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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Sophy Wedgwood   24 March [1878–80]1

Down, | Beckenham, Kent. | Railway Station | Orpington. S.E.R.

March 24th

My dear Sophy

Will you, if you can, observe one little point for me. Plenty of Birds nest Orchis used to grow a yard or two within wood above walk at top of your arable field.—2 If you could find some just springing up, you wd be able to see whether the young flower-stems break through the ground straight or arched, thus.—


I find that the flower-stems of another leaf-less plant, Lathræa squamaria, comes up in an arch, & therefore I want to know whether this is case with Neottia. Almost all seedlings come up arched.3

Yours affectionately | Ch. Darwin

Love to your Mother.4

P.S. The Lathræa when the flower-stem breaks up through the ground, secretes such an astounding quantity of water that the ground is softened for a foot all round, & Frank who is going to observe the plant carefully, thinks that this water is secreted in order to soften the ground, so as to allow the arched flower-stem to break through.5 It wd. therefore be well observe whether the ground is extra damp round Neottia, though this is very unlikely, & I think that the plants spring up in very loose mould chiefly formed of decayed leaves.


The date range is established by the form of the address on the printed stationery, which was used by CD from November 1874, and by the mention of shoots breaking through the ground (see n. 3, below).
CD occasionally requested botanical observations from Sophy and her sisters, Lucy Caroline and Margaret Susan Wedgwood, at Leith Hill Place in Surrey (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to K. E. S., L. C., and M. S. Wedgwood, 4 [August 1862]. CD had discussed Neottia nidus-avis (bird’s-nest orchid) in Orchids, pp. 152–6.
In 1878, CD began to investigate the growth pattern of shoots as they broke through the soil (see letter to W. T. Thiselton-Dyer, 19 [May 1878] and n. 4). Notes dated 23 March, 7 and 14 April in DAR 209.6: 96 describe the arching growth of Lathraea squamaria (common toothwort) as it breaks ground. CD discussed Lathraea squamaria in Movement in plants, pp. 85–6 (published in 1880).
Caroline Sarah Wedgwood.
Francis Darwin. CD concluded that the quantity of water secreted by Lathraea squamaria was a by-product of the large amount of sap absorbed by its parasitic roots in early spring (see Movement in plants, pp. 85–6 n.).


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Movement in plants: The power of movement in plants. By Charles Darwin. Assisted by Francis Darwin. London: John Murray. 1880.

Orchids: On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1862.


Asks her to observe seedlings of Neottia breaking the surface to see whether the flower stems grow straight up or form arches, and whether they secrete water that softens the surrounding ground.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Katherine Elizabeth Sophy (Sophy) Wedgwood
Sent from
Source of text
Cambridge University Library (MS Add. 4251: 333)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11442,” accessed on 16 September 2021,