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Darwin Correspondence Project

From John Scott   22 January 1867

Royal Botanic Gardens | Calcutta

22d Jany. 1867.

Dear Sir,

I cant longer defer writing a note to you—though I have yet failed to accomplish the purpose of my delay. This you can only guess at just now. I shall explain in a future letter, and in the meantime, I would have you believe me though silent, in heart ever grateful to you my chiefest benefactor.1

My duties as Curator of the Botanic Gardens have been and yet are engrossing my time so completely, that I have been quite unable to engage in the experimental illustrations of many subjects which lie very near my heart.2 You may be surprised at the press of duties incumbent to my appointment considering that our Gardens have been so long established. This is natural, but when you know, that we are raising a new Garden out of the wholesale devastations of the Cyclone of 1864, and this on a scientific basis, which had never been previously attempted here, you can conceive of the labour— reclaiming much actual jungle land, planning and planting systematically a tropical garden 250 acres in extent. We have now however got the outlines of all the Natural Orders fixed, and the planting of many of them in so far as we can at present represent them, done,3 so that my duties are turning daily lighter, and will soon permit of my directing some little portion of my time to former scientific recreations.

In talking of our Garden you will I doubt not be interested in hearing, that we have now planned out on a rather extensive scale the basis of a temperate herbaceous garden. So far as my observations go, this promises to be most pregnant with interesting results: plants from an elevation of 7 & 8000 ft in the Himalayahs are luxuriating in our hands; and many many common British plants of which I have had seeds this season from the North of Scotland are proving quite at home. This experiment is interesting me greatly; and excitingly interesting is the hope that further experience may yield us something in the way of illustrating your views on the origin of species by variation.4 It has already however shown me that our domesticated plants, are not as some would have us believe, the alone possessors of the power of habitating most diverse climes. Again it seems to show us, that there must not necessarily have been a great lowering of the temperature of the globe to account for the occurrence of temperate species of plants on tropical mountains. In so far as temperature is concerned, from the wide flexibility of constitution, which many temperate plants possess, I believe that under existing physicial arrangements, along continuous meridional tracts of land migrations of those species into tropical climes might occasionally be effected. I say occasionally for it is evident, that plants though flourishing in diverse climes under cultivation could rarely compete successfully with the respective indigens in their exodus from the temperate to the tropic zone; while there is further the absence of any directive force occasioning such migrations, which is so well explained by your views of a simultaneous glacial epoch in both hemispheres and a concomitant cooling of the tropical zone.5

I have hopes after a few years careful observation of the various temperate plants I am now introducing to accumulate an interesting body facts on acclimatation. This subject seems yet to excite some little discussion at home; perhaps a brief note on a few experiments may interest you— Thus the Common Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus) from English grown seeds germinates freely here, producing strong rigid plants, a reduced developement of leaf and tendril, with thick prominently winged stems, rarely ever producing a single flower no seed.6 Again English seeds grown in the vicinity of Darjeeling are abundantly productive of flowers and seeds, affording material for successful cultivation in the plains of India. Seedlings raised from these acclimatized up-country seeds, are readily distinguished from the direct products of English saved seed, when grown in the plains, of their lax, and naturally scandent habit, and their flowering and seeding profusely… It is worthy of note also as indicating a stage in the process of acclimatation that a small quantity of French grown Sweet Peas which I had yielded plants, markedly distinct from the English seedlings (and naturally so) blossomed sparingly, but all proved infertile.7 I am curious to see how a number of other Legumes introduced from various parts of Europe during last season will behave.... Another point worthy of notice is the tendency of many of those highly cultivated productions of the florist to vary under cultivation here. Thus the double flowering Balsam from English seed, are as fine for the first season as any I ever saw at home— in the second generation there is a decided falling off. While in the third scarcely a double flower is to be seen. This is also the case with other double flowering florists flowers, and so with many single varieties of the same. Petunias and Antirrhinums for example are splendid for the first season, while in the second and third they are [surely] wortheless for the flower garden. Indian florists are in general so disheartened with these very natural results that in place of making attempts to raise varieties from their retroverted stock, suitable to the climate and the adornment of their garden, trust almost entirely to direct imports of English grown seed. I am experimenting a little with this view.

By the way I am growing successfully Leersia oryzoides from the seeds you were good enough to send me.8 It has not however as yet protruded a single flower, all are enclosed within the culms and quite fertile. I had great hopes of cultivation here inducing variation on that point, but have been as yet disappointed. Succeeding generations, however may yet afford it9 .... . Curiously enough some of our Indian Violas, like the European, produce also perfect and imperfect flowers. V. Roxburghiana, for example, produces perfect flowers only in the cold season— these I may remark are quite fertile—during the hot, though chiefly in the rainy season an abundance of closed-fertile flowers are produced.10

Excuse my desultory notes, as I am as yet only able to indicate points of promise.

Yours most respectfully | John Scott

CD annotations

1.1 I cant … recreations. 2.13] crossed blue crayon
2.7 and this … labour— 2.8] scored pencil
3.1 In talking] after opening square bracket, blue crayon
3.4 plants … home. 3.6] double scored pencil
4.1 I have … infertile 4.15] crossed red crayon; ‘Acclimatisationpencil
4.15 sparingly,] ‘but all proved infertile’ added below, ink
4.15 but all … view. 4.29] crossed blue crayon
4.26 attempts … seed. 4.28 scored pencil
5.1 By … disappointed. 5.4] ‘Leersiain margin, pencil
5.6 V. Roxburghiana … produced. 5.9] ‘Violain margin, pencil
Top of letter: ‘J. Scott’ ink; ‘Keeppencil
Top of last page: ‘Jan 1. 1867’ ink


The last extant letter from John Scott is that of 21 July 1865 (see Correspondence vol. 13). Scott alludes to the money that CD gave him for his passage to India, where he went to seek employment.
Scott became curator at the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta, in late May 1865 (see letter from John Scott, 21 July 1865 (Correspondence vol. 13). He had conducted experimental work while foreman of the propagating department of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, and had corresponded extensively about the work with CD since 1862 (see Correspondence vols. 10–13).
For information on the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta, and the destructive cyclone of 1864, see Burkill [1965], pp. 21, 66, 103, 133; the garden was on the banks of a tidal river, the Hooghly, and suffered inundations of seawater during the cyclone. The Calcutta garden covered more than 300 acres (McCracken 1997, p. 111). The garden had earlier been planted partly along the lines of a horticultural nursery, and partly according to the Linnaean system (see Burkill [1965]); Scott was arranging the beds according to the natural orders (families) promoted by Robert Brown (1773–1858) and John Lindley.
Wild plants and seeds were brought down from higher elevations by the garden’s collectors, and cultivated plants and seeds from plantations in Sikkim; they were then planted at sea level in the botanic garden at Calcutta (see Burkill [1965] and McCracken 1997). CD had written on acclimatisation in Origin, pp. 139–43.
Scott alludes to CD’s discussions in Origin, pp. 365–82, of plant dispersal during the glacial period.
CD included Scott’s information on Lathyrus odoratus in India in a section on acclimatisation in Variation 2: 311.
CD noted Scott’s information on the French sweetpeas in Variation 2: 311.
Scott asked CD for seed of Leersia oryzoides in his letter of 21 July 1865 so that he, like CD, could investigate self-fertilisation in closed flowers (see Correspondence vol. 13). For CD’s interest in the plant and his acquisition of specimens, see Correspondence vol. 12. CD’s observations had been published in ‘Three forms of Lythrum salicaria, pp. 191–2 n. (Collected papers 2: 131).
Scott evidently never succeeded in cultivating L. oryzoides in India with flowers that opened; see Forms of flowers, p. 335.
CD cited Scott’s observations of Viola roxburghiana in Forms of flowers, p. 320.


Burkill, Isaac Henry. [1965.] Chapters on the history of botany in India. [Calcutta: Botanical Survey of India.]

Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett. 2 vols. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1977.

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

Forms of flowers: The different forms of flowers on plants of the same species. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1877.

McCracken, Donal P. 1997. Gardens of empire: botanical institutions of the Victorian British empire. London and Washington: Leicester University Press.

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.

‘Three forms of Lythrum salicaria’: On the sexual relations of the three forms of Lythrum salicaria. By Charles Darwin. [Read 16 June 1864.] Journal of the Linnean Society (Botany) 8 (1865): 169–96. [Collected papers 2: 106–31.]

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


Position as Curator allows no time for experiment.

Describes plans for vast new layout of Calcutta Botanic Garden according to natural orders.

Himalayan and Scottish plants are doing well.

Hopes to experiment on temperate plants in tropics, to test CD’s views of migration during glacial periods.

Sends observations on acclimatisation of English cultivated plants.

Leersia CD sent are growing and fertile.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Scott
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 177: 117, DAR 111: A91
Physical description
6pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5376,” accessed on 15 May 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 15