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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Daniel Oliver   24 [September 1860]1

15 Marine Parade | Eastbourne

Monday 24th.

My dear Sir

I should think you could make an interesting paper about spiny trees.2 I had a vague notion about plants varying by becoming more spinose in dry & hot climates, but I never put two & two together, as you have done, in relation to the species of such countries being spinose. This is a point after my own heart.—   It is quite new to me about species of far removed orders being spinose in deserts.— The labour would be, I suppose, great; but I can hardly doubt that you might make a very interesting paper on the subject.— The simple fact of bushes & trees being in so marked a manner spinose in deserts alone struck me, from what I have myself seen & read. Livingstone, for instance, was much struck with the contrast in this respect between the plains of the southern parts of Africa & the more humid & intra-tropical parts.3

The explanation of the fact, seemed to me to be probably, that where vegetation was scanty, those plants alone could withstand the injury from browsing quadrupeds, which were protected by spines. Even our gorze is an instance of this, as being when bruised & chopped so eminently liked by horses.—   I have fancied that desert-plants were often strongly aromatic or strong-tasted for a similar purpose, viz protection.— This struck me much on stony mountains of Chile.—4

You allude to another interesting point, about unisexual plants having very fragrant & conspicuous plants.5 This would be a very curious point, but I shd. suppose very difficult to determine, as fragrancy is so indefinite.—   I have imagined or seen stated, that night-blowing flowers are often fragrant to attract insects. & often white. By your excluding orders in which all the species are unisexual you exclude in fact one source of doubt, viz the cases, where wind is sole agent of fertilisation— I have just thought of one strong exception the common-Holly, which is not fragrant or has conspicuous flowers, & is yet essentially unisexual.— Bees can certainly smell any sweet excretion. I fear there would be too many elements of doubts.—

I am not Botanist enough to follow out your ideas about definite & indefinite inflorescence.—   I am not sure that I understand “definite” & “indefinite”.—   I have long thought that dimorphous flowers (& told Dr. Hooker so)6 would be a very interesting subject for experiment.—   I once got the Russian violet to commence on; but want of time & my poor health prevented me doing anything. This very summer I have had Venus Looking glass7 under cover partly with this object, but the wet season spoiled this & several other little experiments. I shall never take it up now.—   The view which I meant to test was this: that the apetalous forms was self fertilised & therefore seeded abundantly; whilst the flowering kind was alone visited by insects, & either required (as in case of Violets & I believe all Campanulas) & was much benefitted by the visits of insects for its self-fertilisation; & thus incidentally received the benefit of an occasional cross.

This year I tried V. tricolor & it was marvellous the difference in seeding of the flowers, which were visited by Bees or artificially fertilised by me, & those which were untouched.—8 I think that you would find this an easy & interesting line of experiment.—

Very many thanks for your interesting letter | Yours sincerely | C. Darwin

There is an N. American Campanula with nearly apetalous flower, which seeds largely. How does pollen get on stigma?—


Dated by the relationship to the letter from Daniel Oliver, 25 September 1860. The only ‘Monday 24th’ during CD’s stay in Eastbourne was in September.
Oliver’s letter has not been found. He had been studying families of plants with spines, particularly the Caryophyllaceae. His analysis of the internal structure of plant stems, which in passing mentioned the relation of stems to spines, was published in 1859 (Oliver 1859).
Livingstone 1857, pp. 345–6. CD had been greatly impressed by this work when he read it in 1858 (see Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV, 128: 23).
Oliver may have mentioned to CD his work on the family Hamamelidaceae, members of which often have unisexual flowers. The family includes many fragrant species. Oliver identified a new genus called Sycopsis in a paper read at a meeting of the Linnean Society on 15 March 1860 (Oliver 1860). In this paper, he suggested that the geographical distribution of the family might be elucidated by CD’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s views (Oliver 1860, p. 87). There is an annotated copy of the paper in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
See letters to J. D. Hooker, 11 May [1860] and 5 June [1860].
A popular name for Specularia, a member of the Campanulaceae. CD’s experiments on the fertilisation of plants by insects, performed during the year 1860, are recorded in his Experimental book, pp. 59–61 (DAR 157a). Specularia, however, is not mentioned.
CD’s experiment on Viola tricolor is recorded in his Experimental book, p. 59.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 28 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Journal of researches (1860): Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle around the world, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN. By Charles Darwin. Reprint edition. London: John Murray. 1860.

Livingstone, David. 1857. Missionary travels and researches in South Africa; including a sketch of sixteen years’ residence in the interior of Africa, and a journey from the Cape of Good Hope to Loanda on the west coast; thence across the Continent, down the river Zambesi, to the Eastern Ocean. London: John Murray.

Oliver, Daniel. 1860. On Sycopsis. [Read 15 March 1860.] Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 23 (1860–2): 83–8. [Vols. 8,9]


Admires DO’s correlation of spiny tree species and dry hot climate. CD suggests that spines, like strange aroma of desert plants, protect against browsing where there are few plants.

Fragrance and unisexuality.

Dimorphism in Viola tricolor.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Daniel Oliver
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 261.10: 22 (EH 88206006)
Physical description
ALS 8pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2960,” accessed on 30 June 2022,

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