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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Journal of Horticulture   [before 9 July 1861]1

I hope that you will grant me a little space to thank some of your correspondents and Mr. Beaton for his interesting information how to test the effects of different kinds of pollen on the divisions of the same stigma of a Pelargonium, for my special purpose of ascertaining whether one variety is prepotent over another.2 I fear that the Scarlet Pelargoniums include at least two wild forms, which botanists would rank as distinct species. If Mr. Beaton is at any time writing on these plants, perhaps he would tell us what he knows about the wild parent of the Horseshoe and other Scarlets.

I am very glad that “P.” sent a list of his Perlargoniums with the central flower regular; for I was not aware how common the case was.3 Will “P.” be so obliging as to observe and report whether any of the regular central flowers set seed—that is, if the kinds specified are such as ever produce seed?

With respect to the fertilisation of Wheat: several years ago I examined the flowers day by day, and came to the same conclusion as that which “H.C.K.” expresses so forcibly.4 Mr. Beaton apparently does not much venerate botanical authorities,5 but he might easily quote a long list of great names to show that Wheat is always fertilised in the bud;6 what has misled so many botanists I cannot imagine. But stranger assertions of the same kind may be met with: for instance, that cruciferous plants are generally fertilised before the flower opens!7 As I am away from home I write without my notes;8 but I remember that the Chinese have the singular belief that certain varieties of Wheat are always fertilised in the night-time. Col. Le Couteur, who attended so carefully to the varieties of Wheat, entertains no doubt that the different varieties, when growing near each other, cross.9 On the other hand, a full account has been published of a large number of varieties, I think 150, which were cultivated close together in some continental garden during several years, and never crossed each other.10 This account has much perplexed me; and I have sometimes been tempted to doubt whether any eye, however accurate, could have distinguished so many varieties, and that, perhaps, after all the varieties did cross. Mr. Beaton might advance this case in support of his belief that Wheat is fertilised in the bud.

As Mr. Beaton alludes to some mistake which he had made, might I venture to suggest to him to punish himself by telling sooner than he intended by what means he can produce from pollen of the same flower placed on the stigmas of the same variety two different sets of seedlings?11 That is a mystery which it is tantalising to wait for.—

Charles Darwin, Down, Bromley, Kent.


Dated by the publication of the letter in the 9 July 1861 issue of the Journal of Horticulture. It was printed under the title ‘Effects of different kinds of pollen’.
The reference is to responses to CD’s letter to the Journal of Horticulture, [before 18 June 1861]. Donald Beaton, who wrote a regular column for the journal, had discussed some of the points CD raised in an article entitled ‘Cross-breeding plants’ printed in the 25 June 1861 issue (Journal of Horticulture n.s. 1 (1861): 232–4).
The list of Pelargonium varieties sent by ‘P.’ appeared under the heading ‘Regular flowers in Pelargoniums’ in the 2 July 1861 issue of the Journal of Horticulture, p. 253.
CD refers to the letter from ‘H.C.K.,— Rectory, Hereford.’ printed under the title ‘When is wheat fertilised?’ in the 2 July 1861 issue of the Journal of Horticulture, p. 257. The writer was Henry Cooper Key, rector of Stretton-Sugwas, Herefordshire. He referred the reader to Beaton’s response to CD’s letter of [before 14 May 1861], which was printed immediately following CD’s letter (Journal of Horticulture, n.s. 1 (1861): 112–13). Beaton claimed, ‘No kind of Wheat has ever been naturally crossed and never can be’ and stated his belief that the seed was fertilised while the ear was still within its sheath, before the wheat blossomed (ibid., p. 113). According to ‘H.C.K.’, Beaton’s view was ‘entirely in error’, and he gave his reasons for believing that wheat was fertilised after the ear had risen out of the sheath and the blossoming process had begun.
In a number of his articles over the past year or so, Beaton had made several disparaging references to the incursion of botanical science on practical gardening, warning gardeners in one instance against ‘building up systems of practice on a baseless, so-called-scientific foundation’ (Cottage Gardener, 21 February 1860, pp. 311–13).
CD studied the literature treating the fertilisation of wheat and other plants and carried on his own investigations in 1856 and 1857. One of the ‘great names’ to which he refers was Jean Louis Auguste Loiseleur Deslongschamps. See Correspondence vol. 6, letters to J. D. Hooker, 13 July [1856], and to Asa Gray, 18 June [1857].
The reference has not been traced.
CD and his family were staying in Torquay (see ‘Journal’; Appendix II).
John Le Couteur was the author of a well-known work on wheat (Le Couteur 1836).
CD referred to this experiment in Variation 1: 314–15, where he cited the account given in Loiseleur Deslongchamps 1842–3, pp. 45, 70.
Beaton had first referred to producing seeds of different varieties of geranium by placing the pollen of five different geraniums on the stigma of one flower in an article published in the Cottage Gardener, 24 July 1860, pp. 253–5. He repeated this claim in his article on ‘Cross-breeding plants’ in the 25 June 1861 issue of the Journal of Horticulture, pp. 232–4, stating that before giving this information, he challenged ‘young gardeners to exercise their wits in trying to account for such a thing or how to do it.’ (p. 234), repeating the challenge the next week (p. 257) and discussing the problem of cross-breeding in the 9 July 1861 issue (pp. 272–3). Beaton responded to CD’s query more fully in an article entitled ‘Fertilisation of wheat’ published in the 23 July 1861 issue of the Journal of Horticulture, pp. 311–13.


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

Le Couteur, John. 1836. On the varieties, properties, and classification of wheat. London: Shearsmith.

Loiseleur Deslongchamps, Jean Louis Auguste. 1842–3. Considérations sur les céréales et principalement sur les froments. 2 pts. Paris. [Vols. 6,9]

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


CD thanks correspondents for information relating to the fertilisation of Pelargonium and of wheat. Suggests further observations and experiments.

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): 280–1

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3204A,” accessed on 19 April 2021,

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