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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   10–20 June [1862]1

Down Bromley Kent

June 10th.

My dear Gray,

Your generous sympathy makes you overestimate what you have read of my orchid Book. But your letter of May 18th + 26th has given me an almost foolish amount of satisfaction.2 The subject interested me, I know, beyond its real value; but I had lately got to think that I had made myself a complete fool by publishing in a semi-popular form. Now I shall confidently defy the world. I have heard that Bentham & Oliver approve of it;3 but I have heard the opinion of no one else, whose opinion is worth a farthing. What strange creatures these orchids are, for instance Mormodes, of which I have this morning examined another species, & which supports all that I have said, but which has completely puzzled me.4

I thank you most heartily for your notes on several American species. I am not surprised as no true Orchis grows near you, that the pollinia of O. spectabilis were not removed; I shd. expect that it would take probably a long time before new insects would learn the dodge.—5 You probably pushed too hard against the viscid disc & crumpled the contracting atom of membrane, which, I know, interferes with the proper movement.

I will write to Murray about casts of 3 first woodcuts; but I doubt whether he will send the casts, for I believe that there is to be set to be sent to Germany for German Edition.—6 I will do my best, but by Jove you shall not pay for them. If there be (which is very improbable) an American Edit, Murray will expect a little more than simple cost. But I will keep back this letter till I hear from him.7

Enough & too much about my orchids, which are now again become beloved in my eyes, & which were quite lately accursed. Many thanks about copies of your Pamphlet.8 Do not trouble about Hollies; I thought they grew near; the case is not important.9 Nothing will be made out, I fear, about Rhexias, unless indeed a plant or plants could be protected from insects. I have now a Rhexia glandulosa under trial, but there is little difference in stamens & little to be made out.10 I am working at several Melastomas; but am at fault; I am, however, certain there is something very remarkable; the pollen of one set of anthers produce less seed & to my amazement their seedlings are dwarfs compared to the other set, all produced from the same plant.—11 The labour is great: I have lately counted one by one 6700 seeds of Monochætum!12 Mr Meeham has sent me his paper on parallel differences in trees of N. America & Europe; pray be so kind as to remember to tell me whether this can be approximately trusted; for the case interests me much, as best case I have seen of apparently direct action of conditions of life.—13 Forgive me for one bit more trouble: I have a Boy with the collecting mania & it has taken the poor form of collecting Postage stamps: he is terribly eager for “Well, Fargo & Co Pony Express 2d & 4d stamp”, & in a lesser degree “Blood’s 1. Penny Envelope, 1, 3, & 10 cents”. If you will make him this present you will give my dear little man as much pleasure, as a new & curious genus gives us old souls.14

Since this was written the above little man has been struck down with scarlet-fever; but thank God this morning the case has taken a mild form.—15

I have just received your long notes on Cypripedium; you may believe how profoundly interesting they are to me. Will you not publish them, either in noticing my Book in Silliman, or otherwise?16 But your notes are more interesting than you will suppose, for since publishing I saw at Flower show, C. hirsutissimum, but could not touch it, but it seemed to me that the sterile anther entirely covered the passages by the anthers. I was amazed & saw clearly that there must be some quite distinct manner of fertilisation. But I did not think of insects crawling into flower; still less of different kind of pollen & in somewhat concave & viscid stigma.17 By Jove it is wonderful. You have hit on the same very idea which latterly has overpowered me, viz the exuberance of contrivances for same object: you will find this point discussed & attempted to be partly explained in the last Chapter.18 No doubt my volume contains much error: how curiously difficult it is, to be accurate, though I try my utmost. Your notes have been interested me beyond measure. I can now afford to d—d. my critics with ineffable complacency of mind. Cordial thanks for this benefit.—

It is surprising to me that you shd. have strength of mind to care for science, amidst the awful events daily occurring in your country. I daily look at the Times with almost as much interest as an American could do. When will peace come: it is dreadful to think of the desolation of large parts of your magnificent country; & all the speechless misery suffered by many. I hope & think it not unlikely that we English are wrong in concluding that it will take a long time for prosperity to return to you. It is an awful subject to reflect on.— Good Bye my dear friend.— I will keep this open till I hear from Murray, which I shd. think must be tomorrow.19

I am keeping back this letter till I hear from Murray, who, I fear is absent. I have now received your interesting notes of June 2d.20 How can you ask whether your letters bore me? I never in my life received a letter from you that was dull. Your letters are a very great pleasure & profit. I seldom see or hear from a soul on Science. Most of my scientific friends (See p. 8 at back of p. 5.) (This page has got in wrong place). are so busy that I scruple to write to them.

Arethusa is very pretty: I shd. conjecture its fertilisation was effected nearly as described under Cattleya; for so it seems to be with Vanilla, which I have lately seen.—21 How well you are attending to Cypripedium. I can at any time return you (making copy for self) your notes on this genus or other notes..22 How very very kind it is in you, overworked as you are, to send me so many notes.— Hearty thanks about Houstonia: that subject, I am working at hard & interests me much.—23 By the way did you ever look at the little (so-called imperfect) flower of Viola & Oxalis; they are very curious, the pollen-grains emit their tubes whilst within the anthers; & it is curious to see these tubes travelling up in straight lines from the lower anthers in Oxalis, right to stigmas; it is like spermatozoa finding their way to ovules.24

I received 2 or 3 days ago a French Translation of the Origin by a Madelle. Royer, who must be one of the cleverest & oddest women in Europe:25 is ardent Deist & hates Christianity, & declares that natural selection & the struggle for life will explain all morality, nature of man, politicks &c &c!!!. She makes some very curious & good hits, & says she shall publish a book on these subjects, & a strange production it will be.

Good Bye—till I hear from that wretch Murray.

(I have had another look at your Arethusa; structure seems very like Vanilla & unlike that of other orchids. In Vanilla, the Labellum is furnished with a compound curious comb, which would compel an insect in retreating to rub its back against rostellum; but the papillæ in Arethusa seem very different. How beautifully clear the spiral ducts are visible in wings of Clinandrium & colum.)

If you come across Specularia do look & tell me whether pollen-grains emit tubes direct from anthers or are grains collected on collecting hairs.—26

I have just had letter from Alp. De Candolle about Primula & he gives me facts & his queries show he appreciates the case, & about nat. selection.27 He says he goes as far as you about change of species, & he laughs at Linnæus’ old definition “Species tot numerasmus quot .... . . sunt creatæ”.—28 But I think from his letter you go further; he says he wants direct proof of nat. selection & he will have to wait a long time for that. Opticians do not wait for direct proof of undulation of ether. But Good Heavens what a higglety-pigglety letter I am scribbling to you, who have hardly a minute to spare.— It is a horrid shame, so I will stop.—

20th. At last I have heard from Murray that he will instantly send the 3 casts & will let, if wanted, a publisher have whole set “on easy terms”29

Yours cordially   C. Darwin


The year is established by reference to the publication of Orchids.
In the letter from Asa Gray, 18 May 1862, Gray gave his first reactions to the proof-sheets of part of Orchids sent to him by CD. The portion of this letter dated 26 May 1862 has not been found.
CD refers to Mormodes luxata; there are notes on a specimen sent to him by Sigismund Rucker on 8 June 1862 in DAR 70: 99–102. The only species of Mormodes described in Orchids is M. ignea (Orchids, pp. 249–65). CD concluded his notes on M. luxata indicating his uncertainty about the mechanism of ejection of the pollinia: ‘I do not clearly understand whole mechanism.— … If an insect entered & [del illeg] climbed up face of column till it touched the filament then disc would stick to abdomen & I could understand all, but I doubt.—’ CD added a passage about M. luxata to the second edition of Orchids (Orchids 2d ed., pp. 219–20), and stated: ‘If an insect were to gnaw the terminal cup [of the labellum], it could hardly fail to touch the apex of the column, and then the pollinium would swing upwards and adhere to some part of the insect’s body.’
The notes referred to have not been found, but see the letter from Asa Gray, 18 May 1862, in which Gray mentioned having transplanted some Orchis spectabilis (a synonym of Galearis spectabilis, the showy orchid) from the state of New York.
The reference is to CD’s publisher, John Murray. Gray planned to review Orchids in the American Journal of Science and Arts and wanted to use some of the original illustrations from the book (see letter from Asa Gray, 18 May 1862). Christian Friedrich Schweizerbart was planning to publish a German edition of Orchids and also wanted a set of electrotype plates of the illustrations (see letter from E. Schweizerbart’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 7 June 1862).
See letters to John Murray, 13 June [1862] and 20 [June 1862].
In his letter to CD of 18 May 1862, Gray mentioned that he had sent some copies of his pamphlet on Origin (A. Gray 1861) for CD ‘to give away’.
CD had sought information regarding ‘gradation in sexes’ in American species of holly (see letter to Asa Gray, 21 April [1862]). Gray replied that the nearest hollies grew twenty miles away, but that he could ‘send’ for some (see letter from Asa Gray, 18 May 1862).
Suspecting that Rhexia, a member of the Melastomataceae, might be dimorphic, CD had asked Gray to observe the position of the pistil and colour of the anthers in different Rhexia plants (see letter to Asa Gray, 16 February [1862]); if Gray found that there were not two forms, CD asked him to compare the position of the pistil in young and old flowers (see letter to Asa Gray, 15 March [1862]). Gray offered to ‘set to watching’ R. virginica in the summer, but doubted whether the plant was dimorphic (see letter from Asa Gray, 6 March [1862]). See also letter to Asa Gray, 21 April [1862] and n. 13. CD had recently received a specimen of Rhexia glandulosa (a synonym of Monochaetum floribundum) from Joseph Dalton Hooker, on which he had begun to experiment (see letter from J. D. Hooker, [29 May 1862], and the experimental notes, dated 1 June – 2 July 1862, in DAR 205.8: 14–15).
CD had been experimenting since the end of 1861 on several members of the Melastomataceae that he believed might be dimorphic, namely Heterocentron, Monochaetum, and Centradenia. CD refers in particular to the results of his crossing experiment with H. roseum (see letters to J. D. Hooker, 15 [May 1862] and 30 May [1862]).
CD’s notes on the crossing experiments with Monochaetum ensiferum that he began in February and harvested in April and May 1862 are in DAR 205.8: 22–33, 37, and 39. They include tabulations of the numbers of seeds produced following crosses using pollen from the two different kinds of anther (DAR 205.8: 30, 31).
Meehan 1862; there is an annotated copy of the paper in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. Thomas Meehan, having noticed that (Meehan 1862, pp. 10–11): European willows, oaks and other trees retained their green leaves in the autumn much longer than closely allied American species growing near them, and that this could not be owing to immediate climatic influences, … was led to believe it was rather the result of inherent specific peculiarities, which further investigation tended to confirm. CD discussed Meehan’s results in Variation 2: 281–2, in a chapter entitled: ‘Direct and definite action of the external conditions of life’. See also Baker 1965.
CD refers to his twelve-year-old son Leonard Darwin. Wells, Fargo & Co. was an American stage-coach company set up by Henry Wells and William George Fargo. In 1861, the company became the San Francisco agents for the Pony Express mail service and issued stamps inscribed ‘Pony Express’. Daniel O. Blood & Co. was a mail company based in Philadelphia. (Sutton 1966, pp. 41, 237, 332.)
According to Emma Darwin’s diary (DAR 242), Leonard Darwin ‘came home with sc. fever’ on 12 June 1862.
The notes referred to have not been found; CD asked Gray to observe and experiment on Cypripedium the previous year (see Correspondence vol. 9, letters to Asa Gray, 12 March [1861] and 5 June [1861]). In Orchids, pp. 274–5, CD had suggested that Cypripedium must be pollinated by an insect inserting its proboscis into one of the two lateral entrances at the base of the labellum, directly over one of the two lateral anthers, and thus either placing the pollen onto the flower’s own stigma, or carrying it away to another flower. In ‘Fertilization of orchids’, pp. 155–6 (Collected papers 2: 152), CD stated: Prof. Asa Gray, after examining several American species of Cypripedium, wrote to me … that he was convinced that I was in error, and that the flowers are fertilized by small insects entering the labellum through the large opening on the upper surface, and crawling out by one of hte two small orifices close to either anther and the stigma. Gray included his observations on American species of Cypripedium in a follow-up article to his review of Orchids for the American Journal of Science and Arts (also known as ‘Silliman’s journal’). See A. Gray 1862b, pp. 427–8.
There is an undated note in DAR 70: 119–20, which states: I must correct my saying that insects could reach end of Labellum with greatest ease by open end of the toe of slipper— Cypripedium hirsutissimum seen very [aberrant] with rudimentary anther joined to soldered edge of labellum.— CD refers to his statement in Orchids, p. 274 that ‘An insect could reach the extremity of the labellum, or the toe of the slipper, through the longitudinal dorsal slit’. CD extensively revised his discussion of Cypripedium in the second edition of Orchids. See also letter to J. D. Hooker, 4 November [1862] and n. 10.
Orchids, pp. 346–51. In the table of contents CD headed this section: ‘Cause of the vast diversity of structure for the same general purpose’.
See nn. 6 and 7, above.
Gray enclosed some flower-buds of the orchid Arethusa with his letter of [2 June 1862]. CD described the manner of pollination of Cattleya in Orchids, pp. 160–4. Hooker had sent CD some specimens of Vanilla at the end of May (see letter from J. D. Hooker, [29 May 1862] and n. 2).
See n. 16, above.
There is a note dated 16 June 1862, recording CD’s observations on the ‘little imperfect flower’ of Oxalis acetosella in DAR 111: 44. For CD’s observations on Viola, see the letter to J. D. Hooker, 30 May [1862] and n. 7.
Royer trans. 1862. The first edition of Clémence Auguste Royer’s French translation of Origin was published on 31 May 1862 (Journal Générale de l’Imprimerie et de la Librairie 2d ser. 6 (pt 3): 341). CD’s copy of the work has not been found; however, there is a lightly annotated copy of Royer’s preface to her translation in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
Gray had told CD that the occurrence in Specularia perfoliata of small unopening flowers in which self-fertilisation occurred (a phenomenon later called cleistogamy) had ‘long been known’ (see Correspondence vol. 9, letter from Asa Gray, 11 October 1861). CD had recently been investigating this phenomenon in Viola and Oxalis (see n. 24, above).
The reference is to Linnaeus 1751, aphorism 157: ‘We count as many species as there were forms created in the beginning’ (Stafleu 1971, p. 63).
Murray’s letter has not been found, but see the letter to John Murray, 20 [June 1862].


Baker, Herbert G. 1965. Charles Darwin and the perennial flax—a controversy and its implications. Huntia 2: 141–61.

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–.

‘Fertilization of orchids’: Notes on the fertilization of orchids. By Charles Darwin. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 4th ser. 4 (1869): 141–59. [Collected papers 2: 138–56.]

Linnaeus, Carolus (Carl von Linné). 1751. Philosophia botanica in qua explicantur fundamenta botanica cum definitionibus partium, exemplis terminorum, observationibus rariorum, adjectis figuris æneis. Stockholm: Godofr. Kiesewetter.

Meehan, Thomas. 1862. On the uniformity of relative characters between allied species of European and American trees. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 14: 10–13.

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.

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.

Stafleu, Frans Antonie. 1971. Linnaeus and the Linnaeans. The spreading of their ideas in systematic botany, 1735–1789. Utrecht: A. Oosthoek for the International Association for Plant Taxonomy.

Sutton, R. J. 1966. The stamp collector’s encyclopaedia. 7th edition. 6th edition revised by K. W. Anthony. London: Stanley Paul. [Vols. 10,11]

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


Thanks AG for praise of Orchids and his notes on several American species of orchid. Comments on AG’s observations.

Is experimenting [on dimorphism] with Rhexia and Melastoma.

Asks AG’s opinion of a paper by Thomas Meehan ["On the uniformity of relative characters between allied species of European and American trees", Proc. Philadelphia Acad. Nat. Sci. (1862): 10–13] which is the best case of the apparently direct action of the conditions of life CD has seen.

Requests postage stamp for his ill son [Leonard].

Thanks AG for observations on Cypripedium and gives recent observations of his own.

Arethusa is very pretty; structure seems like that of Vanilla.

Finds the little (so-called imperfect) flowers of Viola and Oxalis curious: the pollen-grains emit their tubes whilst within the anthers, and they travel in straight lines right to the stigmas.

Sympathises with events in the U. S.

Reports on French translation of Origin by Mlle C. Royer, "one of the cleverest & oddest women in Europe".

Alphonse de Candolle says he wants direct proof of natural selection; "he will have to wait a long time for that".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (66)
Physical description
ALS 10pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3595,” accessed on 23 June 2024,

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