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Darwin Correspondence Project

From William Henry Harvey   19 May 1864

Trin. Coll | Dublin

19 May 1864

Dear Darwin

When I was out with my class1, on Saturday last, I noticed, on sandy, dry ground near the sea, a space covered by many dwarfed plants of the common Dandelion—& among them one plant to which I was attracted by the colour of its flowers. The ligules, instead of being of the common yellow, were of a deep fulvous or brownish-orange. On examining it closer I found that the achenes, in all the many flower heads which the plant bore, had changed their form “generically”—as it would be considered by any dealer in Compositæ. I send you some heads2, where you will find

diagram for diagram !!—

Now what is this?— Is this solitary plant the sole survivor, as it ought to be by theory, of an innumerable number of infinitessimal alterations for the better, in the Achene—: or is it a sudden jump—from one sort of achene to another?

I vote for the latter opinion—seeing it is a single individual, out of hundreds observed—(we did not find another like it, though we looked all about)

But what then?— Of course, being in Ireland, it can only be a sport of a Dandelion—but if it came from S. Africa, it would be a genus.— I know several Cape Composites which can only be distinguished even specifically, by their achenes—yet these are so different, that they are placed in different genera.3

Do these generic differences occur by sudden jumps; and specific by gradual fluxions; or what?— I have always been against tying Nature down to any one mode of producing changes.4

I shall be glad to hear what you think5—& I do most sincerely hope that your health has improved

Yours very truly | W. H. Harvey

I have transferred the root, for culture, to our Botanic Garden.6 W H H

CD annotations

Cover: ‘Curious Dandelion | Prof. Harvey | Remarkable Variation | Analogous Variation’ ink


Harvey was professor of botany at Trinity College, Dublin (DNB). For a discussion of Harvey’s appointment and teaching responsibilities, see Praeger 1913, pp. 210–11 and 218–19.
The specimens are preserved in the envelope to this letter.
Harvey had studied South African plants during his employment as colonial treasurer in Cape Town from 1836 to 1842; he published a number of works describing South African species, including Thesaurus Capensis (W. H. Harvey 1859–63) and Flora Capensis (W. H. Harvey and Sonder 1859–65).
Harvey had sent CD a long letter explaining his views after reading Origin, including his views on saltation; CD replied that he had no objection to sudden jumps but that he had not found sufficient evidence for them (see Correspondence vol. 8, letter from W. H. Harvey, 24 August 1860 and n. 14, and letter to W. H. Harvey, [20–4 September 1860]). Harvey was an advocate of transmutation through the abnormal development of the existing form, and therefore took a great interest in great or sudden variations in plants. In 1860 he opened a debate on an abnormal form of Begonia frigida, which he argued was a counter-example to the theory of gradual change through natural selection (see Correspondence vol. 8, LL 2: 274–6, and L. Huxley ed. 1918, 1: 515–20). CD discussed B. frigida in Variation 1: 365–6 and 2: 166, but did not refer to Harvey’s dandelion. For recent statements of CD’s views on the idea of species arising suddenly from monstrosities, see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to J. D. Hooker, 18 March [1862], and Correspondence vol. 11, letter to Asa Gray, 31 May [1863].
No answering letter from CD has been found; however, for an indication of his interest in the dandelion, see letter to J. D. Hooker, 13 June [1864].
Harvey refers to the Trinity College Botanic Gardens, Dublin.


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

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.

Flora Capensis: Flora Capensis: being a systematic description of the plants of the Cape Colony, Caffraria & Port Natal, and neighbouring territories. Vols. 1–3 by William Henry Harvey and Otto Wilhelm Sonder; vols. 4–7 edited by William Turner Thiselton-Dyer; vol. 5 sect. II and supplement edited by Arthur William Hill. 7 vols. and supplement. London: L. Reeve and Co. 1860–1933.

Harvey, William Henry. 1859–63. Thesaurus Capensis: or, illustrations of the South African flora, being figures and brief descriptions of South African plants selected from the Dublin University Herbarium. 2 vols. in 1. Dublin: Hodges, Smith & Co. London: John van Voorst.

LL: The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. Edited by Francis Darwin. 3 vols. London: John Murray. 1887–8.

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.

Praeger, Robert Lloyd. 1913. William Henry Harvey 1811–1866. In Makers of British botany. A collection of biographies by living botanists, edited by Francis Wall Oliver. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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


Sends dandelion [enclosed] with peculiar form of achene; suggests this solitary "sport" must have arisen by sudden jump from normal type.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Henry Harvey
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Trinity College, Dublin
Source of text
DAR 166: 116
Physical description
ALS 4pp, encl †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4503,” accessed on 13 September 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 12