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Charles Darwin, gardener

An exhibition at The New York Botanical Garden reveals the naturalist’s botanical roots .

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Cross-fertilization, the mechanism that produced such diversity, also remained a mystery before Darwin’s botanical experiments, because scientists did not believe that plants could cross-pollinate.

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"In six weeks during that marvelous summer of 1860, he figures out the anatomy of all local orchid species,” Kohn says. “By the end, he is able to not only show that cross-fertilization happened and produced different varieties, but he also could predict what the pollinator for each variety would look like, based on the flower shape.”

This breakthrough supported Darwin’s argument that adaptation occurred through natural selection.

Another round of experiments, this time with members of the primrose family, allowed him to see that some adaptations guarantee cross-fertilization to maintain genetic diversity.

The exhibit also includes a display of related documents and artifacts at the botanical garden’s Mertz Library. Here, botanical prints, herbaria pages, and other artifacts chronicle what Kohn calls Darwin’s “journey of the mind.”

The library exhibit illuminates Darwin’s long love affair with plants, not only as experimental subjects and objects of enthralling beauty, but as examples of nature’s greater process: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

"Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure" also includes an interactive children’s exhibit (through June 28) in The New York Botanical Garden’s Everett Children’s Adventure Garden, and a self-guided walk through the plant collections represented in Darwin’s evolutionary Tree of Life.

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Herbariums: timeless means of preserving plants

In 1829, when Charles Darwin began studying botany at Christ's College in England,
his professor used dried specimens of plants, pressed between sheets of paper, to record the identifying characteristics of particular plants.

Each page, known as an herbarium sheet, represented an entire plant (or pieces of larger plants) in all phases of its life cycle. Field notes, including when and where the plant was taken, completed the record, the best means of preserving and documenting specimens at the time.

As it turns out, it still is. Even in the digital age, collecting plants in the field has changed little since the 16th century, when the first known European herbariums were compiled. "What we do here is comb the world to catalog plant diversity, and we do it with dried specimens, just like the old herbaria," says James Miller, dean and vice president for science at The New York Botanical Garden.

In his office, he pulls open a file drawer and plucks out a sheet showing a specimen in the borage family. "We have 7.3 million of these here, in the Steere Herbarium."

Despite modern botany's reliance on this traditional technology, scientists make use of the Internet to share specimen data around the world. The botanical garden's Virtual Herbarium's digital collections, for instance, contain about 1 million herbarium specimens and 120,000 high-resolution images-accessible to anyone, at anytime, for free.

Dip into the data at