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Darwin Correspondence Project

From T. H. Farrer   4 May 1878

Abinger Hall, | Dorking. | (Gomshall S.E.R. | Station & Telegraph.)

4 May/78

My dear Mr Darwin

I inclose a bit of Ledum which if not insectivorous—is certainly ferociously insecticide. I dont see it mentioned in your book: and possibly it is purely gratuitous malice and not self-interest which makes its sticky nectar the death of so many creatures.1 It is curious & painful to see them get their long legs fast to the style, & then gradually get more & more [involved].

I have been much struck with our Primulas this beautiful spring.— We have plenty of wild primroses & cowslips: and here and there an oxlip—(qu)—and primroses & oxlips I have seen run into one another.2

But Payne is proud of his Polyanthuses & Coloured Primulas and has them all about the shrubberies.3 They and the wild ones both seed themselves: and it seems to me that we are getting almost every kind of step & variety—in habit—ie—in umbel—& nonumbel—in close or open flower—and in colour, between primrose cowslip & polyanthus.— In a group of cowslips some will begin to get a more open flower: some to hold up their heads: some to have a deeper & richer orange—some longer pedicels to each flower—till we almost get a polyanthus—. The pink & mauve primulas elongate their stems & become umbelliferous. There seems to be no constant character. Some vary in a very ugly way by turning the flower into something like a shabby calyx.

Why should the Lady smock on our lawn become double, & form a handsome spike: whilst that in the field remains with its usual single flowers & flat head? It is neither soil, aspect or shade. Double flowers are a great puzzle4

I hope Payne has sent the Stipa to Frank5

Sincerely yours | T H Farrer


Farrer probably refers to Ledum palustre (a synonym of Rhododendron tomentosum, Labrador tea) or a closely related species. The nectar contains a glycoside that is toxic to some species of insect but not to the bees that pollinate the plant. CD’s book was Insectivorous plants.
The primrose is Primula vulgaris and the cowslip is Primula veris. Hybrids of the two species occur naturally; these resemble the true oxlip (Primula elatior) and are known as false oxlips. CD studied hybridity in these species in ‘Specific difference in Primula.
George Payne was Farrer’s gardener. Polyanthus is the common name of a hybrid group derived from some species of the genus Primula; CD discussed experiments with polyanthus and Primula auricula in ‘Dimorphic condition in Primula.
Varieties of lady’s smock or cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) with double flowers occur naturally. Fully double flowers are usually sterile, as the sexual parts have become petaloid.
Francis Darwin had studied the ability of some awned seeds to bury themselves in the ground; most of his research was based on observation of seeds of Stipa pennata (feather grass; see F. Darwin 1876).


‘Dimorphic condition in Primula’: On the two forms, or dimorphic condition, in the species of Primula, and on their remarkable sexual relations. By Charles Darwin. [Read 21 November 1861.] Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Botany) 6 (1862): 77–96. [Collected papers 2: 45–63.]

Insectivorous plants. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1875.

‘Specific difference in Primula’: On the specific difference between Primula veris, Brit. Fl. (var. officinalis of Linn.), P. vulgaris, Brit. Fl. (var. acaulis, Linn.), and P. elatior, Jacq.; and on the hybrid nature of the common oxlip. With supplementary remarks on naturally produced hybrids in the genus Verbascum. By Charles Darwin. [Read 19 March 1868.] Journal of the Linnean Society (Botany) 10 (1869): 437–54.


Sends Ledum, the nectar of which catches many insects.

Describes his Primula varieties.

Letter details

Letter no.
Thomas Henry Farrer, 1st baronet and 1st Baron Farrer
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Abinger Hall
Source of text
DAR 164: 91
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11494,” accessed on 28 May 2023,