Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers

Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure

an exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, April 25–July 20, 2008; and the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California, October 4, 2008– January 5, 2009
Catalog of the exhibition edited and with an essay by David Kohn
New York Botanical Garden, 60 pp., $17.99 (paper)

We all know the canonical story of Charles Darwin: the twenty-two-year-old embarking on the Beagle, going to the ends of the earth; Darwin in Patagonia; Darwin on the Argentine pampas (managing to lasso the legs of his own horse); Darwin in South America, collecting the bones of giant extinct animals; Darwin in Australia—still a religious believer—startled at his first sight of a kangaroo (“surely two distinct Creators must have been at work”). And, of course, Darwin in the Galápagos, observing how the finches were different on each island, starting to experience the seismic shift in understanding how living things evolve that, a quarter of a century later, would result in the publication of On the Origin of Species.

The story climaxes here, with the publication of the Origin in November 1859, and has a sort of elegiac postscript: a vision of the older and ailing Darwin, in the twenty-odd years remaining to him, pottering around his gardens at Down House with no particular plan or purpose, perhaps throwing off a book or two, but with his major work long completed.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Darwin remained intensely sensitive both to criticisms and to evidence supporting his theory of natural selection, and this led him to bring out no fewer than five editions of the Origin. He may indeed have retreated (or returned) to his garden and his greenhouses after 1859 (there were extensive grounds around Down House, and five greenhouses), but for him these became engines of war, from which he would lob great missiles of evidence at the skeptics outside—descriptions of extraordinary structures and behaviors in plants very difficult to ascribe to special Creation or Design—a mass of evidence for evolution and natural selection even more overwhelming than that presented in the Origin.

Strangely, even Darwin scholars pay relatively little attention to this botanical work, even though it encompassed six books and seventy-odd papers. Thus Duane Isely, in his 1994 book One Hundred and One Botanists, writes that while

more has been written about Darwin than any other biologist who ever lived…he is rarely presented as a botanist…. The fact that he wrote several books about his research on plants is mentioned in much Darwinia but it is casual, somewhat in the light of “Well, the great man needs to play now and then.”

Even now, as we approach the two hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the hundred and fiftieth of the Origin, this is still very much the case, and it was with this in mind that the New York Botanical Garden recently launched an exhibition called “Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure.” This contained not only reconstructions of the gardens at Down and many of the actual experiments Darwin set up there, but a mass of rare books, papers, letters, and drawings.

Darwin had always had a special, tender feeling for plants and a special admiration, too (“it has always pleased me to exalt plants in the scale of organised beings,”…

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