skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From Asa Gray   2–3 July 1862

[Cambridge, Mass.]

July 2, 1862.

My dear Darwin.

Many thanks for your long and interesting letter of June 10th, & later.1 Pray write upon thinner paper, and then one of the long letters which I find so enjoyable and so stimulating, will cost you only 1/ in postage.

The word postage reminds me of your young son’s request (I do hope he has quite recovered his health), which shall surely be attended to.2 Some young people here, of Mrs. Gray’s family take to stamp-collecting, and will help. They s⁠⟨⁠ay⁠⟩⁠ Wells, Fargo & Co. Express ⁠⟨⁠are⁠⟩⁠ most rare. I never ⁠⟨⁠saw⁠⟩⁠ them. But we will ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ Blood,—a Philadelph⁠⟨⁠ia⁠⟩⁠ ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ penny-post carrier, is more common. I used to see his stamp upon my Philadelphia letters, and I think I may find or procure them. And for the rest, is it our U.S. stamps on letter envelopes your boy wants? I enclose a 3 cent, and will lay hold of the first one & two cent ones that I see. I am glad if my off-hand orchid notes interest you, or prove of the least use..3 I am daily expecting a copy to send you of my notice of the early chapters of your book. I will continue in the ensuing number.4 And whatever of the notes I send you seem ⁠⟨⁠to⁠⟩⁠ you worth touching upon, ⁠⟨⁠you⁠⟩⁠ have only to indicate ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ and send back my ⁠⟨⁠memor⁠⟩⁠anda, and I will take ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠. But as to Cypripedium, I should like to have an opportunity of examining them (except C. acaule) more at large, and growing.

A week from to-morrow, I expect to be able to leave Cambridge.—to go down, with my examination-papers to read, to my beau-pere’s place on the shore for a few days.5 There I will try to look up & bring home living Rhexia Virginica,6 and also I expect to have a look at Calopogon pulchellus with its strong bearded labellum. And I hope it will not be too late to get plenty of Mitchella repens which my pupils do not bring in as they ought.7 I want to see if long-styled stigma & short, differ, and also the pollen of the two, as they do in Houstonia,—of which I hope I sent you Rothrock’s observations. At least I will send when he has completed them.8

Meehan—a good gardener—send me his ms. before printing.9 I tried to find exceptions to his rule, and thought I had; but he beat me down.

If any body comes out with a new empirical law, I always disbelieve him prima facie. But Meehan is an honest and I suppose very good observer, and you may “approximately” trust him, I should think.10 He may have got hold of something.

Precocious fertilization in the bud was much noticed here very long ago, by Torrey, in Viola, Specularia, &c, &c—11also in Impatiens—about which see my Genera Fl. vol. 2.12 I once mentioned it to you as good evidence of close-fertilisation.13 As to the pollen-tubes of such, I have no observations of my own, but a memory, or fancy, that they were shown to me by Torrey. I will ask him, and have him look at Specularia.14

As to the French Lady’s translation and commentary on the Origin, I am not so much surprised.15 As I view it there are only two sides to the main question. Very likely she takes one side in a thorough-going and consistent manner; and either she is right, or I am right. I.e. there is design in nature or there is not. The no-design view, if one can bring himself to entertain it may well enough lead to all she says, and we may very much admire how collission, and destruction of least favored brings about apparently orderly results,—apparent contrivances or adaptations of means to ends. On the other hand, the implication of a designing mind must with it a strong implication of design in matters where we could not directly prove it. If you grant an intelligent designer anywhere in Nature, you may be confident that he has had something to do with the “contrivances” in your Orchids.

I have just received and glanced at Bentham’s address, and am amused to see how your beautiful flank-movement with the Orchid-book has nearly overcome his opposition to the Origin.16

The military simile above leads me to speak of your wonder that I can think of science at all in the midst of war.17 Well, 1st we get used to it. 2d, We need something to turn to, and happy are they who, forbidden to engage personally in the ⁠⟨⁠war⁠⟩⁠ (as I am ever itching to do,⁠⟨⁠)⁠⟩⁠ have something to turn to.18 3d. I do not do much.—do nothing in fact except my college duties now for months.—and that is the reason I have time to write to you, and be interested in all your doings.19

If you suppose everything is paralysed and desolate here, and country greatly put back, read a very sensible letter of an Englishman in the Spectator of June 7.20 It is very just & true. We shall recuperate fast enough, and be better off than ever, as much prosperity as is good for us, and more sol⁠⟨⁠id,⁠⟩⁠ more independent, more sel⁠⟨⁠f-⁠⟩⁠contained,—which is our g⁠⟨⁠reat⁠⟩⁠ desideratum. Free-tr⁠⟨⁠ade⁠⟩⁠ be blowed; we must nee⁠⟨⁠ds have⁠⟩⁠ high duties on imports; an⁠⟨⁠d⁠⟩⁠ ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ that we should. By ⁠⟨⁠th⁠⟩⁠ese and by direct taxes—the ⁠⟨⁠t⁠⟩⁠ax-bill just passed—we shall have to pay over largely.21 Very well.

Just at present our prospects (viz. evening of July 3) are looking badly enough. Mc’Clellan has clearly been over matched and driven to the wall, after very obstinate fighting with very heavy loss on both sides.22 Whether it is retrievable with reinforcements, or whether the whole campaign has to be begun again against Richmond is not yet clear. Anyway we have got to put shoulder to the wheel anew, and it may be done, we suppose, more easily, and far more ⁠⟨⁠p⁠⟩⁠romptly than last year. ⁠⟨⁠All⁠⟩⁠ we ask is that Europe shall ⁠⟨⁠leave us⁠⟩⁠ alone.

⁠⟨⁠Enoug⁠⟩⁠h for today. Ever Yours | cordially | A. Gray

Note | Utricularia vulgaris is about as neatly contrived for cross-fertilization by insects as almost any orchid.23


Gray refers to Leonard Darwin. In the letter to Asa Gray, 10–20 June [1862], CD requested Gray’s assistance in procuring a number of North American postage stamps for Leonard’s collection, and told him that Leonard had become ill with scarlet fever.
CD had assured Gray, who was concerned that his ‘scattering notes’ were tiresome, that he took ‘very great pleasure’ in Gray’s letters (see letter to Asa Gray, 10–20 June [1862], and letter from Asa Gray, [2 June 1862]). It is evident from CD’s reply to this letter (letter to Asa Gray, 23[–4] July [1862]) that Gray had sent with it ‘a bundle of notes’ on orchids; these notes have not been found.
Gray’s review of the first part of Orchids (A. Gray 1862a) was published in the July number of the American Journal of Science and Arts; according to the paper wrapper in which the journal was issued, numbers were published on the first day of the month. Gray wrote a follow-up article to his review for the November number of the journal (A. Gray 1862b). In the List of reviews (DAR 262 (DH/MS* 8: 6–18)) that served as CD’s index to his collection of reviews of his own books, there is an entry that reads ‘Asa Gray On Orchids, Review of’. However, the offprint corresponding to the index number is absent from the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. See also letter from Asa Gray, 15 July [1862] and n. 16, and letter to Asa Gray, 28 July [1862].
Gray’s father-in-law, Charles Greely Loring, had an estate in Beverly, Massachusetts, situated on the Atlantic coast (Dupree 1959, pp. 179–80).
In the letter from Asa Gray, 6 March [1862], Gray had agreed to assist CD with his investigation of the possible occurrence of dimorphism in the Melastomataceae by observing specimens of Rhexia virginica in the summer. See also letter from Asa Gray, [late June 1862] and n. 4.
Gray had told CD that Mitchella repens was dimorphic in his letter of [27 and 29 August] and 2 September [1861] (Correspondence vol. 9), and had offered to make observations for CD the following spring on this or any other dimorphic species.
Gray had informed CD in October 1861 that Houstonia was dimorphic, and had promised to look for any differences in the pollen of the two forms the following spring (see Correspondence vol. 9, letter from Asa Gray, 11 October 1861); he sent CD observations of the pollen and stigmas of Houstonia in the letter from Asa Gray, [2 June 1862]. Joseph Trimble Rothrock was one of Gray’s students (Dupree 1959, p. 326), whose services as an observer Gray apparently recommended to CD in his letter of 6 March [1862]; Rothrock’s observations on Houstonia caerulea are included in the letter from Asa Gray, 4 August 1862.
Meehan 1862. Thomas Meehan had sent CD a copy of his paper, which described characteristic differences between various American trees and allied European species grown in proximity to each other and under similar conditions (see letter to Asa Gray, 10–20 June [1862]).
See letter to Asa Gray, 10–20 June [1862]. A summary of Meehan’s findings is given in Variation 2: 281–2; CD concluded that the differences could not have been the result of natural selection, but were caused by the ‘long-continued action of the different climate of the two continents on the trees’.
The reference is to the botanist John Torrey (see, for example, Torrey 1843, 1: 428). In the letter to Asa Gray, 10–20 June [1862], CD discussed the occurrence in several species of small flowers that did not open and in which self-pollination occurred (a phenomenon later known as cleistogamy); CD had recently been experimenting on this phenomenon in Viola and Oxalis.
A. Gray 1848–9, 2: 134–5. There is a note recording this reference in DAR 111: 31.
In the letter to Asa Gray, 10–20 June [1862], CD asked Gray to observe the behaviour of the pollen-tubes in the cleistogamic flowers of Specularia. For Torrey’s observations on Specularia, see the letter from Asa Gray, 18–19 August 1862.
As president of the Linnean Society of London, George Bentham delivered the society’s anniversary address on 24 May 1862 (Bentham 1862b). Bentham concluded that while ‘Biology’, defined strictly as ‘the history of animal and vegetable life’ (ibid., p. lxviii), was ‘a field of inquiry comparatively untrodden’, the ‘remarkable success’ attending CD’s work ‘should stimulate others to follow in the same track’, (ibid., p. lxxxi). He continued: I do not refer to those speculations on the origin of species, which have excited so much controversy; for the discussion of that question, when considered only with reference to the comparative plausibility of opposite hypotheses, is beyond the province of our Society.... But we must all admire that patient study of the habits of life, with that great power of combining facts, which has revealed to us so much of surprising novelty in the economy of nature. The wonderful contrivances for the cross-fertilization of Orchids, so graphically detailed in Mr. Darwin’s new work, and which rival all that had been previously observed in the singular economy of insect life, had been hitherto unsuspected even by those botanists who had specially devoted themselves to that family. Bentham had at first been ‘greatly agitated’ by Origin (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter from J. D. Hooker, [20 December 1859]), and CD had been concerned at Bentham’s lack of support for his views (see Correspondence vol. 8).
As Gray was over 50, he was too old for military service (Dupree 1959, p. 306).
Gray was Fisher Professor of natural history at Harvard University.
Gray refers to a letter from the new town of Lanark, Illinois, signed ‘An English Traveller’, claiming that ‘the great fact of American history’ was the progress westwards across the prairie represented by towns like Lanark, and that such progress was continuing, despite the American Civil War. The writer contrasted this with the ‘popular English view of American affairs’, that the ‘whole country’ was ‘in revolution’, that trade was bankrupt, and ‘the entire progress of the country stopped for years to come’ (Spectator, 7 June 1862).
The Internal Revenue Act was passed on 1 July 1862. The legislation introduced taxes on alcohol and tobacco, luxury items, professions, banks and corporations, and manufactured goods, as well as an inheritance tax and new income taxes (McPherson 1988, pp. 447–8).
Gray refers to the Seven Day’s battles, waged in the Virginia peninsula campaign between 25 June and 1 July 1862, which claimed 30,000 casualties. The Union forces, commanded by George Brinton McClellan, had unsuccessfully attempted to lay siege to the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia (McPherson 1988, pp. 461–71).
This note is written on the inside of the envelope (DAR 165: 110a). Utricularia vulgaris is common bladderwort.


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

Dupree, Anderson Hunter. 1959. Asa Gray, 1810–1888. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Gray, Asa. 1848–9. Genera floræ Americæ boreali-orientalis illustrata. The genera of the plants of the United States. 2 vols. Vol. 1: Boston: James Munroe and Company. New York and London: John Wiley. Vol. 2: New York: George P. Putnam.

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

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: 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.

Torrey, John. 1843. A flora of the state of New-York, comprising full descriptions of all the indigenous and naturalized plants hitherto discovered in the state; with remarks on their economical and medicinal properties. Pt 2 of Natural history of New York. 2 vols. Albany: Carroll and Cook, printers to the Assembly.

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


Discusses dimorphic plants and the occurrence of "precocious fertilisation" in the bud.

Gives some comments on design in nature in the light of the translator’s commentary in the French edition of the Origin.

Reports the recent events of the Civil War.

[Note on verso of envelope:] Utricularia vulgaris is "about as neatly contrived for cross-fertilisation by insects as almost any orchid".

Letter details

Letter no.
Asa Gray
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Jul 5; JY 18 | 62
Source of text
DAR 165: 110a, 112–12a
Physical description
ALS 8pp damaged †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3637,” accessed on 1 October 2023,

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