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Darwin Correspondence Project

To W. C. Tait   12 and 16 March 1869

Down, Bromley, Kent. S.E.

March 12, 1869

Dear Sir

I have received your two letters of Mar. 2nd and 5th; and I really do not know how to thank you enough for your extraordinary kindness and energy.1 I am glad to hear that the inhabitants notice the power of the Drosophyllum to catch flies, for this is the subject of my studies. I have observed during several years the manner in which this is effected, and the results produced in several species of Drosera, and in the wonderful American Dionæa, the leaves of which catch insects just like a steel rat-trap.2 Hence I was most anxious to learn how the Drosophyllum would act, so that the Director of the Royal Gardens at Kew wrote some years ago to Portugal to obtain specimens for me, but quite failed.3 So you see what a favour you have conferred on me. With Drosera it is nothing less than marvellous how minute a fraction of a grain of any nitrogenised matter the plant can detect; and how differently it behaves when matter not containing Nitrogen of the same consistence, whether fluid or solid, is applied to the glands. It is also exquisitely sensitive to a weight of even the 1/70,000 of a grain. From what I can see of the glands on Drosophyllum I suspect that I shall find only the Commencement, or nascent state of the wonderful capacities of the Drosera, and this will be eminently interesting to me. My MS on this subject has been nearly ready for publication during some years, but when I shall have strength and time to publish I know not.4 And now to turn to other points in your letter: I am quite ignorant of ferns and cannot name your specimen.5 The variability of ferns passes all bounds. With respect to your Laugher Pigeon, if the same with the two sub-breeds which I kept, I feel sure from the structure of the skeleton, &c. that it is a descendant of C. Livia. 6 In regard to Beauty I do not feel the difficulty which you and some others experience. In the last Edit. of my Origin I have discussed the question, but necessarily very briefly.7 A new and I hope amended edit. of the Origin is now passing thro’ the press, and will be published in a month or two, and it will give me great pleasure to send you a copy.8 Is there any place in London where parcels are received for you, or shall I send it by post? With reference to dogs’ tails no doubt you are aware that a rudimentary stump is regularly inherited by certain breeds of sheep dogs, and by manx cats.9 You speak of a change in the position of the axis of the earth: this is a subject quite beyond me, but I believe the Astronomers reject the idea. Nevertheless I have long suspected that some periodical astronomical or cosmical cause must be the agent of the incessant oscillations of level in the earth’s crust. About a month ago I suggested this to a man well capable of judging but he could not conceive any such agency; he promised however to keep it in mind.10 I wish I had time and strength to write to you more fully. I had intended to send this letter off at once, but on reflection, will keep it till I receive the plants.

With the most sincere thanks for your very great kindness I remain dear Sir | yours very faithfully | Charles Darwin

P.S. 2nd. Did you ever see my little Book on the Fertilisation of Orchids by Insect Agency: the facts are really curious. If you have it not, shall I send you a copy? Do you think you would care about the Nat. Hist. and wonderful spontaneous movement of Climbing Plants. I wrote a little pamphlet on this subject— should you care for it?11

March 16th

My dear Sir

I have been anxiously expecting the plants for several days, but I suppose the ship was delayed by northern winds. At last they have just arrived; but most unfortunately the weather for the last week has been very cold, and the soil in the pots had become as dry as dust on a road, and the poor plants have suffered greatly. Some, however, look so green in the centre that I fully expect that they will recover; if only 2 or 3 leaves will grow, and the glands secrete the viscid fluid, I shall be able to make my observations, to which I look forward with great interest, for the whole structure is very different from Drosera.— I have had long consultations with my gardener,12 & we mean to treat them in different ways, & carefully observe what suits best.— I have hopes of deep pot kept dry in upper part, but standing in shallow saucer with water. I have put them in greenhouse, & will then try a warmer house on a few, & so on, for I have 4 Houses of different temperatures. I do hope that some will revive: if 2 or 3 revive I will give one to the Royal Bot. Garden at Kew, where it will be treasured. How wonderfully kind you have been, & what trouble you have taken in packing them. Not one pot broken!! This dreadful cold frost has been most unfortunate.—

Yours most truly obliged | C. Darwin


See letters from W. C. Tait, 2 March 1869 and 5 March 1869.
CD had carried out a series of experiments on Drosera and Dionaea between 1860 and 1862 (see Correspondence vols. 8–10); however, he decided to postpone this line of research until after Variation was completed (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to Edward Cresy, 15 September [1862]). The genus Dionaea has only one species, Dionaea muscipula, the Venus fly-trap.
There is an undated rough draft in the Darwin Archive–CUL (DAR 61), with the title ‘On the movement of the leaves of the Drosera; & on their power of detecting nitrogenous compounds’.
See letter from W. C. Tait, 2 March 1869 and nn. 14 and 15. CD confused the laugher pigeon (a variety of Columba livia) with the bird Tait had mentioned, the laughing dove (Streptopelia senegalensis).
See letter from W. C. Tait, 2 March 1869 and n. 10. CD had considered the problem of beauty in Origin 4th ed., pp. 238–40.
The fifth edition of Origin was published in May 1869 (Publishers’ Circular, 1 July 1869, p. 386).
See letter from W. C. Tait, 2 March 1869. CD had written to James Croll, ‘I wish that you would turn your astronomical knowledge to the consideration whether the form of the globe does not become periodically slightly changed, so as to account for the many repeated ups & downs of the surface in all parts of the world’ (see letter to James Croll, 31 January [1869]).
CD refers to Orchids and Climbing plants.
CD probably refers to Henry Lettington.


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

Orchids: On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1862.

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.

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


Thanks for specimen of Drosophyllum.

Describes capacity of various plants to catch flies.

Cannot name fern specimen.

Laugher pigeon descended from Columba livia.

Discusses tailless dogs.

Believes astronomical phenomenon responsible for oscillation of level of earth’s crust.

Would WCT like copy of Orchids?

Expected plants [Drosophyllum] have arrived.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
William Chester Tait
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 147: 541; Sotheby’s (dealers) (19 July 1990)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6661,” accessed on 18 May 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17