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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   4 August [1863]1

Down Bromley Kent

Aug 4th

My dear Gray.

Thanks for two letters of July 7th & 21st,2 full of interest to me. I am heartily glad to hear that you are so thoroughily refreshed by your short holiday; for you seemed to be almost worn out by work.3 It is capital news about your Legacy;4 I only wish it was five or ten times as much, & then you could give up all your time to new work. How goodnatured you are to my little man about stamps: those enclosed in two last letters were ineffable treasures.5 Many thanks for Specularia;6 but, good Heavens, I fancied it was a specimen to show me the flowers & I put it in warm, not boiling, water: I then discovered my mistake & hope I have not killed the seeds. Was not that a misfortune?— With your previous letter came a most obliging & kind note from Mr Brace;7 if you have any communication with him, pray thank him; I will not write, as I had previously written to thank him for his kind present of his book.8 What a pleasant book his was on Hungary.—9

After I had written to you Versus Heer’s doctrine of sudden changes, I suspected what you would say:10 what, I think, ought to give you the severest “cold chill” is the case of Pouter, Fantail-pigeons &c: were not these variations accidental as far as the purpose man has put them to?11 Lyell said he would grapple with this, but I suspect he found it would be most prudent to shirk the question.12 In my present book I have been comparing variation to the shapes of stones fallen from a cliff, & natural or artificial selection to the architect;13 but I cannot at all work a metaphor like you do.— That seems a very pretty case of the orchid with prominence on labellum.—14

I have lots of Hobby-horses at present, fertility of peloric flowers & especially of “Homorphic” seedlings, which I suspect will throw much theoretical light on Hybrids.—15 I have worked Lythrum like a Trojan & have just finished 134 crosses, no slight labour; but the case seems to me worth any labour, for I declare I think it about the oddest case of reproduction ever noticed.—a triple marriage between three hermaphrodite.—16 I am so glad your Nesæas, after a sickly infancy are growing splendidly!17 But my present chief Hobby-horse I owe to you, viz tendrils;18 their irritability is beautiful, as beautiful in all its modifications as anything in orchids. About the spontaneous movement (independent of touch) of the tendrils & upper internodes I am rather taken aback by your saying “is it not well known?”.19 I can find nothing in any book which I have: neither Hooker nor Oliver knew anything of these movements.20 The spontaneous movement of the tendrils is independent of the movement of the movement of the upper internodes, but both work harmoniously together in sweeping a circle for the tendrils to grasp a stick. So with all climbing plants (without tendrils) as yet examined, the upper internodes go on night & day sweeping a circle in one fixed direction. It is surprising to watch the Apocyneæ with shoots 18 long, beyond the supporting stick, steadily searching for something to climb up. When the shoot meets a stick, the motion at that point is arrested, but in the upper part is continued, so that the climbing of all plants yet examined is the simple result of the spontaneous circulatory movement of the upper internodes.— Pray tell me whether anything has been published on this subject: I hate publishing what is old; but I shall hardly regret my work, if it is old, as it has much amused me.— If I do publish my paper, it will be too long to send you; for I am (or shall) examine very many plants.—21

I am very glad you are going to review Bates’ paper & I must say I enjoy anything which riles Agassiz.22 He seems to grow bigoted with increasing years; I once saw him years ago, & was charmed with him.23

Depend on it, you are unjust on the merits of my beloved Drosera:24 it is a wonderful plant, or rather a most sagacious animal. I will stick up for Drosera to the day of my death. Heaven knows whether I shall ever publish my pile of experiments on it.—25

How profoundly interesting American new is— I declare almost more so even to us than Crimean new.—26 Do not hate poor old England too much. Anyhow she is the mother of fine children all over the world. I declare no man could have tried to wish more sincerely for the north that I have done.— My reason tells me that perhaps it would be best,—of course best if it would end Slavery, but I cannot pump up enthusiasm. The boasting of your newspapers & of your little men, & the abuse of England, and the treatment of the free coloured population, and the not freeing Maryland slaves stops all my enthusiasm.27 If all the States were like New England the case would be different.— I find a man cannot hope by intention. You will think me a wretched outcast. Farewell & do not hate me much. What devils the low Irish have proved themselves in New York.28 If you conquer the South you will have an Ireland fastened to your tail.—

Good night & Farewell | C. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letters from Asa Gray, 7 July 1863 and 21 July 1863.
See letter from Asa Gray, 7 July 1863 and n. 8. Gray’s wife, Jane Loring Gray, had inherited £2,000.
Letters from Asa Gray, 7 July 1863 and 21 July 1863. Gray had enclosed United States stamps for Leonard Darwin, an avid stamp collector.
The letter from Charles Loring Brace has not been found. Brace was a nephew of Gray’s wife, Jane Loring Gray (Dupree 1959, p. 192).
Brace 1852. CD read Brace 1852 in December 1854 (Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV, 128: 9).
See letter to Asa Gray, 31 May [1863] and n. 4, and letter from Asa Gray, 7 July 1863 and n. 7; CD refers to Oswald Heer and his theory that sudden changes and the production of monstrosities were causal factors in the emergence of new species.
CD had discussed variation and selection in domestic pigeons in Origin, pp. 20–29, and provided an extended discussion of this subject in Variation (Variation 1: 131–224). He selected this example because the accidental variations in pigeons had been ‘extraordinarily great’ (Variation 1: 131).
See Correspondence vol. 9, letters to Charles Lyell, [1 August 1861], 13 [August 1861], and 21 August [1861]; Charles Lyell’s replies, which may have included the statement referred to, have not been found. CD had evidently hoped that Lyell would discuss the role of accidental variation versus providential design in Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a). On Lyell’s unwillingness to commit himself fully to a belief in CD’s theory of the origin of species, see Bartholomew 1973.
CD was writing a draft of Variation, which formed the first published part of a planned three-part work on species (Variation 1: 3–14; see also Correspondence vol. 10, letter from Edouard Claparède, 6 September 1862, n. 9); the architect simile appears in Variation 2: 248–9 and 430.
See letter from Asa Gray, 7 July 1863; the reference is to Platanthera flava.
CD discussed the fertility of peloric flowers in Variation 2: 166–7. ‘Homomorphic seedlings’ were seedlings produced by artificially pollinating dimorphic or trimorphic plants with pollen taken from stamens not corresponding in height with the pistil. CD termed the result an ‘illegitimate union’, since it was the product of an only partially fertile cross. CD believed that there was the ‘closest identity’ in character and behaviour between illegitimate plants and hybrids (see Variation 2: 181–5). CD published a full account of his experiments with homomorphic seedlings in ‘Illegitimate offspring of dimorphic and trimorphic plants’.
In Lythrum salicaria three distinct forms occur: short-, mid-, and long-styled. Each of these forms is an hermaphrodite, each is distinct from the other two forms in its pistils, and each form has two sets of stamens differing from each other in appearance, and at different levels in the flower from the style. In all there are three kinds of stamen, short-, mid-, and long-length. There are therefore 18 possible combinations of crosses of pollen and stigmas. CD thought that these crosses should be repeated 20 times to guarantee reliable results, but completed his experiments having made 233 crosses. (‘Three forms of Lythrum salicaria, pp. 169–76, 179–80 (Collected papers 2: 106–7, 113–14).) See also letter to J. D. Hooker, 3 August [1863] and n. 6.
Gray sent specimens of Nesaea verticillata (a synonym of Decodon verticillatus, swamp loosestrife) with his letter of 27 October 1862 (Correspondence vol. 10). Like Lythrum salicaria, Nesaea verticillata, also a member of the Lythraceae, presents three forms (‘Three forms of Lythrum salicaria, p. 191 (Collected papers 2: 125)).
CD developed an interest in tendrils after reading A. Gray 1858b, and began making observations on tendrils and plant movements by observing a seedling of Echinocystis lobata grown from a seed sent to him by Gray (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 25 [June 1863] and nn. 2 and 3, and letter to Asa Gray, 26 June [1863]).
See letter from J. D. Hooker, [2]9 June 1863. CD refers to Joseph Dalton Hooker and Daniel Oliver at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
CD reported observations on over 100 plant species in ‘Climbing plants’, which was read before the Linnean Society on 2 February 1865.
See letter from Asa Gray, 21 July 1863. Gray reviewed Bates 1861 in the issue of the American Journal of Science and Arts for September 1863 (A. Gray 1863a). CD refers to Louis Agassiz, an opponent of the theory of natural selection and Gray’s colleague at Harvard University (DSB).
CD may be referring to the 1846 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Southampton, which he attended, and during which Agassiz spoke to a meeting of the Ray Society (see Correspondence vol. 4, letter to J. E. Gray, 18 December 1847, n. 5).
Since 1860, CD had carried out numerous experiments on the sundew, Drosera rotundifolia (see Correspondence vols. 8–10). Insectivorous plants, in which CD reported his findings on the species, was not published until 1875.
CD refers to the reporting of the American Civil War: the English newspapers were predicting that Washington, D.C., was about to fall following the invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania by the Confederate army (see letter from Asa Gray, 21 July 1863). CD also probably refers to the recent revival of interest in the history of the Crimean War (1853–6) following the publication of the first volume of Alexander William Kinglake’s account of the invasion of the Crimea (Kinglake 1863–87). Kinglake’s book was described as ‘probably the most notable book of 1863’, and rapidly passed through four editions (Annual register 1863, 1: 347) after receiving widespread newspaper coverage.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which came into effect on 1 January 1863, freed the slaves only in states rebelling against the Union. Since Maryland had not seceded from the Union, slaves were not freed in that state (Denney 1992, pp. 248, 251, 284–7).
CD refers to the prominent role played by Irish immigrants in the riots in New York City in July 1863 against the drafting of men into the Union army; the riots resulted in the deaths of at least 105 people (McPherson 1988, pp. 609–10).


Annual register: The annual register. A view of the history and politics of the year. 1838–62. The annual register. A review of public events at home and abroad. N.s. 1863–1946. London: Longman & Co. [and others].

Bartholomew, Michael J. 1973. Lyell and evolution: an account of Lyell’s response to the prospect of an evolutionary ancestry for man. British Journal for the History of Science 6 (1972–3): 261–303.

Bates, Henry Walter. 1861. Contributions to an insect fauna of the Amazon valley. Lepidoptera: Heliconidæ. [Read 21 November 1861.] Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 23 (1860–2): 495–566.

Brace, Charles Loring. 1852. Hungary in 1851: with an experience of the Austrian police. London: Richard Bentley.

Brace, Charles Loring. 1863. The races of the old world. A manual of ethnology. London: John Murray.

‘Climbing plants’: On the movements and habits of climbing plants. By Charles Darwin. [Read 2 February 1865.] Journal of the Linnean Society (Botany) 9 (1867): 1–118.

Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett. 2 vols. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1977.

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

Denney, Robert E. 1992. The civil war years: a day-by-day chronicle of the life of a nation. New York: Sterling Publishing.

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.

Dupree, Anderson Hunter. 1959. Asa Gray, 1810–1888. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

‘Illegitimate offspring of dimorphic and trimorphic plants’: On the character and hybrid-like nature of the offspring from the illegitimate unions of dimorphic and trimorphic plants. By Charles Darwin. [Read 20 February 1868.] Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Botany) 10 (1869): 393–437.

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

Kinglake, Alexander William. 1863–87. The invasion of the Crimea: its origin, and an account of its progress down to the death of Lord Raglan. 8 vols. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons.

McPherson, James M. 1988. Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.

‘Three forms of Lythrum salicaria’: On the sexual relations of the three forms of Lythrum salicaria. By Charles Darwin. [Read 16 June 1864.] Journal of the Linnean Society (Botany) 8 (1865): 169–96. [Collected papers 2: 106–31.]

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Anticipated AG’s attitude on design in orchids. Does he not think that the variations that gave rise to fancy pigeon varieties were accidental?

Has been working hard at Lythrum

and spontaneous movements of tendrils.

Defends Drosera as a "sagacious animal" but does not know whether he will ever publish on it.

Comments on political situation in U. S.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (83)
Physical description
ALS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4262,” accessed on 22 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 11