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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Journal of Horticulture1   [before 14 May 1861]2

Down, Bromley, Kent

Will Mr. Beaton, who has made such a multitude of most interesting observations on the propagation of plants, have the kindness to state whether varieties of the same species of Composite plants frequently cross each other by insect agency or other means?3 For instance, will any of the Cinerarias, if kept apart from other varieties, breed true? but if standing near other varieties, will they generally, or almost certainly, produce a much greater diversity of coloured seedlings?

I saw an allusion by Mr. Beaton to this subject in The Cottage Gardener of last year with respect to Zinnias;4 and from this allusion I infer that Zinnia sports much when kept separate.

As I am begging for information on the natural crossing of plants, I will likewise venture to inquire whether the great raisers of Hollyhocks find it necessary to keep each variety far separate from the others for raising seed. The late famous horticulturist, the Hon. and Rev. W. Herbert, when I visited him at Spofforth many years ago, remarked that he was much surprised (considering the structure of the flower and the relative periods of maturity of the pollen and stigma) how true some sorts of Hollyhocks bred, even when growing close to other varieties.5 I have found this to be the case with some of the varieties, and cannot understand how it is possible. Mr. Beaton might, if he pleased, write an article, very valuable to physiological botanists and of some practical utility, on the natural crossing of varieties.6 He might indicate in which genera crossing most commonly occurred, and in which it seldom or never occurred. For instance, I have observed Sweet Peas during several years and believe that they never cross;7 and it is not easy to make an artificial cross, though I succeeded at last, but got no good in a horticultural point of view.—

Charles Darwin, Down, Bromley, Kent.


Beginning with the issue of 2 April 1861, the Cottage Gardener changed its name to the Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener, and Country Gentleman. A journal of horticulture, rural and domestic economy, botany and natural history. CD’s copies of the journal,—issues from October 1855 through March 1856 and from January 1860 to February 1866,—are in the Darwin Library–CUL.
CD’s letter was published in the issue of 14 May 1861.
The letter, printed under the heading: ‘Phenomena in the cross-breeding of plants’, was prefaced by the following editorial comment: ‘Having received the following letter from Mr. Darwin we forwarded it to Mr. Beaton, and now publish it with his reply.’ The reference is to Donald Beaton, a Scottish practical gardener with an interest in hybridisation who contributed regularly to the journal. The editors of the Journal of Horticulture were George W. Johnson and Robert Hogg.
See Cottage Gardener, 10 April 1860, p. 19.
CD had corresponded with William Herbert, a great authority on plant hybridisation, about the crossing of plants (see Correspondence vol. 2). CD visited Herbert, after his appointment as dean of Manchester, on 15 September 1845 (ibid., vol. 3, ‘Journal’ (Appendix II)).
CD’s letter was followed by a long response from Beaton, which addressed several of the points raised by CD (Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener, and Country Gentleman n.s. 1 (1861): 112–13). CD, however, did not find Beaton’s information helpful (see letters to Journal of Horticulture, [17 May 1861], and to J. D. Hooker, 14 May [1861]).
CD had for many years been investigating mechanisms of crossing in the Leguminosae in connection with his view that all organic beings must occasionally cross-fertilise. He found that Lathyrus odoratus, the sweetpea, challenged this general rule. See Natural selection, chap. 3, especially pp. 68–71, and Correspondence vol. 6, letters to George Bentham, 30 November [1856], and to W. D. Fox, 22 February [1857].


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

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.


Asks D. Beaton whether varieties of the same species of Compositae frequently cross by insect agency or other means. Do the raisers of hollyhocks have to keep each variety separate for raising seed?

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Journal of Horticulture
Sent from
Source of text
Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener, and Country Gentleman, n.s. 1 (1861): 112

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3147,” accessed on 26 September 2022,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9