April 25, 2008
What Darwin Saw Out Back
By CORNELIA DEAN
IN 1860, while studying primroses in the garden of Down House, his
home in Kent, England, Charles Darwin noticed something odd about
While all the flowers had both male and female parts - anthers and
pistils - in some the anthers were prominent and in others the
pistils were longer. So he experimented in his home laboratory and
greenhouses, cross-pollinating some plants with their anatomical
opposites. The results were striking.
"He determined that if they cross-pollinate, they produce more seed
and more vigorous seedlings," said Margaret Falk, a horticulturalist
and associate vice president at the New York Botanical Garden. The
variation is evolution's way of increasing cross-pollination, she
Now the Botanical Garden is replicating this work, and more of
Darwin's Down House experiments, in a stunning, multipart exhibition
called "Darwin's Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure."
In all, the tour is 33 stops, spread throughout about half of the
garden's 250 acres. Visitors who enter the exhibition through the
Enid A. Haupt Conservatory will encounter a replica of a room in
Darwin's house, designed so they can look through the window, as he
did, to a profusion of plants and bright flowers: hollyhocks, flax and
of course primroses, what Todd Forrest, the garden's vice president
for horticulture, calls "a typical British garden." On a table
stands a tray holding quills, brushes, sealing wax and tweezers, the
kinds of simple tools Darwin used to conduct his world-shaking
Darwin grew the flowers not just for their own sake, Mr. Forrest said,
but as subjects for observation and experiment, work he carried out in
his home laboratory and greenhouses, on workbenches like those in the
exhibition. The work displayed on the benches is typical of studies
Darwin made of pollination, how plants grow, even what happens when a
carnivorous plant devours an insect. Orchids on display remind
visitors of the varieties Darwin studied, and how his observations and
dissections of their blooms led him to conclude that particular
species were pollinated by particular species of insects, a conclusion
later research confirmed.
The exhibition also includes a "tree of life" map that guides
visitors to the garden's plants and describes where they fit in the
natural scheme of things; books, drawings and notes, some in
Darwin's own hand; and an interactive exhibit for children.
It anticipates two Darwin anniversaries next year - his 200th
birthday and the 150th of his world-changing book, "The Origin of
Though most people associate that book and Darwin's ideas generally
with his voyage to the Galápagos and his study of finches there, his
work with plants was far more central to his thinking, said David
Kohn, a Darwin expert and science historian who is a curator of the
Even in the Galapágos he focused on plants, said Dr. Kohn, who is
general editor of the Darwin Digital Library of Evolution at the
American Museum of Natural History. "He did not even label the
finches," he said. "He was fascinated by plants," particularly
the way their variation and sexual reproduction challenged the idea
that species were stable, a key idea in botany at the time.
As Dr. Kohn writes in the exhibition catalogue, "plants were the one
group of organisms that he studied with most consistency and depth
over the course of a long scientific career" of collecting,
observing, experimenting and theorizing. But Darwin studied more than
flowers. He was intrigued by what Dr. Kohn calls the "behavior" of
plants - how they move, respond to light, consume insects and
otherwise act in the world.
So another exhibit in the Garden conservatory replicates Darwin's
studies of climbing plants. Mr. Forrest said Darwin studied plants
whose roots move along walls, whose stems twine, whose tendrils curl
around other plants and which climb as their leaves grow into
tendrils. Visitors who stop to ponder this display will also be able
to see, in the garden library, the wispy, primitive drawings Darwin
made as he studied plant movement and insect eating. Dr. Kohn said the
drawings, which remind him of time-lapse photography, are among his
favorite items here even though, as he noted, "Darwin was a terrible
In his orchard at Down House, Darwin established a "weed garden"
by clearing a patch of sod and tracking the germination and growth of
every seed that sprouted there. The Botanical Garden has done much the
same thing with a small patch in the conservatory.
Most seedlings in Darwin's weed garden vanished, Ms. Falk said,
losses he attributed to slugs. ("That's a gardener for you," Mr.
Forrest said, "always complaining about something.")
The work Darwin carried out in his gardens, greenhouses and home
laboratory is particularly impressive, Ms. Falk said, given that he
was limited to a simple microscope and equipment like "quills,
matchsticks, bits of wire."
"It was really in his own garden that many of his ideas came
together," she added.
As visitors walk through the Botanical Garden they will be able to
follow an illustrated maps of the tree of life - the plant part of
it, anyway - that tell them where the plants they can see fit in the
In the garden's LuEsther T. Mertz Library, they will encounter what
Jane Dorfman, its exhibitions coordinator, calls "treasures": some
on loan from Cambridge University, where Darwin studied, some from
Harvard and some the fruit of what Dr. Kohn called "rummaging" in
the garden's extensive collection of Darwiniana. Among them are
Darwin's notes from university botany class, a plant specimen he
collected on the Galápagos and his preliminary sketch of the tree of
life with his note, "I think," at the top.
The gallery also displays his "Experiment Book" with notes and
drawings of experiments he carried out in his garden, and studies of
flowers that led him to predict - accurately - what kind of bird
or insect would pollinate them.
Nearby is Darwin's 1857 letter to Asa Gray, the American botanist
who was a major supporter, in which he laid out, one by one, the ideas
he would shortly turn into "The Origin of Species." Among other
things, Dr. Kohn said, the letter is notable because it "proves
Darwin's priority" by demonstrating that it was he, and not his
fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed the theory
"It shows he's got it," Dr. Kohn said.
The tree of life exhibits, comprising an unusual mix of living plants,
laboratory expertise and historical documents, show that many plants
are surprisingly close relatives of others that seem quite different,
a concept that helps botanists when they look for likely sources of
useful plant chemicals or worry about maintaining biodiversity.
For example, "squashes and oaks are related," said Dennis W.
Stevenson, the garden's vice president for laboratory science.
"Who'd a thunk it?"
But while many branches move off simply and neatly in ways botanists
understand - they are "totally resolved," Dr. Stevenson said -
other evolutionary branchings occur in clumps called polytomies, areas
where the family history of plants is still unknown.
One major polytomy involves cycads, like palm trees (of which the
garden has an unusually large collection), and conifers, like pine
trees. Dr. Stevenson is among researchers working with the support of
the National Science Foundation to unravel this evolutionary mystery.
So far, he said, researchers have come up with two possible
explanations. Although they contradict each other, "I like them
both," Dr. Stevenson said.
Garden officials recognize that there are those who challenge
Darwin's ideas, but for them there is nothing controversial about
them. "Our whole science is based on evolution," Gregory Long, the
Botanical Garden's president, said, as he surveyed the team of
horticulturalists installing the flowers that replicate Darwin's
"It's the heart of our science," he said. "We wouldn't be
here if it hadn't been for Darwin."
"Darwin's Garden: An Evolutionary
Adventure" opens Friday and runs through June 15 at the New
Botanical Garden, Southern Boulevard and 200th Street, Bedford
Park, the Bronx; (718) 817-8700, nybg.org.