Darwin's Sexy Orchids: First Case Study "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection"

Darwin's Sexy Orchids

 O. mascula with enlarged diagram of its floral morphology. Gertrude in Hamlet called this flower “long purple.”

After the publication of Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin cast about for what his follow-up publishing project would be, and finally settled on the sex life of orchids, and how these plants uses various pollinators to cross-pollinate and eventually evolve new species through adaptation.

In the summer of 1860 while on a family excursion to what they called “Orchis Bank,” he observed insects pollinating the native British orchids.

 He sent several appeals through the Gardeners’ Chronicle to other interested persons to send him more information and specimens, which they did, and thus the book project was begun.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

 These portraits were created shortly after Charles Darwin's marriage in 1839 to Emma Darwin.

Emma Darwin

 Emma Darwin

1861 was mostly devoted to this new book, which was finally published in May 1862 as On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects.

He noted to jmleph Dalton Hooker (Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew) that:

    I am intensely interested on subject, just as at a game of chess.

In September, he dissected with the greatest interest,” and noted that “the contrivances for insect fertilization in Orchids are multiform & truly wonderful & beautiful."


Darwin wrote to Asa Gray (Professor of Botany at Harvard) prior to publication:

    It really seems to me incredibly monstrous to look at an orchid as created as we now see it. Every part reveals modification on modification.

Publication was delayed because of illness, with Darwin calling the project

    a hobby-horse, which has given me great pleasure to ride.

In describing the pollination of British orchids, Darwin wrote,

    A poet might imagine, that whilst the pollinia are borne from flower to flower through the air, adhering to a moth's body, they voluntarily and eagerly place themselves, in each case, in that exact position in which alone they can hope to gain their wish and perpetuate their race.

2.	A first edition of Darwin’s work on orchid pollinatioin

<= A first edition of Darwin’s work on orchid pollination with a foldout illustration showing the floral morphology of Orchis mascula (L.) 1755, a native of Europe, including Great Britain.


Orchis Mascula Pollinium


 O. Mascula pollinium at the begining and end of the flight of the pollinating insect


 Darwin's Sexy Orchids: Specimens from Around the World