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Charles Darwin – pollination scientist

Say the name Charles Darwin and pollination is not the first thing that springs to most people’s minds.

Darwin's Orchids: Then and Now Say the name Charles Darwin and pollination is not the first thing that springs to most people’s minds. But Darwin’s follow-up publication to his 1859 work On the Origin of Species was indeed a book about pollination, specifically that of orchids. But not only was Darwin’s first orchid book (Darwin, C. (1862) On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects. John Murray, London) (others were to follow) a landmark in orchid biology, it was also a carefully chosen buttress to his earlier book.

The 150th anniversary of the famous 1859 publication received much attention, the 2012 anniversary of the orchid book much less. To celebrate, a symposium was held at the 18th International Botanical Congress in Australia in 2011, and the resulting volume, Retha Edens-Meier, Peter Bernhardt. (2014) Darwin’s Orchids: Then and Now. University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 9780226044910, makes clear the reason for Darwin’s choice of subject. In the opening chapter the editors not only situate the book in its scientific context but also provide scholarly insights into Darwin’s scientific correspondence, most notably with Asa Gray at Harvard, to whom he wrote:

“… no one else has perceived that my chief interest in the orchid book has been that it is a ‘flank movement’ on the enemy.”

I personally found this insight into Darwin’s thinking fascinating, and much more elucidating than Steve Jones’s approach in Darwin’s Island: the Galapagos in the Garden of England (Jones, S. (2009) Hachette UK), which has rather too much S. Jones and not enough C. Darwin in it for my liking. Subsequent chapters cover Darwin’s orchids and the English countryside, orchid evolution in the Southern Hemisphere, Darwin and his colleague’s work on orchid evolution in the tropics, and the extravagant architecture of orchids.

As both a fan of orchids and of Darwin I thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of this book and cannot recommend it strongly enough for all orchid biologists, or indeed anyone with an interest in science.

AJ Cann

Alan Cann is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester and formerly Internet Consulting Editor for AoB.

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