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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Daniel Oliver   11 September [1861]1

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

Sept. 11th

My dear Sir

I was pleased to see your handwriting again, & sincerely hope that you are quite recovered from your long illness. Take warning from me & do not work too hard.— Very many thanks for information about P. ciliata & var.2 I was sure it could not be an ordinary variety; it differed too much & I was utterly perplexed what to do about it.—3 I shd. have much liked to have seen P. farinosa, but I well knew that you could not send it, else you would have done so.—4

I hate changing work & I have so many irons in the fire that I have stopped looking after Dionæa.— I return your nice sketches which make me quite envious. I do not of course mean to attempt any minute work at structure; merely a few functional observations relatively to Drosera (which alas I have resolved to put off for another year, for I have amused myself too long over Primulas & Orchids).—5

I have made out very little on Dionæa: merely that the leaf behaves very differently when a fly, or only bit of cork & nothing is caught.— When a fly is caught much acid mucous is poured out as in Drosera. And the leaf must absorb so as to perceive when it has caught a fly— The “tortoises” seem to be the secretors & absorbers & appear to me to be strictly homologous with the glands in Drosera.— It is odd that meat, flies, sol. of C. of ammonia, will not excite movement or secretion; the sensitive filament must be touched to set all in action. The sensitiveness of the filament is prettily adapted: drop of water falling on them, or strong wind through pipe produces no effect; but a touch by a woman’s Hair held with one inch length free will suffice. There is a pretty difference with Drosera: the latter does not care for a single rough touch with even a needle, but a weight left on the gland of 170,000of a grain will excite movement; & this is good for plant, for it has to clasp an insect when resting on & sticking to the gland: it would be lost labour to Drosera to close when merely touched by large insect.— In Dionæa, a far lighter single touch by mere hair causes movement; but a much greater weight, if put on delicately, may be left on the filament, without exciting movement than with Drosera.—

But I must not run on. | Pray believe me | Yours very sincerely | Charles Darwin


Dated by the relationship to the letter to J. D. Hooker, 6 September [1861].
Oliver’s letter has not been found. CD had asked Joseph Dalton Hooker to pass on to Oliver his query about Primula ciliata and P. ciliata var. purpurata (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 6 September [1861]).
In his paper ‘On the two forms, or dimorphic condition, in the species of Primula, and on their remarkable sexual relations’, Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Botany) 6 (1862): 77–96 (Collected papers 2: 45–63), CD acknowledged having received specimens of Primula ciliata and P. ciliata var. purpurata from Oliver. Of the latter, CD stated that the case was ‘hardly worth giving, as the variety purpurata is said to be a hybrid between this species and P. auricula’ (Collected papers 2: 48). Primula ciliata is a synonym of P. hirsuta subsp. hirsuta, hairy primrose; the flowere range in colour from pale pink to deep red-mauve.
P. farinosa, the bird’s-eye primrose is common in damp woods in northern England and southern Scotland. It is not described in CD’s paper on the dimorphic condition of Primula. By the time CD published a fuller account of this study in 1877, however, he had been able to examine specimens of this species. See Forms of flowers, pp. 45, 224, and 273.
Oliver had greatly assisted CD’s study of the sensitivity of the leaves of Dionaea and other insectivorous plants to various substances (see Correspondence vol. 8). CD continued to investigate this topic for a number of years, not publishing his results until 1875 (see Insectivorous plants). CD’s notes on Primula are in DAR 108 and 111, and those on orchids are in DAR 70.


Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett. 2 vols. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1977.

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.

Insectivorous plants. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1875.


Has put Drosera off while amusing himself with Primula and orchids.

Dionaea is prettily adapted to weight detection.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Daniel Oliver
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 261.10: 30, 66 (EH 88206013, EH 88206049)
Physical description
ALS 5pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3251,” accessed on 4 June 2023,

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