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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Henry Doubleday   3 May 1860


May 3rd 1860

My dear Sir,

I have read with real pleasure your very interesting work “On the Origen of Species” and I may, some day, send you a few remarks upon portions of it—

My object in now writing is to say that I have tried a great many experiments upon the Primrose, Oxlip and Cowslip 1 all of which tended to confirm my opinion that these three plants are distinct species—or what are called species in all our Botanical works—   I never could raise a primrose from the seed of the Cowslip nor a Cowslip from the seed of the Primrose— The true Primula elatior or Oxlip with pale, drooping, scentless flowers appears to be a very local plant in Britain—but it grows in great profusion in swampy meadows at Bardfield in Essex—2 In wet winters these meadows are always flooded— The Primrose does not exist in the Parish of Bardfield although the woods and lanes there seem very favourable situation for it—   The Cowslip is plentiful in the dry fields—

Twenty years since I brought a number of roots of Oxlips from Bardfield and planted them in my garden in a border under a north wall— they have grown luxuriantly there and seed profusely every year— Many thousands of seedlings have flowered and all have been similar to the original plants—   There has not been a primrose or cowslip among them—   I will send one or two seedlings of last year with this—   I tried the experiment of crossing one of these plants with a primrose and the seedlings are now in flower and are just like primroses except in being on a raised flower stem— I will enclose a bunch of flowers—

On the edges of our woods and forests where the primrose and Cowslip grow together we often find plants—apparently hybrids between the two— these are commonly called oxlips—   I believe they are never found except where the cowslip and primrose grow together— I have brought home many of these plants and have grown them in my garden for years but in no instance have I known one to produce seed3 I will send you a small piece of one to show you what I mean—   you will know it by the deep colour—

I must ask you to excuse this hurried note and with best wishes in every way believe me | My dear Sir | Yours most sincerely | Henry Doubleday

C Darwin Esq

CD annotations

3.6 I tried the experiment] ‘I tried the experiment’ added ink


Doubleday was a naturalist and entomologist. CD cited Doubleday’s paper on oxlips (Doubleday 1842) several times in his study of the relationships between cowslips, primroses, and oxlips in his ‘big book’ on species (Natural selection, pp. 128–33; the author of the paper was wrongly identified as Edward Doubleday by the editor of Natural selection).
In the first edition of Origin, p. 49, CD mistakenly called the cowslip Primula elatior; in subsequent editions he changed his reference in accordance with information given to him by Hewett Cottrell Watson (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter from H. C. Watson, 30 November [1859] and n. 3). CD cited Doubleday in Forms of flowers, p. 32, as the first to call attention to the existence of P. elatior in England. See also letter from Henry Doubleday, 16 May 1860 and n. 2.
In Origin, p. 49, CD referred to the primrose and cowslip as examples of strongly marked varieties that are usually classed as separate species because they are crossed only with difficulty and then produce sterile hybrids.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Forms of flowers: The different forms of flowers on plants of the same species. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1877.

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.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.


Has read Origin with pleasure.

Has performed many experiments which confirm his opinion that primrose, oxlip, and cowslip are three distinct species.

Letter details

Letter no.
Henry Doubleday
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 162.2: 237
Physical description
ALS 3pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2781,” accessed on 24 March 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8