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Darwin Correspondence Project

From T. H. Farrer   19 June 1871

Abinger Hall, | Wotton (Post Town)1 | Gomshall (Station) S.E.R.

19 June/71

My dear Mr Darwin

I have been beguiling a solitary afternoon by a ramble amongst orchises: and if man has wholly displaced vegetables, please burn my note without reading it.2 But at any rate here is my little fact about Ophrys apifera, simply confirmatory of what you have said.— I have examined this afternoon 106 growing and well opened flowers of this Ophrys. In none were both pollinia removed: in only three out of the 106 was one pollinium gone. In most of the older flowers the pollinia, one or both, were attached to the stigma: but sometimes over one another; sometimes across each other, not always, or perhaps generally, exactly where they seem meant to fall.3

Another fact is curious & seems to point to distribution by seed from a centre. The other orchids—G. Conopsea—very abundant. Orchis maculata—O. pyramidalis—O. ustulata—Habenaria Chlorantha— Cephalanthera grandiflora, are scattered singly & promiscuously here & there over the turf & banks.4

Ophrys apifera is always in groups—so that one may look over an acre of likely ground & find none, & then find a dozen plants within 3 or 4 feet— It is quite curious how regularly this is the case. I sometimes thought I had found a solitary one, but was sure on looking further to find some more within a yard or two if not nearer. I must have found from 200 to 300 plants open & unopened, in not more than 20 or 25 groups

I trust you are well & strong—and again at work—

Believe me | Very truly yours | T H Farrer

I must tell you another fact, which I came on accidentally the other day because it seems to point to easy change of instinct & habit in birds.

In most of the places in London where there are ducks, there are islands where they can build in their own natural way without danger from boys. ⁠⟨⁠On⁠⟩⁠ the Serpentine5 there are no islands—and the fenced in shrubberies are small protection. The ducks in Kensington Gardens consequently have taught themselves to build in the tall old elms— And when the ducklings are ready the old duck turns them out, rolls them ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠n so as best to break the fall, and carries them off unhurt to the water. My authority is the gardener who lives in the pretty lodge in the Middle of the Garden,6 & he was confirmed, without concert, by his man, whom I found on the spot & examined. The gardener told me he had seen an old duck a week or two since get out a brood of 12 or 13 i⁠⟨⁠n⁠⟩⁠ this way, carrying down the “reekling” or youngest in her bill.

They shew you the trees in which the ducks have now thus built for years.

Valeat quantum.7 I believe the fact to be true


CD annotations

1.5 only … 106 1.6] double underl red crayon
3.1 Ophrys … groups—] underl red crayon
3.1 so that … case. 3.3] scored red crayon


Farrer corrected the post town from Reigate to Wotton by hand.
Farrer alludes to CD’s work on Descent.
Farrer refers to CD’s conclusion that Ophrys apifera, the bee orchid, was self-fertilising (see Orchids, pp. 63–72).
Gymnadenia conopsea is the fragrant orchid; Orchis maculata is a synonym of Dactylorhiza maculata, the heath spotted orchid; O. pyramidalis is a synonym of Anacamptis pyramidalis, the pyramidal orchid; O. ustulata is a synonym of Neotinea ustulata, the burnt orchid; Habenaria chlorantha (now Platanthera chlorantha) is the greater butterfly orchid; Cephalanthera grandiflora (now C. longifolia) is the narrow-leaved helleborine.
The Serpentine is a recreational lake running through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, and was constructed in the 1730s.
John Gibson was the superintendent of Hyde Park, St James Park, and Kensington Gardens. His residence was Argyll Lodge, Kensington (Gardeners’ Chronicle (1875): 86).
Valeat quantum (Latin): i.e. valeat quantum valere potest. ‘Let it have weight so far as it may’, or, ‘accept it for what it is worth’.


Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

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.


Observations on orchids. Ophrys apifera; confirms CD’s observation on pollinia.  The nesting of ducks in trees is an example of change of instinct and habit.

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: 69–70
Physical description
ALS 4pp † encl 3pp inc & damaged

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7826,” accessed on 19 June 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19