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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Daniel Oliver   8 June [1862]1

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

June 8th

Dear Oliver

Very many thanks for the orchid, which was new to me & interested me, but by Jove I must stop & go on with confounded dull old subjects. The orchid must be a Catasetum (allied to C. tridentatum) & has no doubt its own Monchanthus.2 The stigmatic surface was more viscid than in the other species examined by me but not viscid enough to break the caudicles. The utriculi & ovules after spirits showed also very little contained pulpy matter: An examination of the tissue or utriculi of stigmas of utterly sterile Hybrids after being kept for 24 or 48 hours in spirits, in comparison with the utriculi of the pure & fertile parent species, would be a point worth attention. But time time time, as you no doubt exclaim with your lectures,3 & as I often exclaim, with my wretched stomach, though having no lectures or other disturbance.

That is a curious monster which you sent with its 2 anthers & 2 rostellums.—

I am glad that you have read my orchis book & seem to approve of it;4 for I never published anything which I so much doubted whether it was worth publishing & indeed I still doubt.5

The subject interested me beyond what, I suppose, it is worth.— Almost every day I get more convinced that insects (in relation to the marriage of distinct flowers) govern the structure of almost every flowers: I have been led, from crossing, to look to Pelargonium, & see how well the 7 anthers stand & face, so that an insect visiting the nectary may take them all; & see the open stigmas in an older flower.—6

Yours very truly | C. Darwin


The year is established by reference to the publication of Orchids, of which Oliver received a presentation copy (see letter from Daniel Oliver, 14 May 1862, and Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix IV).
Oliver’s letter has not been found; however, a note in DAR 70: 96–7, dated ‘June 7th 62.’, describes ‘A Catasetum sent … from Kew, … Species closely allied to tridentatum’. CD described this specimen in Orchids 2d ed., p. 193, under the heading ‘Catasetum planiceps (?)’. The reference to Monachanthus concerns the explanation provided in Orchids of an apparent anomaly: flowers of Catasetum tridentatum, Monachanthus viridis, and Myanthus barbatus had been observed to grow on the same plant. As CD explained it, Myanthus barbatus should be considered the hermaphrodite form of the same species of which the Catasetum was the male and the Monachanthus the female form (see Orchids, pp. 231–48). Catasetum tridentatum and Monachanthus viridis are synonyms of Catasetum macrocarpum, the jumping orchid; Myanthus barbatus is a synonym of Catasetum barbatum, the bearded catasetum.
Oliver was professor of botany at University College London. On the demands of his lectures, see the letters from Daniel Oliver, 10 April 1862 and 14 May 1862, and the letter to Daniel Oliver, 12 [April 1862].
Oliver’s letter has not been found, but see the letter from Daniel Oliver, 14 May 1862.
When CD suggested to John Murray that he might publish Orchids, he expressed some of his own doubts about the advisability of doing so (see Correspondence vol. 9, letters to John Murray, 21 September [1861] and 24 September [1861]); he wrote to Joseph Dalton Hooker (Correspondence vol. 9, letter to J. D. Hooker, 24 September [1861]): ‘Heaven knows whether it will not be a dead failure’.
CD had begun crossing experiments with different varieties of pelargoniums on 11 May 1862, in an attempt to produce seed from the normally sterile, central peloric flowers of these plants (see the notes from these experiments, dated 11 May – August 1862, in DAR 51: 4–9, 12–13, and Variation 2: 167). In DAR 51 (ser. 2): 10–11, there is a note dated 6 June 1862 that discusses the number and position of the anthers in pelargoniums, and their relationship to the activities of insects.


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

Orchids 2d ed.: The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition, revised. London: John Murray. 1877.

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.

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


Describes floral anatomy of a Catasetum sent by DO.

Has gone on from orchids to studying insect agency in Pelargonium.

His doubts on the worth of publishing Orchids.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Daniel Oliver
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 261.10: 32 (EH 88206015)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3592,” accessed on 4 June 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 10