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Darwin Correspondence Project

To George Bentham   17 June [1861]1

Down. | Bromley. | Kent. S.E.

June 17th

My dear Sir

You allude to spurless O. pyramidalis. Have you several specs.; and if so could you give me one spike with many well-opened flowers to examine.2 I have for years been attending to insect fertilisation of Orchids, & I shd. very much from several curious reasons like to see what effect no nectary will have produced on the visits of insects. I once tried cutting off the nectaries; but nature’s cutting off would be much better.—3 If, as is very likely, you cannot spare me a spike, could you spare me one or two hardly opened flowers, that I may look & see whether gland is modified—4

Pray excuse me begging this favour & believe me yours very sincerely

C. Darwin

I have just been rereading your paper on Variation in Linn. Journal (where you allude to this Orchis)5 & it does make me so wish you would write an essay on the origin of species.6 It would be so valuable; You have such enlarged & matured views on all such points.—7 If you send me a spike of O. pyramidalis, I shall have to spoil it, for I shall examine every single flower on it.—


The year is given by the reference to Bentham 1861a (see n. 5, below).
Bentham’s letter has not been found. He described an aberrant form of Orchis pyramidalis having no nectary in Bentham 1858, p. 501.
CD gave an account of this experiment in Orchids, pp. 46–7. The object was to determine whether the flowers lacking a nectary would still be visited by insects, whose agency is necessary for the flower’s pollination. His observations indicated that forms without a nectary were not visited as frequently by moths as those with a nectary (ibid., pp. 47–8).
Bentham sent CD some specimens of this species (see letter to George Bentham, 22 June [1861]).
The reference is to Bentham’s paper ‘On the species and genera of plants’, published in the Natural History Review (Bentham 1861a). CD’s reference to the ‘Linn. Journal’ was perhaps prompted by a statement following the title of the article stating that the paper was extracted from one read before the Linnean Society of London on 15 November 1858. See also Jackson 1906, pp. 179, 180, and letter to J. D. Hooker, 23 [April 1861].
As yet, Bentham had given no explicit indication of his opinion of Origin (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 23 [April 1861]). CD had been curious to know Bentham’s views for some time (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to J. D. Hooker, 14 December [1859], and letter from J. D. Hooker, [20 December 1859]).
Bentham had prepared a long essay on species to serve as the introduction to his and Joseph Dalton Hooker’s Genera plantarum (Bentham and Hooker 1862–83). The manuscript, which was never published, is in the library of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.


Bentham, George. 1858. Handbook of the British flora; a description of the flowering plants and ferns indigenous to, or naturalized in, the British Isles. London: Lovell Reeve.

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

Jackson, Benjamin Daydon. 1906. George Bentham. London: J. M. Dent. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Orchids: On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1862.

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.


Asks for specimen of Orchis pyramidalis for his work on insect fertilisation of orchids.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
George Bentham
Sent from
Source of text
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (Bentham Correspondence, Vol. 3, Daintree–Dyer, 1830–1884, GEB/1/3: f. 697)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3186,” accessed on 4 October 2023,

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