of making their cultivation more popular, and the challenges of cultivating them in a garden setting. There is an annotated copy of Kerner von Marilaun 1864 in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 445).
Alexander Carl Heinrich Braun’s Considerations on the phenomenon of rejuvenescence in nature, especially in the life and development of plants (Braun 1853) was translated from the German into English by Arthur Henfrey as part of his Botanical and physiological memoirs (Henfrey ed. 1853). There is a copy of Henfrey ed. 1853 in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 366–7); the translation of Braun’s paper is annotated. The phyllotaxy and budding of the vine (Vitis) is described in Braun 1853, pp. 46–51.
The figure and quotations appear in Sachs 1870, p. 170. Airy agreed with Julius Sachs’s statement, ‘At first sight such kinds of phyllotaxy appear as if the leaves were placed in two lines that have become changed by the torsion of the stem’, but disagreed with Sachs’s conclusion, ‘this hypothesis seems in this case scarcely admissible’. CD’s annotated copy of Sachs 1870, which includes marginal scoring (presumably by Airy) against the sentence quoted, is in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 728).
Jew’s eye: a proverbial expression for something valued highly (OED).
These notes are now in DAR 45: 148; the sentence that Airy quoted is underlined in brown crayon.
Airy had produced physical models using oak galls attached to an india-rubber band to demonstrate the orders of phyllotaxy (see letter from Hubert Airy, [before 15] July 1872).
In the event, Airy did manage to complete a short paper (Airy 1873) that was communicated by CD to Royal Society of London, and read on 27 February 1873 .


Airy, Hubert. 1873. On leaf-arrangement. Abstract. Communicated by Charles Darwin. [Read 27 February 1873.] Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 21 (1872–3): 176–9.

Candolle, Casimir de. 1865. Théorie de l’angle unique en phyllotaxie. Bibliothèque universelle et revue Suisse. Archives des sciences physiques et naturelles 23: 199–212.

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

EB: The Encyclopædia Britannica. A dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information. 11th edition. 29 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1910–11.

Marginalia: Charles Darwin’s marginalia. Edited by Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of Nicholas W. Gill. Vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishing. 1990.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.

Sachs, Julius. 1870. Lehrbuch der Botanik nach dem gegenwärtigen Stand der Wissenschaft. 2d edition. Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann.


Discusses works lent him by CD: Candolle, Kerner, Braun, Sachs, and CD’s own notes on relative positions of leaves. Plans paper on subject for Royal Society.

Just appointed medical inspector under local government board.

Letter details

Letter no.
Hubert Airy
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Dacre Park, 27
Source of text
DAR 159: 23
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8657,” accessed on 18 January 2020,

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