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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Asa Gray   9 November 1861

Cambridge. [Massachusetts]

Nov, 9th, 1861

Dear Darwin

I asked Torrey to tell me about what he knew of diœcio-dimorphism in Borragineæ 1   He writes that he has observed it mostly in Amsinckia, but gives me no details. I have asked him for details.

In his Bot. of U.S. & Mexican Boundary, p. 140a I see he has published “The insertion of the stamens is not constant in this genus. In the same species they are sometimes placed near the base of the corolla, sometimes in the upper part of the throat.”2

I have just had occasion to study carefully all the specimens I have of the genus Mertensia—of this order. I looked out for this matter. Of the 9 species examined all the specimens of 8 of them have stamens inserted on the throat, i.e. subexsert staminate. But the style is long also. In one species—viz. M. alpina some specimens are so also, but others have the stamens inserted so low down in the tube that they are wholly included—the tips of the anthers where the bases are in the common way. But in these the style is short too! as much shorter as the stamens are lower!

So here is a riddle for you! How varied Nature is in her ways of doing things!

Looking however now at Amsinckia in my herbm., I find a pencil note of Dr. Torrey’s, long ago, on Amsinckia spectabilis.— the specimens of “504 Coulter,California.— Torrey’s mem. is—“In specimens 1 & 2 the stamens are inserted on the upper part of the corolla, and the style is short. In 3, they are inserted near the base, and the style is elongated,—a kind of dioicality as in Hedyotis, Mitchella, &c.” J. T.

That is all right again. Torrey is quite right about it! I fish up and send you the two sorts of flowers, by which you can verify the observation, in a good light even without dissecting the flowers.3

Capt. Anderson, of the Cunard Steamer “Europa”,4 has kindly consented to take any parcel for you which needs prompt delivery, & send up from Liverpool. So I went into the fields to find Houstonia for you,—supposing I could find the little seedlings which are to blossom early next spring. But not one can I find.—they are so tiny & concealed in the grass. Well, ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ would b⁠⟨⁠  ⁠⟩⁠ by this means ⁠⟨⁠  ⁠⟩⁠ance i⁠⟨⁠  ⁠⟩⁠ ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ picked up the ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ ⁠⟨⁠su⁠⟩⁠bsexes! ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ early spring I may get young plants over to you, under glass, late enough to select the two sorts—as they flower for some weeks, I hope to try.5

We are just awaiting tidings of our Naval expedition to Beaufort &c, S. Car. We only know that our Armada has mostly survived & weathered the gale, and is effecting a landing.6

I confess to have been irritated for a while by the nasty articles upon us in the Saturday Review. But now that they are said to be written by Grattan, formerly British Consul at Boston, we are quite indifferent. Grattan was never seen in good Boston society, and I am told was excluded for some disgraceful conduct or other.— Hence the spite of which we have had specimens before.7

Ever, dear Darwin, | Yours most cordially | Asa Gray

CD annotations

3.2 of this order.] ‘Borragineæ’ added ink
3.3 subexsert] ‘subexersert’ added ink
7.1 Capt.... ⁠⟨⁠su⁠⟩⁠bsexes! 7.6] crossed blue crayon
7.6 early … Darwin, 10.1] crossed red crayon
Top of first page: ‘Bentham said some Verbenaceæ were dimorphic.’8 ink


John Torrey was a friend of Gray’s and an expert on the flora of the United States. He and Gray had collaborated in preparing the Flora of North America (1838–43).
CD had asked Gray for information on plant species that regularly exhibit two or more different flower forms (see letters to Asa Gray, 21 July [1861] and 16 September [1861]). In the published version of the paper read before the Linnean Society of London on 21 November 1861, CD included information from Gray’s letter and referred to his examination of the dried flowers of Amsinckia sent by Gray (see ‘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, esp. p. 95; see also Collected papers 2: 45–63).
James Anderson had entered Cunard’s service in 1851 (Modern English biography).
The Union navy had embarked in the summer of 1861 on a large-scale operation to blockade the major southern ports and patrol the coastline of the Confederate States. Late in September, a large task force headed down the Atlantic coast toward Port Royal, South Carolina, but the fleet was scattered and several of its transports carrying ammunition and landing boats foundered during a gale on 1 November. On 7 November, however, the Union fleet was able to take control of the port, thereby securing ‘the finest natural harbor on the south Atlantic coast.’ (McPherson 1988, pp. 369–71).
The reference is to a series of unsigned articles covering developments in the American Civil War published in the Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art. Several of the pieces were openly critical of the North, even to the point of advocating that the English and French should break the Southern blockade and re-establish commercial contact (see Saturday Review 12 (1861): pp. 420–1). Thomas Colley Grattan was the British consul in Boston from 1838 to 1846.
This information does not occur in the extant letters from George Bentham up to 1861, but CD queried Bentham further about dimorphism in Verbenaceae in 1864 (see Calendar no. 4556).


Calendar: A calendar of the correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821–1882. With supplement. 2d edition. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994.

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

McPherson, James M. 1988. Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Modern English biography: Modern English biography, containing many thousand concise memoirs of persons who have died since the year 1850. By Frederick Boase. 3 vols. and supplement (3 vols.). Truro, Cornwall: the author. 1892–1921.

Torrey, John. [1859]. Botany of the boundary. In United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, under the order of Lt. Colonel W. H. Emory Washington, DC.


Discusses observations of his own and of John Torrey on dimorphism, especially in Amsinckia.

Is trying to find specimens of Houstonia for CD.

Letter details

Letter no.
Asa Gray
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Cambridge Mass.
Source of text
DAR 110 (ser. 2): 63–4
Physical description
ALS 4pp damaged †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3313,” accessed on 1 October 2023,

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