Charles Darwin, gardener
An exhibition at The New York Botanical Garden reveals the naturalist’s botanical roots .
In 1857, Charles Darwin staked out a two-by-three-foot patch of ground in his orchard, cleared away all the grass and other plants, and fenced it off. Then he waited, watched, and took notes.Skip to next paragraph
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Any gardener can predict what happened next: the rectangle of bare earth soon sprouted seedlings — of weeds. This little plot, which Darwin called his “weed garden,” was a testing ground for the principle of natural selection, one of the key mechanisms in his theory of evolution.
Darwin’s home gardens – and the meadows, bog, and orchard surrounding Down House, his estate in Kent, England – composed his field station for the botanical research he pursued before and after the publication of "Origin of a Species by Means of Natural Selection."
The gardens yielded lovelier and more useful plants than scrappy weed seedlings, as demonstrated by the representative flower beds, kitchen garden, and orchard re-created in "Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure," an exhibition at The New York Botanical Garden (through June 15).
In the botanical garden’s Haupt Conservatory, brilliant spires of hollyhock, delphinium, and larkspur surround a partial replica of Darwin’s study at Down House. Visitors approach the structure on a facsimile of the “sandwalk,” well known to Darwin scholars, on which the naturalist strolled and pondered questions posed by the curve of a stem or a flower’s distinctive form.
In his study, equipped with a microscope and a camera, he dissected flowers like the surgeon he had once aspired to be. He was searching for the mechanisms that familiar plants used to function and survive. What cellular processes caused them to bend toward the light? What happened when they “slept”? What drew a bee to one flower, a hummingbird to another?
Although his garden laboratory had yielded insights that formed the basis for many of the arguments expressed in "Origin," he plunged back into botanical research immediately after its publication, to further refine and test his ideas. “In the growing season of 1860 ... Darwin threw himself into his botanical experiments,” says David Kohn, a Darwin historian and professor emeritus at Drew University, who curated the exhibition.
“That summer, he was focused on primroses, orchids, and carnivorous plants,” says Dr. Kohn, who also is the general editor of the Darwin Digital Library at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Fascinated with a carnivorous bog plant so tiny that it could be cupped in a man’s palm, Darwin fed it unlikely “foods” — egg white, cinders, bits of wood, even chloroform — seeking to understand why it had developed its ability to feed upon insects, and what caused it to close its sticky trap.
A display of the delicate plant – and similar ones of orchids and primroses, which also consumed Darwin’s attention that summer – let visitors explore the big ideas that arose from these experiments.
And they were big ideas. “Flowering plants threw a wrench into the idea of creationism,” the reigning doctrine of the day,” Kohn explains. Creationism held that the number of species was fixed and unchanging, since all forms of life had been created at the same point in time. But scientists of Darwin’s day were chafing against the discovery of countless plant varieties, or variations within species, that creationism could not explain.