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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Edward Cresy   19 May 1862

Metropolitan Board of Works | Spring Gardens

19 May ’62

My dear Sir,

Pray accept my very best thanks for your wonderful book on the fertilization of Orchids—1 I dont pretend to have mastered it yet for it wants very careful reading but what I have read has given me the greatest pleasure— I knew how singular & striking was the mechanism of many foreign orchids, but had no idea of the extent and variation of contrivance in the British— I am truly glad you have yourself explained so strong a class of cases for the advocates of separate creation— No one can accuse you of suppressing anything in their favor—& I dare say they will profit by some of your labors— I confess I am altogether puzzled by the Bee Ophrys— Why so much pains should be taken with all the others to ensure intercrossing and this one go on for ever self fertilising is a regular teazer—2 Is there any solution to be found in multiplication by the roots— I believe some orchids do and some do not— I think your anticipation by analogy of a Madagascar moth with a probiscis ten inches long equals Adam’s & Leverrier— What a triumph it will be to find him—3

I am very grateful for your few remarks on the secretion of nectar   I own to having felt it to be a difficulty in the path and it never occurred to me ‘as matter excreted to free the system from superfluous or injurious substances’ seized upon by natural selection as a means for working out an end—4 I had never noticed the glands secreting nectar in the laurel leaves— I confess myself greatly astonished at the prolificness of the orchids you cite— I thought they must be shy bearers from their comparative scarceness— What can keep them down?— You do not mention the source of the very peculiar smell of most of them. I suppose it to be important in attracting insects—or has it not been worked up by natural selection— the common orchis I have noticed to be almost scentless by day & remarkably fetid at night. it makes a room stink as if no end of cats had passed the night in it—

The chapter on homologies is to me and will be to many others who have not access to the great monographs peculiarly instructive—5 From having your attention so constantly directed to the subject & therefore at your finger’s ends you can hardly conceive the extreme value of such a diagram as fig 32—6 Half the story in fact is incomprehensible to our weak minds without it— with it we feel quite cleared up— I never thanked you for your interesting brochure on dimorphism in Primula—7 The beauty of natural selection is the immense variety of new thoughts it suggests—

Yours very truly & very gratefully | E Cresy

I hope your daughter continues to gain health & strength8 & that Mrs Darwin is well   Pray give my very kind remembrances—

C Darwin Esq.


Cresy’s name appears on CD’s presentation list for Orchids (see Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix IV). Cresy had assisted CD over the previous two years with his studies of insectivorous plants (see Correspondence vols. 8 and 9).
CD was also puzzled by the fact that Ophrys apifera, the bee-orchis, appeared to be adapted to favour perpetual self-fertilisation (see Correspondence vol. 9, letters to A. G. More, 17 June 1861 and 17 July 1861). In Orchids, p. 63, he described the plant as having ‘widely different means of fertilisation as compared with the other species of the genus, and, indeed, … , with all other Orchids’.
Angraecum sesquipedale, an orchid with ‘large six-rayed flowers’ and a ‘whip-like green nectary’ nearly a foot long, is discussed in Orchids, pp. 197–203. The nectar being held at the lower end of the nectary, CD surmised that in the orchid’s natural habitat in Madagascar ‘there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches!’ (Orchids, p. 198). For a discussion of CD’s view, see Kritsky 1991. In 1845, John Couch Adams and Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier independently postulated the existence and location of the planet Neptune from the perturbations in the orbit of Uranus (DSB).
Orchids, p. 278.
The homologies of orchids are discussed in Orchids, pp. 286–307.
Cresy refers to the illustration, showing an orchid flower in section, in Orchids, p. 292.
Cresy refers to CD’s paper, ‘Dimorphic condition in Primula. For CD’s presentation list for this paper, see Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix III.
CD’s eldest daughter, Henrietta Emma Darwin, had been ill throughout much of 1861 (see Correspondence vols. 8 and 9).


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

‘Dimorphic condition in Primula’: On the two forms, or dimorphic condition, in the species of Primula, and on their remarkable sexual relations. By Charles Darwin. [Read 21 November 1861.] Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Botany) 6 (1862): 77–96. [Collected papers 2: 45–63.]

DSB: Dictionary of scientific biography. Edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie and Frederic L. Holmes. 18 vols. including index and supplements. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1970–90.

Kritsky, Gene. 1991. Darwin’s Madagascan Hawk Moth prediction. American Entomologist 37: 206–9.

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.


Comments on presentation copy of Orchids: bee Ophrys self-fertilisation; origin of nectar; odour of orchids. Book gives strong cases for special creationists.

Letter details

Letter no.
Edward Cresy, Jr
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Metropolitan Board of Works
Source of text
DAR 161.2: 239
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3563,” accessed on 14 April 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 10