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Darwin Correspondence Project

From H. C. Watson   20 June 1856

Thames Ditton

June 20. 1856

My dear Sir

The title page of my ‘Remarks on Geogr. Distr. Brit. Plts.’ bears the date of 1835. The published data towards compiling such a List as that termed ‘Geogl. Extension’ have been greatly increased & corrected in the past score years. So that many gaps in the List would now be filled, & sundry corrections should be made.1 Still, the general fact remains as there imperfectly appearing, that plants common to Europe & America range far northward, in one or both, with few exceptions.2

Since giving my own reply I communicated your two queries to Mr. J. T. Syme, a good European botanist, & asked his opinion.3 He writes:—

lst. “I quite agree with you that plants of cultivated ground do not vary more than others of the same genus, growing in other situations”.

2d. “I agree with you that very few European species are wild in U.S. except such as pass 55o.”

Mr S. illustrates the first of these two opinions, by naming several agrestal species4 which do not vary so much as allied species which grow in other situations than tilled ground.

In illustrating the second, he gives a list of 22 species, noted in running thro’ Gray’s Botany of the N. States,5 which he thinks may not pass much north of 55 in Europe. i.e. “which do not occur in Scandinavia, or beyond 55 in Britain.”

The paucity of this list is the essential point; & even in this short list of 22, some 5 or 6 may likely have passed by human agency from Europe to America, or vice versa. Two are common to America & the British Isles, without reaching European continent. Two are common to Europe & E. America, but not British. Three connect with America better by way of E. Asia & W. America, than by way of W. Europe & E. America. Two are littoral plants. Four are natant aquatics; & such plants are often difficult to discriminate specifically, & are widely diffused either in seeming or really.

I am not prepared to say whether the number of species common to E. Asia & W. America is less or more than of those common to W. Europe & E. America. I doubt whether the botany of E. Asia & W. America is sufficiently known to allow of a true comparison.— Under existing knowledge, the list for W. Europe & E. America would proby. be the more numerous.

Truly I cannot at all say whether the Americo-European species, as a prevailing rule, could have spread from one Continent to the other by way of Kamchatka & Aleoutia, with some moderate changes of the land. Perhaps there are too many of these plants not yet known on the two coasts of the upper part of the N. Pacific, & intervening islands, to allow of the hypothesis, that they did so spread.

As to the Hispano-Hibernians. These are few, & you are aware chiefly Heaths & Saxifrages. Unite Ireland, England, & France, & project a few promontories into the Oceanic Bay thus formed, or throw up some few Volcanic cones between Spain & Ireland,—breakwaters to be gradually washed away again,—& you would make the physical conditions by which those Heaths & Saxifrages might pass from Ireland to Spain, or from Spain to Ireland. The Hispano-Hibernian Heaths (Arbutus Unedo, Menziesia polifolia, Erica Mediterranea, ciliaris, Mackaiana) are less patient of cold than the Saxifrages. I suppose all are “semi-alpine” in the latitude of Spain; the Saxifrages are so in that of Ireland. And if the latter naturalize themselves in Britain, it is in the Dales of Yorkshire, about the Lakes of Engld., or the borders of the Highlands. Whether they could exist on a coast cold enough to admit of Glaciers, seems doubtful & scarcely probable.—

Sorry I can give no better answers or comments on your queries.— I suspect they must be passed down to a future generation for solution—

Very truly | Hewett C. Watson

CD annotations

1.5 plants . . exceptions. 1.6] scored brown crayon
3.1 1st… . situations”. 3.2] scored brown crayon
scored brown crayon
scored brown crayon
scored brown crayon
scored brown crayon
scored brown crayon
Top of first page: ‘3’6 brown crayon


Watson had begun to publish a revised edition of his Remarks on the geographical distribution of British plants (Watson 1835) in 1843. Only the first part was published (Watson 1843).
See letter from H. C. Watson, 10 June 1856, and letter to H. C. Watson, [after 10 June 1856]. CD appended a note in the manuscript of Natural selection concerning this point: ‘Asa Gray thinks there are not a few plants common to U.S. & Europe, which do not range to Arctic regions.’ To this Joseph Dalton Hooker added, when commenting on the chapter, ‘Certainly’ (Natural selection, p. 539 n.).
John Thomas Irvine Boswell-Syme was the co-editor, with Watson, of The London catalogue of British plants (Watson and Syme eds. 1853), a work used by CD in his study of variation (see Correspondence vol. 5).
Species that grow wild in cultivated land (OED).
CD numbered this series of Watson’s letters sequentially.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Gray, Asa. 1848. A manual of the botany of the northern United States, from New England to Wisconsin and south to Ohio and Pennsylvania inclusive. Boston and Cambridge: James Monroe and Company. London: John Chapman.

Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.

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.

Watson, Hewett Cottrell. 1835. Remarks on the geographical distribution of British plants; chiefly in connection with latitude, elevation, and climate. London.

Watson, Hewett Cottrell. 1843. The geographical distribution of British plants. 3d edition. Pt 1 (no more published). London: Printed for the author.


Conveys [? J. T. I. Boswell-]Syme’s opinion of variability of agrarian weeds and ranges of species common to U. S. and W. Europe. The Hispano-Hibernian connection.

Letter details

Letter no.
Hewett Cottrell Watson
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Thames Ditton
Source of text
DAR 181: 34
Physical description
6pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1907,” accessed on 13 April 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 6