Fertilisation of Orchids

Darwin wrote of this book in his Autobiography:

Orchids 1st editionOn May 15th, 1862, my little book on the Fertilisation of Orchids, which cost me ten months' work, was published: most of the facts had been slowly accumulated during several previous years. During the summer of 1839, and, I believe, during the previous summer, I was led to attend to the cross-fertilisation of flowers by the aid of insects, from having come to the conclusion in my speculations on the origin of species, that crossing played an important part in keeping specific forms constant. I attended to the subject more or less during every subsequent summer; and my interest in it was greatly enhanced by having procured and read in November 1841, through the advice of Robert Brown, a copy of C. K. Sprengel's wonderful book, Das entdeckte Geheimnis der Natur. For some years before 1862 I had specially attended to the fertilisation of our British orchids; and it seemed to me the best plan to prepare as complete a treatise on this group of plants as well as I could, rather than to utilise the great mass of matter which I had slowly collected with respect to other plants.

My resolve proved a wise one; for since the appearance of my book, a surprising number of papers and separate works on the fertilisation of all kinds of flowers have appeared; and these are far better done than I could possibly have effected. The merits of poor old Sprengel, so long overlooked, are now fully recognised many years after his death.

See the account of the writing and reception of this book in Life and letters, Volume 3 Text F1452.3

John van Wyhe

[Links to Fertilisation of Orchids are below]

Bibliographical introduction by R. B. Freeman

Life and letters (Vol. III, p. 274) quotes Asa Gray as saying that 'if the Orchid-book (with a few trifling omissions) had appeared before the "Origin" the author would have been canonised rather than anathematised by the natural theologians', and notes that a review in the Literary Churchman found only one fault 'that Mr. Darwin's expression of admiration at the contrivances in orchids is too indirect a way of saying, "O Lord, how manifold are Thy works.'". Darwin himself wrote to John Murray on September 24th, 1861, 'I think this little volume will do good to the "Origin", as it will show that I have worked hard at details'. From a publisher's point of view however the book was not a success.

It was concerned with working out in detail the relationships between sexual structures of orchids and the insects which fertilise them, their evolution being attributed to natural selection. It is therefore the first of the volumes of supporting evidence. It was much praised by botanists, but sold only about 6,000 copies before the turn of the century. The first edition, published on May 15 1862, is, like the early editions of The origin of species, an octavo in twelves. It has an inserted folding leaf which bears 'Figure I', whilst those in the text are numbered II to XXXIV. I have not seen any figure for the number of copies printed, although it cannot have been more than 2,000 and was probably less. It was bound in plum cloth, vertically lined and with an orchid gilt on the front cover. It is the only Murray Darwin between 1859 and 1910 not bound in green. There are thirty-two pages of inserted advertisements, dated December 1861. It sold slowly, and there is a later case in a cloth of the same colour but without the vertical lines; this may have advertisements as late as January 1871.

In 1869, Darwin published a paper (No. 1748) which is an English version of some matter which was prepared for insertion in the first French translation of the book. This matter was incorporated in the second English edition of 1877. The text of this was considerably altered and the inserted Figure I is now incorporated. Its title is condensed by the omission of On and British and Foreign as well as the last phrase. It is an octavo in eights and the binding is in standard form. This was placed on stereos and appeared up to a seventh impression in 1904. The same stereos were used for an American edition, in which country the first edition did not appear. There has been no facsimile of the first edition and the only printing since 1904 has been a recent facsimile of an American issue of the second edition of 1895. Both editions were translated into French and German in Darwin's lifetime, the first French, of 1870, containing the additions mentioned above; it has appeared in three further languages since.

The first German edition contains information on Platanthera hookeri and Cypripedium not in the English edition.

1862. On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects. London: John Murray. Text Image PDF F800

1877. The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. London: John Murray. 2d ed. Text Image PDF F801

1877. The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. New York: D. Appleton. 2d ed., revised. Image PDF F802

1882. The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. 2d ed., revised. 3d thousand. London: John Murray. Text Image PDF F803


1870. De la fécondation des orchidées par les insectes et des bons résultats du croisement. Text Image PDF F818


1877. Die verschiedenen Einrichtungen durch welche Orchideen von Insecten befruchtet werden. Text Image PDF (Provided by http://www.biolib.de/) F821


1883. I diversi apparecchi col mezzo dei quali le orchidee vengono fecondate dagli insetti. Image PDF F823


From: Freeman, R. B. 1977. The Works of Charles Darwin: An Annotated Bibliographical Handlist. 2nd edn. Dawson: Folkstone.

NOTE: With thanks to The Charles Darwin Trust and Dr Mary Whitear for use of the Bibliographical Handlist. Copyright. All rights reserved. For private academic use only. Not for republication or reproduction in whole or in part without the prior written consent of The Charles Darwin Trust, 14 Canonbury Park South London N1 2JJ.

Corrections and additions copyright The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online - National University of Singapore.


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