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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Roland Trimen   16 February [1863]1

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

Feb. 16th

Dear Sir

I have thought you would like to see copy enclosed of letter by Prof. Harvey giving names of your two orchids Pl. V. & VI, which were unnamed.—2 Now that I hear that in Satyrium the nectaries belong to the true Labellum; the relation of the parts is to me very puzzling: discs, pollen-masses & stigmatic surface seem all on the wrong side.—3 If you pursue the subject, I hope you will observe whether there is any relation (as in English Orchids) between the rapidity of the setting of the viscid matter & nectar being stored ready for suction or confined in cellular tissue.—4

I was at Kew 2 or 3 days ago & was telling Dr. Hooker & Mr H. Gower of your work;5 they expressed a strong wish to try whether they could not cultivate some of your wonderful forms; & tempted me by saying that if they could flower them, I shd have plants to examine.— I said I would mention the subject to you; but that of course I doubted whether you had time & inclination to get them dug up.— They said the roots might be packed in almost dry peaty soil or charcoal in mass, & sent to “Royal Gardens Kew, London”, marking what they were, i.e. terrestrial orchids from the Cape.— They ought to be dug up, when completely dormant after seeding over.— It certainly would be a treat to see a blooming Satyrium, or Disperis & that odd unnamed form!6 They said the safest way of all, but more troublesome, to send them, would be to plant them in pots in a box, with a little glazed windows on two sides under charge of some passenger. The heat starting them would be the great risk. But it is not at all likely you could spare time from your own pursuits.7

Pray believe me, my dear Sir | Yours sincerely & obliged | Ch. Darwin

If you come across Bonatea pray study it—it seems most extraordinary in description.—8


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from W. H. Harvey, 3 February 1863.
CD refers to the letter from W. H. Harvey, 3 February 1863. William Henry Harvey was a specialist in the taxonomy of South African plants. See letter from W. H. Harvey, 3 February 1863, n. 1, and letters to Roland Trimen, 31 January [1863] and 23 May [1863].
Trimen added a marginal annotation to CD’s letter concerning this point: ‘These remarks are very much to the point. It always seemed to me that what is termed the labellum in Satyrium was much more like an upper sepal.’ In his letter of 3 February 1863 (see n. 2, above), Harvey stated: ‘In Satyrium the two spurres affair is a true labellum—the sepals & petals small & crowded together at the front of flower—the opposite to Disa.’
CD’s ‘bold hypothesis’ (Orchids p. 50) was that in species in which it took a long time for the viscid matter on pollinia to set, the nectar was more likely to be stored in cellular tissue, relatively inaccessible to insects, to allow time for the pollinia to attach firmly. Conversely, in species where the viscid matter set quickly, the nectar would be stored ready for suction. CD commented that, if true, this was ‘a singular case of adaptation’ (Orchids p. 53). See Orchids, pp. 50–3, 281–2.
According to Emma Darwin’s diary (DAR 242), CD visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on 11 February 1863. Joseph Dalton Hooker was assistant director of the gardens, and William Hugh Gower was a gardener with specialist knowledge of orchids (R. Desmond 1994).
In his letter of 16 March 1863, Trimen promised to send CD specimens of Cape orchids the following spring.
Trimen worked as a civil servant in Cape Town, South Africa (DNB). See also letter from Roland Trimen, 16 March 1863.
Trimen published his observations on Bonatea in Trimen 1864.


Desmond, Ray. 1994. Dictionary of British and Irish botanists and horticulturists including plant collectors, flower painters and garden designers. New edition, revised with the assistance of Christine Ellwood. London: Taylor & Francis and the Natural History Museum. Bristol, Pa.: Taylor & Francis.

DNB: Dictionary of national biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. 63 vols. and 2 supplements (6 vols.). London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1912. Dictionary of national biography 1912–90. Edited by H. W. C. Davis et al. 9 vols. London: Oxford University Press. 1927–96.

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.

Trimen, Roland. 1864. On the structure of Bonatea speciosa, Linn. sp., with reference to its fertilisation. [Read 1 December 1864.] Journal of the Linnean Society (Botany) 9 (1867): 156–60.


Further discusses RT’s observations on Cape [of Good Hope] orchids and asks whether it would be possible for him to send some specimens to Kew.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Roland Trimen
Sent from
Source of text
Royal Entomological Society (Trimen papers, box 21: 55)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3988,” accessed on 10 June 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 11