skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To John Lubbock   26 September [1874]1

Down, | Beckenham, Kent.

Sept. 26

My dear Sir John

I have read your 2 articles in Nature & they seem excellently done;2 but my object in writing is to caution you, unless you have good evidence, about C. K. Sprengel’s notion of Bees being deceived by a nectar-less nectary. As far as my memory goes Orchids are his best case, & I think I have shown that he is here mistaken, & my conclusion has been supported by subsequent observations.3

I suppose you do not want more cases of coloured calyx, but our common Polygala is a remarkable case, as the calyx during flowering season is bright-coloured, & then turns green, whilst it protects the seed-vessel after the flowering season is over.4

Yours very sincerely | Ch Darwin


The year is established by the reference to Lubbock 1874.
CD refers to Lubbock’s two-part article ‘Common wild flowers considered in relation to insects’ (Lubbock 1874). See letter to John Lubbock, [before 17 September 1874] and n. 2.
Christian Konrad Sprengel had described orchids as ‘Scheinsaftsblumen’ or false nectar flowers, because their nectaries contained no fluid (Sprengel 1793, p. 403). Lubbock did not refer to Sprengel in his article; however, he made the general remark, ‘it appears that some flowers beguile insects by holding out the expectation of honey which does not really exist’ (Lubbock 1874, p. 404). In Orchids, CD expressed doubt that insects could be so deceived, and suggested that they drew nectar from a different source, by piercing the inner membrane of the tube (see Orchids, pp. 45–53; see also Orchids 2d ed., pp. 36–44).
Polygala vulgaris is the common milkwort. In Lubbock 1874, p. 402, Lubbock noted that the calyx, though usually green, became brightly coloured in flowers where it was much exposed.


Orchids 2d ed.: The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition, revised. London: John Murray. 1877.

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.

Sprengel, Christian Konrad. 1793. Das entdeckte Geheimniss der Natur im Bau und in der Befruchtung der Blumen. Berlin: Friedrich Vieweg.


JL’s two articles in Nature ["Common wild flowers", 10 (1874): 402–6, 422–6].

Cautions against C. K. Sprengel’s notion of bees’ being deceived by nectarless nectary.

Colour of calyces.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
John Lubbock, 4th baronet and 1st Baron Avebury
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 261.7: 10 (EH 88205935)
Physical description
ALS 2pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9659,” accessed on 24 May 2022,

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