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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Gardeners’ Chronicle   13 November [1855]

Several statements have been published on the number of years during which seeds preserved in a dry state have retained their power of germinating,1 but much less seems to be known in regard to seeds lying naturally near the surface of the ground; therefore you may, perhaps, think the following case, though very far from a striking one, worth publishing. An arable field 15 years ago was laid down in pasture; nine years ago last spring, a portion was deeply ploughed up and planted with trees, and in the succeeding summer, as far as I can trust my memory, plenty of Charlock, which abounds in this neighbourhood, came up; but if my memory plays me false the case will prove so much the stronger. From being badly ploughed the whole of the land in the course of the year became covered with Grass and coarse weeds, and has remained so ever since, and the trees have now grown up. It is very improbable, from the well-known habits of the Charlock, that it could have grown in the little wood after the first year or two; and though almost daily visiting it I have not noticed a plant. But this spring I had some Thorn bushes pulled up, and it was so done that not more than one or two (I speak after comparison) hand’s breadth of earth was turned up. To my surprise in July I happened to observe on one of the little patches of earth no less than six dwarf Charlock plants in flower; on each of two other patches three plants; and on the fourth one plant. This made me on July 21st have three separate plots of ground, each 2 feet square, in different rather open parts of the wood, cleared of thick Grass and Weeds, and dug one spit deep. By August 1st many seedlings had come up,2 and several of them seemed to be cruciferous plants; so I marked with little sticks 11 of them on one of the beds; six on the second bed; and five on the third bed; two or three died, all the rest grew up and proved to be Charlock. I can state positively that no Charlock was growing near these beds; and I do not believe there was any within a quarter of a mile, as the little wood is surrounded by Grass land. Now, to my mind, this seems good evidence that the Charlock seed had retained its vitality within a spit’s depth of the surface during at least eight or nine years. In most cases, when plants spring up unexpectedly, as when a wood has been burnt down, it is not possible to feel sure (as has been remarked to me by Dr. Hooker) that the seeds had not been strewed about during the last year or two by birds or other means. Had the several Charlock plants come up on one spot alone, I should have thought that some accident had brought a pod there, and that I had overlooked during the previous years a few Charlock plants, but it seems to me improbable in the highest degree that on each of the 6 plants,3 taken by simple hazard, several (in one of the cases 11) seeds should have been dropped by some unknown agency, having been brought from a quarter of a mile distance. But if when the land was ploughed, 9 years ago (or when arable, 15 years ago) the whole was, as I believe, almost covered by Charlock, the seed would have been scattered everywhere, ready to spring up at whatever point the land might subsequently be stirred up. I will only further remark that the power in seeds of retaining their vitality when buried in damp soil may well be an element in preserving the species, and, therefore, that seeds may be specially endowed with this capacity; whereas, the power of retaining vitality in a dry and artificial condition must be an indirect, and in one sense accidental, quality in seeds of little or no use to the species. Charles Darwin, Down, Nov. 13.


CD’s letter had been stimulated by an editorial in the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, no. 45, 10 November 1855, pp. 739–40, in which recent discoveries of ancient seeds and experiments on the vitality of seeds were reviewed by the editor. The editorial specifically referred to William Kemp’s paper (Kemp 1844) on the vitality of seeds found in a sandpit in Melrose, a discovery which had greatly interested CD and which led him to a correspondence with Kemp (see Correspondence vol. 2). CD had drafted the text of Kemp’s paper (ibid., Appendix VI). George Bentham had also contributed a short article in the same issue on the apparent longevity of charlock seeds (Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, no. 45, 10 November 1855, pp. 741–2).
A mistake for ‘6 plots of ground’. See the postscript of CD’s next letter to the Gardeners’ Chronicle, 21 November [1855].


Reports a case of charlock seeds that retained their vitality for at least eight or nine years. He suggests that their power of retaining vitality when buried in damp soil may be an element in preserving the species and therefore seeds may be specially endowed with this capacity, while the power of retaining vitality in dry, artificial conditions may be an indirect accidental quality of little or no use to the species.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Gardeners’ Chronicle
Sent from
Source of text
Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, no. 46, 17 November 1855, p. 758

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1780,” accessed on 17 August 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 5