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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Daniel Oliver   26 February [1861]1

Down Bromley Kent

Feb. 26th

Dear Oliver

I am much obliged for your curious paper on the Hamamelideæ.2 The points which you indicate of the complex affinities, wide distribution, small number of species seem all clearly to point to a ruined & bankrupt Family.3 And how curious the structure of the wood!4 But you well indicate how difficult it is in such cases, especially when one does not know the use or function of a structure, to tell whether any point is due to inheritance or to subsequent acquirement, in which case the point would only be one of analogous resemblance. It has pleased me extremely to see you allude to such questions in so profound a paper; it is the best of all answers to those who pooh-pooh the whole subject.

I long to be at Drosera again,5 but Heaven knows whether my health will last out, & whether I shall not have to retreat for two months to Malvern for Hydropathy.

But, if in your power, I shd. be extremely much obliged if you could procure for me a few plants of Dionæa & keep them at Kew for me & let me know what they cost that I may repay you for them.6 I mean to attempt only a few comparative experiments with Drosera.—

There is another plant which I want much: would it give any extra trouble to order it at same time; if it would, I am not so silly as to expect you to do it for me. But I have thought it might be ordered & come with Dionæa & so give no more trouble. It is Cypripedium spectabile from N. America.— A neighbour says it seeded with him; from which I infer that probably some insect visited it; so that I am curious to make observations on it, having observed so many other Orchid Genera.

If you can easily help me, I believe you will, & pray believe me | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin


Dated by the reference to Oliver’s paper on Sycopsis, a new genus of Hamamelidaceae, a family of trees and shrubs (Oliver 1860). Oliver read it at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London on 15 March 1860.
For CD’s reasons for believing that such patterns indicate that a group is nearing extinction, see Origin, pp. 109–11. In his paper, Oliver mentioned CD’s views on distribution, along with those of Alfred Russel Wallace and Joseph Dalton Hooker, and suggested that such cases as the Hamamelidaceae might ‘assist us towards a solution of some of the most important problems engaging the attention of botanists.’ (Oliver 1860, p. 87).
Oliver, after describing the histological structure of Sycopsis, pointed out that although the wood most nearly resembled that of the Conifera, the two groups shared almost no other characters. Referring to Hooker’s view of the ‘highness’ of the specialised tissue of conifers and other gymnosperms, Oliver suggested that ‘the histological character of the elementary tissue of the vegetative organs might afford a contrasting constancy’ in comparison with the great differences in external characteristics, and hence be important for establishing affinity (Oliver 1860, p. 88).
Oliver assisted CD with his studies of Drosera and other insectivorous plant species in the summer of 1860 (see Correspondence vol. 8).
Oliver was able to obtain the plant specimens CD asked for. See letters to Daniel Oliver, 1 April [1861] and 1 May [1861].


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Oliver, Daniel. 1860. On Sycopsis. [Read 15 March 1860.] Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 23 (1860–2): 83–8. [Vols. 8,9]

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.


Praise for DO’s paper on Hamamelidaceae ["On Sycopis", Trans. Linn. Soc. Lond. 23 (1862): 83–9, read 15 Mar 1860]. Everything points to its being a "bankrupt" family.

Hydropathy at Malvern may take him from Drosera. Requests Dionaea and Cypripedium.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Daniel Oliver
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 261.10: 39 (EH 88206022)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3072,” accessed on 17 June 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9