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Darwin Correspondence Project

From T. H. Farrer   18 September 1869

Abinger Hall, | Dorking.

18 Sept/69

My dear Mr Darwin

Many thanks for your notes and for the kind notice you have taken of the tiny facts I sent you.1

I have found out myself this year how comparatively difficult it is to observe physiological functions when owing to bad weather or otherwise the plants are not in full vigour. The pollinia of Orchids did not function half so well in the last cold June as in the hot one of 1868.

I am much interested in what you say about bees getting nectar from below the surface.2 In the papilionaceous flowers—Ulex, Lupin, &c I see them at work where I can find no nectar— But I find no open staminal tube without nectar. And now I am going to trespass terribly on your good nature & your time.

I have put together a few notes upon a few Papilionaceous flowers and am venturing to send them to you. If you have not time to look at them please send them back: and if you find my scribbling hard to read, I will gladly have it copied. Should you be able to look at the paper I shall be very much obliged if you will tell me whether you think all or any part of it worth printing: and whether it would be wise to keep it for another summer.3 I am pretty sure of the facts I have stated, but alas! I was in London entirely till July and afterwards too busy, when away from London, with settling here & with Office matters, to do what I should have liked.4

The fact is, one needs to go on to the hill side & look & look, & come home and think it over and go & look again before one can be certain of any thing.

It is too late now this year for real flowers and drawings in books are of little use.

Will you kindly return me the paper addressed to me at the Board of Trade and marked “Private”, where it will need no postage stamps.

And pray do not trouble yourself with it to the detriment of more important work or to your own fatigue.

Hooker is coming to us on the 5th October—and I shall victimize him with Papilionaceous flowers— What a work of labour is his Genera Plantarum.5 It is Cyclopean like Johnsons Dictionary6

If railways will suit, I might come over for an hour or two some day, and thus save you the trouble of writing. Is there any station on the S.E.R.—eg. Godstone Road, Caterham, &c that is within fly-distance of Down?7

Believe me | Sincerely yours | T H Farrer

Charles Darwin Esqr FRS

CD annotations

5.1 The fact … look again 5.2] scored blue crayon


Farrer’s observations of the movement of the pollinia in Ophrys muscifera (now Ophrys insectifera subsp. insectifera, the fly orchid) and Peristylus viridis (now Coeloglossum viride, the frog orchid) are cited in ‘Fertilization of orchids’, pp. 144, 146 (Collected papers 2: 141, 143). See Correspondence vol. 16, letters from T. H. Farrer, 17 May 1868 and 4 June 1868.
In ‘Fertilization of orchids’, pp. 142–3 (Collected papers 2: 140), CD added further observations confirming his speculation in Orchids, pp. 50–1, that in many orchid species, insects punctured the inner lining of the nectary, withdrawing nectar that had been secreted between the inner and outer membranes of the nectary.
Some notes by Farrer on the floral morphology of Papilionaceae are at the Linnean Society (MSS Case B, Ms 508). He later published on fertilisation in the Papilionaceae in Nature (Farrer 1872).
Farrer was permanent secretary of the Board of Trade (ODNB).
Joseph Dalton Hooker was co-author, with George Bentham, of the multi-volume work Genera plantarum (Bentham and Hooker 1862–83).
Farrer refers to Samuel Johnson’s A dictionary of the English language (Johnson 1755).
The station nearest Down village on the South East Railway was Orpington. CD’s reply to Farrer has not been found, but Farrer may have visited Down on 8 October 1869 (see letter from T. H. Farrer, 9 October 1869).


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. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Farrer, Thomas Henry. 1872. On the fertilisation of a few common papilionaceous flowers. Nature, 10 October 1872, pp. 478–80, and 17 October 1872, pp. 498–501.

‘Fertilization of orchids’: Notes on the fertilization of orchids. By Charles Darwin. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 4th ser. 4 (1869): 141–59. [Collected papers 2: 138–56.]

Johnson, Samuel. 1755. A dictionary of the English language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. 2 vols. London: J. & P. Knapton [and others].

ODNB: Oxford dictionary of national biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000. (Revised edition.) Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. 60 vols. and index. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

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.


Asks CD’s opinion of a paper he has written on papilionaceous flowers.

Letter details

Letter no.
Thomas Henry Farrer, 1st baronet and 1st Baron Farrer
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Abinger Hall
Source of text
DAR 164: 55
Physical description
ALS 8pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6898,” accessed on 20 May 2024,

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