skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Max Ernst Wichura   3 February [1865]1

Down, Bromley, Kent

Dear & Respected Sir

From continued ill-health & other reasons I have only recently finished reading your work on Hybrid Willows, & I did not wish to thank you for your very kind present until I had read it.2 Your work has greatly interested me in many ways. The extreme frequency of Hybrid Willows is quite a new fact to me & your explanation of their numbers on certain spots is remarkably ingenious.3 I was also very glad to read your account of the development of pollen-grains in hybrids.4 I see you doubt Gärtner’s statements about reversion or Rückschäge;5 on the other hand I observe that Naudin wishes to make it a general law that all Hybrids quickly revert to either parent form;6 I suspect this great difference in your & Naudin’s conclusions is that he has worked on cultivated varieties & you on wild forms.7 You will find in the Chapter on Hybridism in the “Origin of Species,” the view that Hybrids are sterile from not being perfectly accommodated to their conditions of life, briefly given;8 but I have lately made observations which cause me to doubt in some degree the truth of this view.9 I have been much interested & gratified by the remarks which you make towards the close of your volume on my views with respect to Species.10

With sincere respect I beg leave to remain, Dear Sir, Yours faithfully & obliged | Charles Darwin


The date 3 February is given in the sale catalogue. The year is established by the reference to Wichura 1865 (see n. 2, below), and by CD’s 1865 discussions of Wichura 1865 with other correspondents (see, for example, letter to B. D. Walsh, 27 March [1865]).
Wichura 1865. There is a heavily annotated presentation copy of Wichura’s Die Bastardbefruchtung im Pflanzenreich erläutert an den Bastarden der Weiden in the Darwin Library–CUL; it includes an abstract made by CD (see Marginalia 1: 871–3). See also letter to B. D. Walsh, 27 March [1865].
Though Wichura concluded that hybrid willows were generally rare in nature, he found instances where they outnumbered their parent species (Wichura 1865, pp. 64–5). CD wrote in the margin of this discussion: ‘more Hybrids than pure parents!!’ (see Marginalia 1: 873). Wichura also noted the rapid germination of hybrid seeds in bare spots (Wichura 1865, p. 65); CD wrote by this passage, ‘Explains how these numbers come from Willows vegetating only in bare places’. See also CD’s inserted abstract of the book; most of the abstract was written by Emma Darwin (Marginalia 1: 871).
For Wichura’s description of the imperfections and irregularities in the development of hybrid pollen-grains, see Wichura 1865, pp. 32–40, 79–80, 89. In CD’s abstract (see n. 3, above), Emma wrote for pages 38 and 39, ‘pollen gets worse & worse in offspring of Hybrids inter se & in … the more complex hybrid’; CD made a similar annotation in Wichura 1865, p. 38 (see Marginalia 1: 871–3). Wichura’s discussion of irregular pollen-grains included those in plants that were highly variable but not hybridised; see Wichura 1865, p. 89, where CD wrote in the margin: ‘Plants which vary have often irregular pollen— I think some connexion between sterility & variability’ (see also CD’s abstract, and Marginalia 1: 872–3). In CD’s discussion of the causes of variability in Variation 2: 268, he referred to Wichura’s observations of irregular pollen-grains.
Wichura suggested that the reversions Karl Friedrich von Gärtner observed in his crossing experiments were due to his not taking enough care to prevent pollination of a hybrid offspring by a parent plant (see Gärtner 1849, pp. 437–41, Wichura 1865, pp. 27–8, and Marginalia 1: 871–3). There are heavily annotated copies of Gärtner 1844 and 1849 in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 248–98).
CD probably refers to Charles Victor Naudin’s most recent conclusions about reversions published in Naudin 1863; however, he had also read much of Naudin’s relevant earlier work. See Correspondence vol. 12, letters to J. D. Hooker, 22 [May 1864] and n. 6, and 13 September [1864], and letter from C. V. Naudin, 6 December 1864 and n. 5. CD also cut out and annotated a note written by Asa Gray in the American Journal of Science and Arts (vol. 39, January 1865, pp. 107–8) about Naudin’s recent observations of Datura hybrids returning to their parent forms (see DAR 205.7: 5). For discussions of Naudin’s work and CD’s assessment of it, see Geison 1969, pp. 404–1, Rheinberger 1983, Olby 1985, pp. 47–53, and J. Harvey 1997. There is an annotated copy of Naudin 1863 in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
See Wichura 1865, p. 28, and Marginalia 1: 872. The abstract CD inserted in Wichura 1865 indicates that he remembered Gärtner’s stating that reversions occurred primarily in cultivated plants (see Marginalia 1: 871–2; see also Origin, p. 269). CD discussed this conclusion of Gärtner’s, and the light it threw on the difference between Naudin’s and Wichura’s results, in his chapter on hybridism in Origin 4th ed., pp. 332–3, and in Variation 2: 49–50.
CD refers to chapter 8 of Origin, ‘Hybridism’ (pp. 245–78); for his conclusions about hybrid sterility, see pp. 254–67. Regarding the sterility of hybrids, CD wrote: ‘it is scarcely possible that two organisations should be compounded into one, without some disturbance occurring in the development, or periodical action, or mutual relation of the different parts and organs one to another, or to the conditions of life’ (Origin, p. 266).
CD refers to his experimental work on the dimorphic Primula and Linum, and the trimorphic Lythrum; he started this work in 1861, and was continuing to make crosses with dimorphic forms (see Correspondence vols. 9–12 and this volume). His results had led him to consider whether sterility might have been selectively acquired; when discussing his crosses of Lythrum, he wrote: ‘I am now strongly inclined to believe that sterility is at first a selected quality to keep incipient species distinct’ (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to J. D. Hooker, 12 [December 1862]). CD’s notes on hybridism in DAR 205.7: 155–65 state that he had nonetheless rejected natural selection as a cause of sterility by 1863 (see Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix VI). However, CD’s comment to Wichura, and additions made to Origin 4th ed., pp. 310–26, 336–8, and Variation 2: 185–9, indicate that he was still deliberating about the causes of hybrid sterility, particularly in plants. Regarding Wichura’s discussion of hybrid sterility, CD wrote in Origin 4th ed., p. 318: The above view of the sterility of hybrids being caused by two different constitutions having been confounded into one has lately been strongly maintained by Max Wichura; but it must be owned that the sterility, so like in every respect to that of hybrids, which affects the illegitimate offspring of dimorphic and trimorphic plants of the same species … makes this view rather doubtful. CD was comparing the sterility of hybrids, or the offspring of hybrids, with the sterility of same-form unions among dimorphic and trimorphic plants; he evidently still thought the latter might be caused by natural selection (see Origin 4th ed., pp. 323–6). See also CD’s annotations to Wichura 1865, p. 83, and CD’s inserted abstract (see Marginalia 1: 871–2).
In the concluding chapter of his book Wichura briefly mentions CD’s ‘scharfsinnig’ (sagacious) theory of natural selection (Wichura 1865, p. 82).


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

Gärtner, Karl Friedrich von. 1844. Versuche und Beobachtungen über die Befruchtungsorgane der vollkommeneren Gewächse und über die natürliche und künstliche Befruchtung durch den eigenen Pollen. Pt 1 of Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Befruchtung der vollkommeneren Gewächse. Stuttgart: E. Schweizerbart.

Gärtner, Karl Friedrich von. 1849. Versuche und Beobachtungen über die Bastarderzeugung im Pflanzenreich. Mit Hinweisung auf die ähnlichen Erscheinungen im Thierreiche, ganz umgearbeitete und sehr vermehrte Ausgabe der von der Königlich holländischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Stuttgart: E. Schweizerbart.

Geison, Gerald L. 1969. Darwin and heredity: the evolution of his hypothesis of pangenesis. Journal of the History of Medicine 24: 375–411.

Marginalia: Charles Darwin’s marginalia. Edited by Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of Nicholas W. Gill. Vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishing. 1990.

Naudin, Charles Victor. 1863. Nouvelles recherches sur l’hybridité dans les végétaux. Annales des Sciences Naturelles (Botanique) 4th ser. 19: 180–203.

Olby, Robert. 1985. Origins of Mendelism. 2d edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Origin 4th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 4th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1866.

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.

Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. 1983. Naudin, Darwin, Nägeli: Bemerkungen zu den Vererbungsvorstellungen des 19. Jahrhunderts. Medizinhistorisches Journal 18: 198–212.

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

Wichura, Max Ernst. 1865. Die Bastardbefruchtung im Pflanzenreich erläutert an den Bastarden der Weiden. Breslau: E. Morgenstern.


He has finished MEW’s work on hybrid willows [Die Bastardbefruchtung im Planzenreich (1865)] and sends his thanks. The extreme frequency of hybrid willows is new to CD, and he finds the explanation of their numbers in certain locations ingenious.

Comments on the criticism of Gärtner’s view of reversion

and the differences between MEW and Naudin.

CD now has doubts regarding his own view that hybrids are sterile from not being perfectly accommodated to their conditions of life.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Max Ernst Wichura
Sent from
Source of text
Autographia (dealers) (1986)
Physical description
LS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4765A,” accessed on 28 March 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 13