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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. D. Hooker   [12 October 1862]1



Dr. Darwin

There is an article in Bull. Bot. Soc. France VIII. 519 by A. de Lassus on irritability of leaves of Aldrovanda a kinsman of Drosera.2

Thanks for your long letter on Linum &c &c.3 I sent you last Thursday a box with two good species of Impatiens flowers, & can send a third if you care for it. I shall be most curious to know what you make of the Floral whorls & their vasc. bundles4

Cassia is another genus that has different anthers in same flower. I have also thought of some Comelyneæ but am not sure.5 Oliver6 has brought in a Tray of Drosera rotundifolia, but I doubt either of us having time to look at it.

My wife went to Cambridge & enjoyed it— I stayed at home! (& enjoyed it) working away at Welwitschia every day & almost every night—7 I entirely agree with you by the way, that after long working at a subject, & after making something out of it, one invariably finds that it all seems dull flat stale and unprofitable—8 this feeling however you will observe only comes (most mercifully) after you really have made out something worth knowing— I feel as if every body must know more of Welwitchia than I do, & yet I cannot but believe I have (ill or well) expounded & faithfully recorded a heap of the most curious facts regarding a simple plant that have been brought to light for many years.

The whole thing is however a dry record of singular structures, & sinks down to the level of the dullest descriptive account of dead matter, beside your jolly dancing facts anent orchid life & bee-life. I have looked at an Orchid or two since reading the Orchid book & feel that I never should have made out one of your points, even had I limitless leisure zeal & material— I am a dull dog, a very dull dog.— I may content myself with the per contra reflection that you could not (be dull enough to) write a “Genera plantarum”, which is just about what I am best fitted for.—9 I feel I have a call that way, & you the other.

The dismal fact you quote of hybrid transitions between Verb. Thapsus & nigra (or whichever two it was) & its bearing on my practice of lumping species through intermediate specimens, is a very horrible one; & would open my eyes to my own blindness if nothing else could.10 I have long been prepared for such a case, though I once wrote much against its probability—11 I feel tolerably sure I must have encountered many such, but have not the tact to discern them, when under my nose: & I hence feel as if all my vast experience in the field has been thrown away. Your Orchid book has pretty well convinced me that such cases must be abundant,12 & they only tend further to disturb our ideas of physiological versus structural species.13 Perhaps my intermediates between Habenaria chlorantha & bifolia (of which I retain a lively recollection) were of this hybrid nature.14 Certain it is that I had only to look for Hybrid orchids at the in Switzerland to find two different sorts. & numerous specimens of one of them.15

Huxley seems to have made short work of Owen at Cambridge.16 the latter H. says “trailed his coat”—!17 Otherwise the meeting seems to me to have been dull enough, but cheery & friendly as far as sociability goes

Ever Yours affec | J D Hooker

I don’t think it can be worth while returning the Melastomas but will enquire.18


The date is established by the relationship to the letter to J. D. Hooker, 6 October [1862], and by reference to a note in DAR 205.8: 4, dated 14 October 1862, which records some of the observations made in this letter (see n. 5, below); the intervening Sunday fell on 12 October.
Augé de Lassus 1861. In his letter of 26 September [1862], CD had asked Hooker for his opinion concerning irritability in the insectivorous plant Drosera.
In his letter to Hooker of [18 September 1862], CD asked Hooker to send him ‘2 or 3 single Balsams’, so that he could trace the vascular bundles as part of his study of the homologies of floral parts; ‘balsam’ is a common name for plants of the genus Impatiens.
In his letter to Hooker of 22 [August 1862], CD requested information about species in which there were differently coloured sets of anthers or pollen. Hooker apparently refers to the Commelinaceae. There is a note in DAR 205.8: 4, dated 14 October 1862, which records Hooker’s identification of two sets of stamens in Cassia.
Daniel Oliver was librarian and assistant in the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Hooker was preparing a monograph on the Angolan plant Welwitschia mirabilis (J. D. Hooker 1863a). In his letter of 16 September 1862, Hooker informed CD that he intended to display the plant at the 1862 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Cambridge from 1 to 8 October, and that his wife, Frances Harriet Hooker, planned to accompany him.
See letter to J. D. Hooker, 6 October [1862]. Hooker alludes to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 1.2.133–4: ‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world!’
For CD’s concern at the amount of time Hooker spent in preparing Genera plantarum (Bentham and Hooker 1862–83), see the letter to J. D. Hooker, 9 February [1862], and the letter to Asa Gray, 21 April [1862].
See letter to J. D. Hooker, 6 October [1862]. In a section of J. D. Hooker 1853, which is headed ‘Species vary in a state of nature more than is usually supposed’ (pp. xii–xvii), Hooker stated: The result of my observations is, that differences of habit, colour, hairiness, and outline of leaves, and minute characters drawn from other organs than those of reproduction, are generally fallacious as specific marks, as being attributable to external causes, and easily obliterated under cultivation. It has hence been my plan to group the individuals of a genus which I assume after careful examination to contain many species whose limits I cannot define, that the species shall have the same relative value as those have of allied genera whose specific characters are evident … with all, the tendency would be to regard dubious species as varieties, to take enlarged views of the range and variation of species, and to weigh characters not only per se, but with reference to those which prevail in the Order to which the species under consideration belong. Hooker employed this principle in his systematic work, and was inclined to combine in one species individuals previously considered to represent distinct species (see, for example, Correspondence vol. 5, letter from Asa Gray, 22 May 1855 and n.6).
In Hooker 1853, p. xv, Hooker stated: Hybridization has been supposed by many to be an important element in confusing and masking species. Nature, however, seems effectually to have guarded against its extensive operation and its effects in a natural state, and as a general rule the genera most easily hybridized in gardens, are not those in which the species present the greatest difficulties. With regard to the facility with which hybrids are produced, the prevalent ideas on the subject are extremely erroneous.
See, for example, Orchids, pp. 72 and 88–9, where CD questioned the classification by some botanical authorities of Ophrys apifera and O. arachnites, and of Habenaria bifolia and H. chlorantha, as two varieties of one species, rather than as separate species. Habenaria bifolia is a synonym of Platanthera bifolia, the lessser butterfly orchid; Habenaria chlorantha is a synonym of Platanthera chlorantha, the greater butterfly orchid. Ophrys apifera is the bee orchid; O. arachnites is a synonym of Ophrys fuciflora, the late spider-orchid.
In his review of Origin, Thomas Henry Huxley distinguished between what he termed ‘morphological’ species, ‘distinctly definable from all others, by certain constant … morphological peculiarities’, and ‘physiological’ species ([T. H. Huxley] 1860, p. 543). He stated that the best way to distinguish between two true physiological species and two varieties was to attempt hybridisation: true species would either be infertile inter se or would produce infertile offspring, whereas two varieties would give rise to fertile progeny ([T. H. Huxley] 1860, pp. 552–3). However, CD had come to the conclusion, in view of the hybridisation experiments carried out on Verbascum by Karl Friedrich von Gärtner, and of his own crossing experiments with Primula sinensis, that ‘the lessened fertility of the first union of the offspring of two forms is no sure criterion of specific distinctness’ (‘Illegitimate offspring of dimorphic and trimorphic plants’, p. 436). See also Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix VI, letter to T. H. Huxley, 14 [January 1862], and letter to Asa Gray, 9 August [1862] and n. 13.
See n. 12, above. See also letter to J. D. Hooker, 19 [July 1860] and n. 4 (Correspondence vol. 8).
Hooker refers to Thomas Henry Huxley and Richard Owen, who had engaged in intense debate concerning the differences in brain anatomy between humans and anthropoid apes, at the 1862 meeting of the British Association, held in Cambridge from 1 to 8 October. For Huxley’s account of the exchanges, see his letter to CD of 9 October 1862.
The phrase is used to describe one who seeks an argument (OED).


Augé de Lassus, M. 1861. Analyse du mémoire de Gaetan monti sur l’Aldrovandia, suivie de quelques observations sur l’irritabilité des follicules de cette plante. Bulletin de la Société Botanique de France 8: 519–23.

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

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1853. Introductory essay to the flora of New Zealand. London: Lovell Reeve.

[Huxley, Thomas Henry.] 1860a. Darwin on the origin of species. Westminster Review n.s. 17: 541–70.

‘Illegitimate offspring of dimorphic and trimorphic plants’: On the character and hybrid-like nature of the offspring from the illegitimate unions of dimorphic and trimorphic plants. By Charles Darwin. [Read 20 February 1868.] Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Botany) 10 (1869): 393–437.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.

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.


Has sent two Impatiens flowers; curious to know what CD makes of the floral whorls and their vascular bundles.

Cassia is another genus that has different [coloured] anthers in same flower.

Continues to work on Welwitschia.

Feels as CD does about his work, which after a time seems flat and stale. He could never have done what CD did in his Orchids.

CD’s facts about Verbascum have horrible bearing on JDH’s practice of lumping species together.

Letter details

Letter no.
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 101: 59–60, 86
Physical description
ALS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3757,” accessed on 4 June 2023,

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