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Darwin Correspondence Project

From C. J. F. Bunbury to Charles Lyell   20 February 1866


February 20th, 1866.

My Dear Lyell,

Very many thanks for sending me Hooker’s and Darwin’s letters, which I have read with great interest.1 I agree in almost everything that Hooker says, as far as I can make him out, but his letter is very hard to read. I differ from Darwin as to the plants which he quotes, as instances of the occurrence of temperate forms on the Organ mountains; he seems to consider as a “temperate” genus every genus which is found at all in temperate climates, and here I think him mistaken.2 I think I mentioned in my former letter, that, besides the strictly tropical forms on those peaks, there are species of genera which are very widely spread, and not specially either tropical or the reverse.3 Such a genus is Hypericum, one of those which Darwin enumerates; it is found in almost all parts of the world, except very cold countries. Clematis (which he does not mention) is another instance of the same kind. Drosera and Habernaria (as Hooker points out) have certainly their maximum within the tropics.4 If there are Vacciniums on the Organ mountains, they are of the sub-genus (Gaylussacia of Humboldt), which belongs specially to South America, and of which there is a species even on the coast of Brazil, in the island of St. Catherine.5

If the Brazilian mountains were once a branch of the Andes (which I infer is Darwin’s notion) I should have expected a greater number of the peculiar characteristic forms of the Upper Andes to be found on the mountains of Minus, &c., such as those “Rhododendrons of the Andes” (Befarius), of which Humboldt talks so much.6 There are some such: Gaultherias, Gaylussacias, Escallonias, &c., but not so many as one would expect. The strongest case, perhaps, in favour of Darwin’s view and against mine, is the genus Drimys (the Winter Bark). Whether the American forms of Drimys be all varieties of one species, or a group of closely allied species, they certainly afford a most striking instance of a group of very near relations ranging along the Andes, from Cape Horn all through South America into Mexico, and re-appearing conspicuously on the table land of Brazil.7 I do not know whether they are found anywhere between Minas and the Andes. It is certainly quite allowable for Darwin to say, that they must have migrated to the Brazilian uplands when these were more closely connected with the Andes than they now are. Fuchsia comes nearly into the same category with Drimys, except that there is a greater variety of forms, and some of them more decidedly distinct. I doubt whether either Fuchsia or Drimys is found very high up on the Andes.8

I acknowledge that, in my former letter, I did not sufficiently consider the possibility of the Organ mountains and those of Minas having been formerly much higher than now, and of their upper regions having been “glaciated” while in that position. But after all, as Hooker says, the information in Madame Agassiz’s letter is almost too vague to afford any safe ground for fighting upon. I think the meaning must be, that the “glacial” marks were observed down to (not up to) 3000 feet. This is a most material point.9

I do not agree with Darwin, that the nature of the vegetation of New Zealand, gives us reason to believe that tropical families of plants could bear a cold climate. However luxuriant the vegetation of New Zealand, it does not, I think, include any really tropical types.10 I am not sure, however, about Chiloe and Valdivia.11

I am very glad to hear that Darwin’s health is better.12

Believe me ever your very affectionate Friend | Charles J. F. Bunbury

You may perhaps perceive that a certain degree of change has come over me while I have been writing this letter. I feel that I was perhaps too absolute in my first incredulity as to the possibility of glaciers on the Brazilian mountains: though I still think it quite incredible if they had only their present elevation; and I have recollected (as I noticed above) some instances of Brazilian plants which might with some plausibility be supposed to have migrated from the Andes.13


The reference is to the letter from CD to Charles Lyell, 7 February [1866], possibly also to the letter to Charles Lyell, 15 February [1866] and, probably, to the letter from Joseph Dalton Hooker to Lyell that was mentioned in CD’s letter to Charles Lyell, 15 February [1866]. The letter from Hooker has not been found.
For the ‘temperate’ genera mentioned by CD as occurring on the Serra dos Orgãos, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, see the letter to Charles Lyell, 7 February [1866] and nn. 7 and 8. See also letter to Charles Lyell, 15 February [1866] and n. 5.
For Bunbury’s earlier remarks on the plant species of the Serra dos Orgãos occurring elsewhere in Brazil, see the letter from C. J. F. Bunbury to Charles Lyell, 3 February 1866.
CD had described Hypericum, Drosera, and Habenaria as ‘temperate’ genera (see letter to Charles Lyell, 7 February [1866] and n. 8).
See letter to Charles Lyell, 7 February [1866] and n. 8. Gaylussacia is closely allied to Vaccinium (Lindley 1853, pp. 757–8). A single species was described in Humboldt et al. 1815–25, 3: 215–6. CD made a note of Bunbury’s objection that Vaccinium plants on the Organ mountains in Brazil were not temperate species, but members of the tropical subgenus Gaylussacia (DAR 50: E47). See also letter to Charles Lyell, 22 February [1866], n. 2.
The reference is apparently to the mountains of Minas Gerais, a state in eastern Brazil, to the north of Rio de Janeiro and to the east of the Andes (Columbia gazetteer of the world). Five species of Befaria from the Andes are described with additional observations in Humboldt and Bonpland 1808–13, 2: 118–26. The genus is now named Bejaria (Luteyn 2002, p. 18).
Detailed information on the wide distribution, through South America and Mexico, of Drimys winteri, Winter’s bark, had earlier been communicated to CD (see Correspondence vol. 2, letter from J. D. Hooker, [12 December 1843 – 11 January 1844]). CD had observed D. winteri growing south of latitude 55o, that is, south of the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego (Journal of researches, p. 272).
Descriptions of Andean and other South American species of Fuchsia, with information on their distribution and subspecific variation, are given in Munz 1943. CD included a report of Fuchsia thriving near the snowline in Tierra del Fuego in his Journal of researches, pp. 271–2.
CD had questioned the same passage in the letter from Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, and recognised its bearing on the evidence for the former elevation or subsidence of the Amazon basin (see letter to Charles Lyell, 7 February [1866] and n. 5).
CD had argued that types of vegetation observed close to glaciers near the New Zealand coast suggested that, under similar conditions, tropical plants could have survived a former period of global cooling (see the letter to Charles Lyell, 7 February [1866] and n. 25).
Chiloé and Valdivia are on the coast of southern Chile at latitude 42o and 40o, respectively; see letter to Charles Lyell, 7 February [1866] and n. 25. CD had written of the luxuriant vegetation of Chiloé, noting that peaches could be grown ‘with care’ there, while at the more northerly Valdivia they fruited abundantly (Journal of researches, pp. 268 and 271).
In his journal entry for 20 February 1866, written after receiving from Lyell letters by Hooker and CD, Bunbury recorded his initial disagreement with some of CD’s botanical inferences, and with CD’s support for Agassiz’s claim that glaciation might have affected the Serra dos Orgãos. However, Bunbury acknowledged that CD also suggested that the South American mountains had formerly been higher (see letter to Charles Lyell, 7 February [1866]). In support of CD’s argument that former glaciation might be indicated by the distribution of temperate species in the mountains of eastern and western South America (see letter to Charles Lyell, 7 February [1866]), Bunbury’s journal entry acknowledged that temperate species of Gaultheria, Gaylussacia, Fuchsia, and Drimys, in particular, might have spread from the Andes to the Brazilian mountains. See F. J. Bunbury ed. 1891–3, Later life 1: 143–4.


Columbia gazetteer of the world: The Columbia gazetteer of the world. Edited by Saul B. Cohen. 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Journal of researches: Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy, RN, from 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.

Lindley, John. 1853. The vegetable kingdom; or, the structure, classification, and uses of plants, illustrated upon the natural system. 3d edition with corrections and additional genera. London: Bradbury & Evans.

Luteyn, James L. 2002. Key to the species of Ericaceae of Bolivia, including two new species. Sida, Contributions to Botany 20: 1–20.

Munz, Philip A. 1943. A revision of the genus Fuchsia (Onagraceae). Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 4th ser. 25: 1–138.


Discusses CD’s and J. D. Hooker’s letters to Lyell concerning Louis Agassiz’s theory of the glaciation of the Amazon basin in Brazil.

Letter details

Letter no.
Bunbury, C. F. J.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Source of text
F. J. Bunbury ed. 1891–3, Later life 1: 144–7

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5011F,” accessed on 7 December 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 14