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Darwin Correspondence Project

From George Bentham   25 September 1866

25, Wilton Place, | S.W.

Sept 25 1866

My dear Darwin

On returning to my labours at Kew this morning after an absence of nearly three months I find on my table two memoranda of yours to which I hasten to reply1

I have never spoken of species of thistles in England not producing fertile seed—2 All I have said was in my address of 1862 p. 19 in which I observed “How is it that when our hedges are annually loaded with the fruit of the bramble or our fields covered with the down of Carduus arvensis we seldom see a seedling of the one or the other?— Nature having concurrently provided for their propagation by the marching and rooting stems of the former and the creeping rhizomes of the latter”3 which was strongly taken up by Hewett Watson4 who sent me a box of young seedling Brambles.— I meant and ought to have said a full-grown seedling   I never intended to deny that seeds are formed and shed and that they germinate in Autumn— but meant (as it appears to me to be clear from what follows) merely to show that we do not know what becomes of them in winter for in spring the infinite majority of the plants in these species in our climate are the result of propagation from buds (marching stems or creeping rhizomes) and not from seeds. So much is this the case that some Norfolk farmers say that Carduus arvensis will not propagate from seed and I heard when there that one farmer had said that he would give 5s/ to any one who would prove that it could be raised from seed— I may possibly have repeated this story and that may have led some one to suppose that I believe that C. arvensis did not produce fertile seed—whereas I am perfectly aware that it is often introduced into fields by seed— when there it generally spreads by its rhizomes   In the above quoted passage I referred to what requires investigation not to undoubted facts.

Secondly about borrowing books from the Linnean Society.5 Strict regulations were rendered necessary by the abuse of the privilege on the part of non-scientific or careless fellows but there was always an understanding that these regulations admitted of exceptions in the case of working Naturalists—both as to number of volumes and as to time, and also as to the privilege of borrowing valuable works which we cannot lend out to everybody. The great difficulty is that our Librarian6 who is in many respects invaluable is sometimes too great a stickler to forms and does not like the responsibility of discretionary power, but in any case of doubtful exception to rules he ought to apply to the Secretary7 instead of refusing peremptorily. I feel confident however that when you want to borrow more than the regulation number at a time if you write to him saying you wish to do so he would let you have them—or if he does not pray let me know that I may speak to him— We of the Council are particularly anxious that the Library should be made as useful as possible to working Naturalists especially to such as yourself—and at the same time that books should not be kept away from the Library and thus out of reach of the great mass of Fellows by those who really make no use of them.

I have been much gratified by the accounts of your improved health and sincerely trust you may go on progressing8—and that we may soon see the new work Murray has so long announced9

Yours very sincerely | George Bentham


Bentham had spent ten weeks away from Kew, leaving on 7 July and returning on 22 September 1866 (see B. D. Jackson 1906, p. 206). CD’s letter to Bentham of [July–September 1866] is incomplete; the memoranda to which Bentham refers were evidently two postscripts to the letter, one of which is now missing.
CD’s remark about thistles must have been in the missing portion of his letter to Bentham of [July–September 1866].
Bentham refers to a statement from his address to the Linnean Society meeting of 24 May 1862 (Bentham 1862, p. lxxxii). The page number given by Bentham refers to a separately paginated offprint. Carduus arvensis (a synonym of Cirsium arvense, creeping thistle) is a common weed on open ground. CD’s query was related to his work on plants that did not generally propagate by seed (see letter to Asa Gray, 10 September [1866] and n. 11).
In his letter to Bentham of [July–September 1866], CD had asked to borrow more than the usual two books at a time. Bentham was president of the Linnean Society.
Richard Kippist was the librarian of the Linnean Society.
George Busk and Frederick Currey were secretaries of the Linnean Society.
CD’s health had generally improved in 1866 (see letter to Robert Swinhoe, [September 1866] and n. 3).
CD’s publisher, John Murray, had advertised Variation in the Reader, 15 April 1865, p. 427, and again in the 1 August 1865 issue of the Publishers’ Circular, p. 386.


Jackson, Benjamin Daydon. 1906. George Bentham. London: J. M. Dent. New York: E. P. Dutton.

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


Replies to CD’s two memoranda, GB explains: 1. That he never said thistles do not produce seeds, but rather that the infinite majority of new plants are propagated from buds

2. That book-borrowing rules of the Linnean Library are not so stringent as the Librarian makes out.

Letter details

Letter no.
George Bentham
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Wilton Place, 25
Source of text
DAR 160: 158
Physical description
ALS 5pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5218,” accessed on 2 June 2023,

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