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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   23[–4] July [1862]1

Down Bromley Kent

July 23d

My dear Gray

I received several days ago two large packets, but have as yet read only your letter;2 for we have been in fearful distress & I could attend to nothing. Our poor Boy had the rare case of second rash & sore throat, besides mischief in kidneys; & as if this was not enough a most serious attack of erysipelas with typhoid symptoms.3 I despaired of his life; but this evening he has eaten one mouthful & I think has passed the crisis. He has lived on Port-wine every 34 of an hour day & night. This evening to our astonishment he asked whether his stamps were safe & I told him of the one sent by you,4 & that he shd. see it tomorrow. He answered “I should awfully like to see it now”; so with difficulty he opened his eyelids & glanced at it & with a sigh of satisfaction said “all right”.— Children are one’s gretest happiness, but often & often a still greter misery. A man of science ought to have none,—perhaps not a wife; for then there would be nothing in this wide world worth caring for & a man might (whether he would is another question) work away like a Trojan.— I hope in a few days to get my Brains in order & then I will pick out all your orchid letters (& read by & bye your last)5 & return them in hopes of your making use of them—6 Planthanthera would be eminently well worth giving & as much as feel safe about Cypripedium;7 in part I am not sure that I understand the passages by which insects crawl in & out. Could you give a diagram?8 I have such an arrear of letters & such a number of experiments,9 all going to the dogs, that I have not time to make abstract of your letters. Will you return me such, as you do not use: but I hope you will be led to use all some time or another.—10 I shall be very glad to hear of Rosmacks *? observations on Houstonia; you only just alluded to them.—11 You did formerly tell me about Specularia:12 in viola & oxalis the case seems to me to be much too remarkable to be called “precocious flowering”.13

*I hope he will publish note; I hear the French say that my paper on Primula is all pure imagination; but I cannot hear that this is grounded on any observations—14

You will never read my horrid writing, if I write on both pages, of thin paper which I have taken in obedience to orders.—15 Of all the carpenters for knocking the right nail on the head, you are the very best: no one else has perceived that my chief interest in my orchid book, has been that it was a “flank movement” on the enemy.16 I live in such solitude that I hear nothing, & have no idea to what you allude about Bentham & the orchids & Species.17 But I must enquire.—

By the way one of my chief enemies (the sole one who has annoyed me) namely Owen, I hear has been lecturing on Birds, & admits that all have descended from one, & advances as his own idea that the oceanic wingless Birds have lost their wings by gradual disuse.18 He never alludes to me or only with bitter sneers & coupled with Buffon, & the Vestiges.—19

Well it has been an amusement to me this first evening scribbling as egotistically as usual about myself & my doings; so you must forgive me, as I know well your kind heart will do.— I have managed to skim the news-paper, but had not heart to read all the bloody details. Good God what will the end be; perhaps we are too despondent here; but I must think you are too hopeful on your side of the water. I never believed the “canard” of the army of the Potomac having capitulated.20 My good dear wife & self are come to wish for Peace at any price.

Good Night my good friend. I will scribble no no more— C. D.

One more word. I shd like to hear what you think about what I say in last Ch. of Orchid Book on the meaning & cause of the endless diversity of means for same general purpose.— It bears on design—that endless question—21

Good Night Good Night.

P.S. Last night after writing the above, I read the great bundle of notes.22 Little did I think what I had to read. What admirable observations! You have distanced me on my own hobby-horse! I have not had for weeks such a glow of pleasure as your observations gave me.— Plat. hyperborea is indeed a most curious case & especially interesting to me. How like the Bee ophrys.23 Does it live in arctic regions where insects may be scarce? It would be very good to ascertain whether there actually is any occasional crossing, or removal of pollinia in this species.24 How curious about the nectary. See my note p. 324 about Aceras.25 Aceras, I now find, leads, also, most closely into the rare O. hircina.26 How organic beings are connected! How excellently you have worked Cyp. spectabilis. I daresay I may be altogether wrong, & fertilisation may always be by small insects bodily crawling in: I wish you could get some 2 youths to watch on warm day for 2 or 3 hours a fine plant of some Cypripedium.—27 What diversity in Platanthera— Your observations seem to me much too good to be sunk in any review of my Book; they won’t be noticed.—28 But I am so very sorry I did not return your M.S. earlier: I shall be so grieved if I thus cause you inconvenience; but in truth it was physically impossible for me before last night to read or attend to anything.

Farewell my good Friend | C. Darwin


The year is established by the reference to Leonard Darwin’s illness (see n. 3, below).
Gray had sent a ‘great bundle of notes’ with the letter from Asa Gray, 2–3 July 1862 (see n. 22, below); the envelope to that letter bears a London postmark: ‘JY 18 | 62’.
Leonard Darwin had been sent home from school on 12 June 1862 suffering from scarlet fever; his recovery was interrupted by a recurrence of symptoms in July (see Emma Darwin’s diary (DAR 242), and the letters to W. E. Darwin, 4 [July 1862], 9 July [1862], and [after 14 July 1862]).
Gray had sent a three-cent postage stamp in the letter from Asa Gray, 2–3 July 1862.
Since starting to read Orchids in May, Gray had sent CD a number of notes on American species of orchids (see letters from Asa Gray, 18 May 1862, [2 June 1862], [late June 1862], and 2–3 July 1862). CD had urged Gray to publish his observations, either in reviewing Orchids, or separately, and had offered to return the notes to Gray to enable him to do so (see letters to Asa Gray, 10–20 June [1862], 1 July [1862], and 14 July [1862]). In the letter from Asa Gray, 2–3 July 1862, Gray asked CD to indicate those observations that seemed to him ‘worth touching on’, and to send back the appropriate notes.
Gray had expressed a wish to examine most of the species of Cypripedium further before publishing on the subject (letter from Asa Gray, 2–3 July 1862). He incorporated an account of American species of Cypripedium and Platanthera in the follow-up article to his review of Orchids (A. Gray 1862b), stating in regard to Cypripedium that it was a subject on which he would ‘hazard a few remarks’ (p. 427).
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 the two small orifices close to either anther and the stigma. Gray detailed his observations in A. Gray 1862b, but did not provide any illustrations, concluding: ‘The beauty of these adaptations can be appreciated only by actual inspection of the parts or of a series of figures.’
On CD’s experiments, see, for instance, the letters to J. D. Hooker, 30 May [1862] and n. 7, and 23 June [1862] and n. 4, the letter to Alphonse de Candolle, 17 June [1862] and n. 2, and the letter to M. T. Masters, 8 July [1862] and n. 3.
Gray’s notes to CD on American species of orchids have not been found in the Darwin Archive–CUL, or in the Gray Herbarium Archives.
‘Rosmack’ is a misspelling; Joseph Trimble Rothrock was a student of Gray’s (see letter from Asa Gray, 2–3 July 1862). Gray forwarded Rothrock’s observations on Houstonia in the letter from Asa Gray, 4 August 1862.
The reference has not been traced.
Gray advised CD to use thinner writing paper, thereby reducing postage charges, in the letter from Asa Gray, 2–3 July 1862.
See letter from Asa Gray, 2–3 July 1862 and n. 16. The reference is to George Bentham’s presidential address to the anniversary meeting of the Linnean Society of London on 24 May 1862 (Bentham 1862).
CD probably refers to Richard Owen’s lectures at the Museum of Practical Geology on the ‘Characters, Organisation, Geographical Distribution, and Geological Relations of Birds’. The series of six lectures ran from 14 to 30 May 1862 (Athenæum, 10 May 1862, p. 613). Neither the printed accounts of these lectures, nor the manuscript text which survives for some of them, report the details cited by CD (see letter to Armand de Quatrefages, 11 July [1862], n. 7). However, CD apparently learned of the content of the lectures from one of his acquaintances (see letter to Charles Lyell, 22 August [1862] and n. 7).
CD refers to the evolutionary views of George Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (see letter from Armand de Quatrefages, [after 11 July 1862], n. 5) and to the anonymous evolutionary work, Vestiges of the natural history of creation ([Chambers] 1844). Owen discussed CD’s theory in common with the views of Buffon and Robert Chambers in R. Owen 1861a, pp. 442–3. See also R. Owen 1862a. In his fifth lecture, on the geographical distribution of birds (Natural History Museum, London, OC38.3/318; see also Medical Times and Gazette (1862), pt 1: 617), Owen stated: we must remember that by the word ‘creation’ we mean “a process we know not what.” We have not yet ascertained the secondary causes which operated when “the earth brought forth grass & herb yielding seed after its kind” and when “the waters brought forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life.” And if the ‘spontaneous generation’ of a fruit-bearing tree, or of a fish, were conceivable, & the whole process demonstrable, we should still retain as strongly the idea which is the chief of the ‘mode’ or group of ideas called ‘creation’; viz., that the process was ordained by and had originated from an … all-wise First Cause of all things. On Owen’s views concerning evolution, see Rupke 1994, pp. 220–58.
The reference is to the failed attempt made by the Union army of the Potomac in June 1862 to seize the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. Between 25 June and 1 July 1862 the Confederates drove the Union forces away from Richmond; the ensuing battles, resulting in 30,000 casualties, were the bloodiest yet seen in the conflict (McPherson 1988, pp. 461–71).
In chapter 7 of Orchids, pp. 348–9, CD stated: In my examination of Orchids, hardly any fact has so much struck me as the endless diversity of structure,—the prodigality of resources,—for gaining the very same end, namely, the fertilisation of one flower by the pollen of another. The fact to a certain extent is intelligible on the principle of natural selection. Gray and CD had corresponded at length on the question of design in nature (see Correspondence vols. 8 and 9). For Gray’s response to CD’s question, see the letter from Asa Gray, 22 September 1862 and n. 11.
CD refers to the notes on orchids sent with the letter from Asa Gray, 2–3 July 1862 (see n. 2, above, and the letter from Asa Gray, 15 July [1862] and n. 6); the notes have not been found.
Gray’s notes on this subject have not been found; however, in the portion of A. Gray 1862c that was published in the September number of the American Journal of Science and Arts, Gray disputed Joseph Dalton Hooker’s claim that Platanthera hyperborea and P. dilatata constituted a single species, reporting that he had recently observed that ‘while P. dilatata … can rarely if ever self-fertilise, P. hyperborea readily does so, much in the manner of Ophrys apifera as recently illustrated by Darwin’ (p. 259). (Gray gave further details of pollination in P. hyperborea in the follow-up article to his review of Orchids (A. Gray 1862b, p. 426).) In Orchids, pp. 72–3, CD similarly distinguished Ophrys arachnites (a synonym of Ophrys fuciflora, the late spider-orchid) as a species separate from O. apifera (the bee ophrys) on the basis that the former was adapted for cross-fertilisation, while the latter was adapted for self-fertilisation. One of CD’s objectives in Orchids was to demonstrate that cross-fertilisation was the ‘main object’ of the contrivances by which orchids were pollinated (p. 1), and in the conclusion, he noted that the bee ophrys was anomalous in being adapted for self-fertilisation (p. 359). He had subsequently been speculating about possible explanations for this apparent anomaly (see letters from G. C. Oxenden, [before 30 May 1862], 21 June 1862, and 8 July 1862, and letter to A. G. More, 7 June [1862]).
In A. Gray 1862b, p. 426, Gray described how it would be possible for an insect to cross-pollinate P. hyperborea, continuing: If the rule holds here as elsewhere, that a stigma is more sensitive to the pollen of another flower than to that of its own, there will be no lack of sufficient crossing in this species, wherever proper insects abound; where they do not, it will be prolific without them.
Gray did not mention the nectary of P. hyperborea in either of his published accounts (A. Gray 1862b and 1862c). CD’s account of the monstrous flowers of Aceras in Orchids, p. 324 n., referred to the pollinia not having viscid discs, and to the two anther cells being widely separated; this resembles Gray’s statement that P. hyperborea had smaller viscid discs than P. dilatata, with the anther-cells more divergent, and the stalks of the pollinia being ‘very attenuated and weak’ (A. Gray 1862c, p. 260).
CD had recently received specimens of Orchis hircina (a synonym of Himantoglossum hircinum, the lizard orchid) from George Chichester Oxenden (see letter from G. C. Oxenden, 4 June [1862] and n. 2). See also Orchids 2d ed., pp. 25–6.
See n. 8, above. In his account of insect pollination in Cypripedium (A. Gray 1862b, p. 428), Gray stated that CD’s theory might account for fertilisation in the genus, ‘but hardly in C. spectabile’. He went on to note that the ‘rigid, sharp-pointed papillæ, all directed forwards’, that were particularly striking on the stigma of C. spectabile, offered ‘no slight confirmation’ of his own hypothesis, since they would act like a ‘wool-card’ in removing pollen from any insect ‘working its way upwards to the base of the labellum’. However, Gray noted with respect to his hypothesis that he had ‘not been able to detect insects actually at work’.
Gray’s observations on American species of Platanthera and Cypripedium were incorporated into the follow-up article to his review of Orchids (A. Gray 1862b).


[Chambers, Robert.] 1844. Vestiges of the natural history of creation. London: John Churchill.

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.]

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

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.

Rupke, Nicolaas A. 1994. Richard Owen, Victorian naturalist. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press.


AG’s orchid observations are admirable.

Owen has lectured on birds’ descending from one form.

French criticism of CD’s Primula paper.

Only AG has seen that Orchids was "a ""flank movement"" on the enemy".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (76)
Physical description
ALS 5pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3662,” accessed on 19 June 2024,

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