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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   3 June [1874]1

Down, | Beckenham, Kent.

June 3d

My dear Gray

I was rejoiced to see your hand-writing again in your note of the 4th, of which more anon.2 I was astonished to see announced about a week ago that you were going to write in Nature an article on me, & this morning I received an advance copy. It is the grandest thing ever written about me, especially as coming from a man like yourself. It has deeply pleased me, particularly some of your side remarks. It is a wonderful thing to me to live to see my name coupled in any fashion with that of Robert Brown.3 But you are a bold man, for I am sure that you will be sneered at by not a few botanists.

I have never been so honoured before, & I hope it will do me good & make me try to be as careful as possible; & good Heavens how difficult accuracy is. I feel a very proud man, but I hope this won’t last.— I received & read your articles in the Nation & G. Chronicle, & very interesting they were to me; but I could not conceive, (as I read them first in the G. Ch.) who could have written them.4 What you tell me about the trail of sweet exudation in Sarracenia beats even Orchids!5

I am now hard at work getting my book on Drosera &c. ready for Printers, but it will take some time for I am always finding out new points to observe.6 I think you will be interested by my observations on the digestive process in Drosera; the secretion contains an acid of the acetic series & some ferment closely analogous to, but not identical with pepsin; for I have been making a long series of comparative trials. No human being will believe what I shall publish about the smallness of the doses of phosphate of ammonia which act.—7 Day before Yesterday I found out that Pinguicula digests & then absorbs animal matter; I know that this holds good for albumen, gelatin & insects, but I am now in the midst of my observations.—8

I began reading the Madagascan squib quite gravely, & when I found it stated that Felis & Bos inhabited Madagascar, I thought it was a false story, & did not perceive it was a hoax till I came to the woman.—9 I had heard before of the wolf story,10 & know not what to think of these reiterated statements.

When you have any communication with Dr Rood will you thank him much for the sketch of the ears: I have been glad to see the account, but it is too late for use, as I have finished correcting the early sheets for a new Edit. of the Descent. I have been forced to say that I do not feel so confident about the “Darwinische ohr-spitze” as the German calls them, as I was before.—11

Give our kindest remembrances to Mrs. Gray. My wife & self have our game of backgammon every evening & I often think of the scene between you & Mrs. Gray.—12 My wife threatens me sometimes if I triumph too much—

My dear Gray | Yours gratefully & proudly | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from Asa Gray, 12 May 1874.
Gray had enclosed a letter of 4 May 1874 from Ogden Nicholas Rood with his own letter of 12 May 1874; no letter from Gray dated 4 May has been found.
In a profile of CD in Nature’s ‘Scientific worthies’ series, Gray wrote: ‘Two British naturalists, Robert Brown and Charles Darwin, have, more than any others, impressed their influence upon Science in this nineteenth century’ (A. Gray 1874c, p. 80; see also letter to Norman Lockyer, 13 May [1874] and n. 2). For CD’s relationship with Brown both before and after the Beagle voyage, see Correspondence vol. 1, and ‘Recollections’, pp. 401–2. CD’s copy of Gray’s article, lightly annotated, is DAR 140.1: 2. There are copies of the engraved portrait of CD that was sent to subscribers in DAR 140.1: 26–9; it is reproduced as the frontispiece.
Gray’s article ‘Insectivorous plants’ in Nation ([A. Gray] 1874a) was reprinted in two parts as ‘Do plants eat insects?’ in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, 2 May 1874 and 9 May 1874 ([A. Gray] 1874b); Gray was identified as the author by his initials only in the second part. See letter from Asa Gray, 12 May 1874 and nn. 2 and 3.
See letter from Asa Gray, 12 May 1874 and n. 4. CD was particularly interested in the mechanisms by which plants attracted insects, whether as aids to fertilisation, as with orchids, or in order to prey on them, as with the insectivorous Sarracenia (trumpet pitcher-plants).
Insectivorous plants was published in 1875.
In Insectivorous plants, pp. 140–1, CD described causing significant movement in Drosera (sundew) by immersing the plant in a solution of as little as one part of ammonia phosphate to 87,500 parts water.
CD’s notes on the experiments he carried out on digestion in various species of Pinguicula (butterwort) in June and July 1874 are in DAR 59.1; those for 1 June 1874 are in DAR 59.1: 35.
Gray had enclosed a copy of a spoof article ‘Crinoida Dajeeana. The man-eating tree of Madagascar’ from a New York newspaper, World, 28 April 1874, p. 7, with his letter of 12 May 1874; the copy has not been found. The pretext of the article, by the fictitious Dr. Omelius Friedlowsky, was that the discovery had to be made public for fear that it might be pre-empted by the work of CD and others on insectivorous plants such as Drosera and Sarracenia. The plant was supposed to grow in an area inhabited by both water buffalo and cheetahs, and to have eaten a woman after she drank the viscous fluid it exuded.
The wolf story has not been identified; see also annotations to letter from Asa Gray, 12 May 1874.
For Rood’s sketch, see the second enclosure to the letter from Asa Gray, 12 May 1874. CD had discussed vestigial pointed ears in monkeys and humans in Descent 1: 22–3; he had finished revisions to the second edition of Descent by early April 1874 (letter to John Murray, 4 April 1874). Ohr-spitze: ear-tip.
Jane Loring Gray bought a backgammon board in November 1868 (Jane Gray’s expense account (Asa Gray’s Archives, Box F AG B10 #20)), shortly after the Grays had visited the Darwins at Down, where they may have played. The Darwins had a long-running backgammon tournament (see LL 1: 123, and letter to Asa Gray, 28 January 1876 (Calendar no. 10370)).


Calendar: A calendar of the correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821–1882. With supplement. 2d edition. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994.

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

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

[Gray, Asa.] 1874a. Insectivorous plants. Nation, 2 April 1874, pp. 216–7; 9 April 1874, pp. 232–4.

[Gray, Asa.] 1874b. Do plants eat insects? Gardeners’ Chronicle, 2 May 1874, pp. 565–6; 9 May 1874, pp. 597–9. Reprinted from the New York Nation.

Gray, Asa. 1874c. Scientific worthies: III.—Charles Robert Darwin. Nature, 4 June 1874, pp. 79–81.

Insectivorous plants. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1875.

LL: The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. Edited by Francis Darwin. 3 vols. London: John Murray. 1887–8.

‘Recollections’: Recollections of the development of my mind and character. By Charles Darwin. In Evolutionary writings, edited by James A. Secord. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2008.


CD is deeply pleased by AG’s article on him in Nature [10 (1874): 79–81].

Is preparing book on "Drosera and Co." for the printers. Reports observations on digestion in Drosera and Pinguicula.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Archives of the Gray Herbarium, Harvard University (103)
Physical description
ALS 7pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9480,” accessed on 15 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22