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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. D. Hooker   [November 1851]

6 or 7 years ago.

Dr Lyall has sent a splendid collection from the Southern & middle Island,1 without a single new Fern: he is on his way home, with, I expect, a fine lot of phenogamic plants.2

There are 4 or 5 genera of flowering Plants in N.Z. so large (for an Island where all the genera are small) & so disgustingly Protean, that I am again reconsidering old Bory de Vincents dictum as to the variability of Insular species—3 Some of these genera are peculiar to New Zealand, others to itself & Australia; & others still are mundane to an excessive degree, as Oxalis & Epilobium.— Of the Oxalis there are really but 2 New Zeald. species in all—4

1) O. Magellanica common to N. Zeald, V D Land5 & Fuegia—long known under the 3 names of lactea (in V.DL.)—Catareactæ (in N Zeald) & Magellanica in Fuegia—all scarce plants in Herbaria, insufficiently described in books & being from very widely sundered localities no one ever supposed them the same.

The other is O. corniculata, the commonest & most variable plant in the whole world perhaps— Cunningham6 however was no Botanist,—he made 8 species of this one unfortunate!, never dreaming that it was a plant found elsewhere, in any of its Protean forms. Now had Cunningham not preceded me, I should never have noted this genus as favouring Bory’s views, & as it is I fear that in doing so I am more swayed by the fact of its having deceived another, than by a just appreciation of its real value—

Take another genus, Alseuosmia—peculiar to the Island— I should never have dreamt of making above 3 species of it.7 Cunningham makes 8.— A third, Coprosma, is almost peculiar to N. Zeald & for the life of me I do not know how to draw the line between there being only one species, or 28.!—8 it covers the country in every form of herb, bush & Tree, from sea to Mt top.—but it is no worse than Rubus, Willow, or Rosa over Gt Britain9 & on the whole I ignore Borys theory.— Generally speaking the N. Zeald species are as well or better marked than the Europæan—or the Australian—where Eucalyptus & various other genera are not to be surpassed in protean dispositions. For the rest recent discoveries rather tend to ally the N. Zeald. Flora with the Australian—though there is enough affinity with Extratropical S. Am. to be very remarkable & far more than can be accounted for by any known laws of migration— I am becoming slowly more convinced of the probability of the southern flora being a fragmentary one—all that remains of a great Southern Continent.10 A second species of the otherwise strictly great S. American genus Calceolaria has turned up in N. Zealand,11 & of the two only genera of N. Zeald Leguminosae, one, a tree, (Edwardsia) is common to Chili & N. Zeald & to no other countries. The other is confined to N.Z. & allied to nothing.12 Several of the truly wild grasses are Europæan I think, & yet not found in Australia!.

My wife joins in best regards

Ever dear Darwin Yrs | Jos D Hooker.

P.S. I have been reading Owen upon Lyell in the Qly. & am sick of it & from it.13

CD annotations

1.1 6 or … plants. 2.3] crossed pencil
6.2 A third, … Mt top.—— 6.5] scored brown crayon
9.1 P.S… . it.] crossed pencil
Top of first page: ‘Geo Dis’pencil, circled pencil; ‘3 [over illeg] & 20’ brown crayon; ‘1 &’ brown crayon;14 ‘Nov. 1851’ pencil


David Lyall had been assistant surgeon in H.M.S. Terror on the Antarctic expedition commanded by James Clark Ross, 1839–43. Hooker served as assistant surgeon and botanist in the companion ship, H.M.S. Erebus. Lyall had then served with the H.M.S. Acheron expedition to New Zealand from 1847. The Acheron was paid off in Sydney at the end of 1851. Lyall arrived back in England in 1852.
Lyall was the only botanist to have collected in the southern island of New Zealand or on the west coast north of Dusky Bay (J. D. Hooker 1853–5, 1: v).
Hooker listed 79 extremely variable genera, out of a total of 282, in J. D. Hooker 1853–5, 1: xxxvii. He found that ‘the more or less local genera are rather more variable than the widely diffused.’ Jean Baptiste Georges Marie Bory de Saint-Vincent’s ‘dictum’ was that the species of insular floras were polymorphic (see ibid., p. xiv n.). See also Correspondence vol. 3, letter to J. D. Hooker, [11–12 July 1845], in which Hooker’s views are stated to be the exact reverse of those of Bory de Saint-Vincent.
In J. D. Hooker 1853–5, 1: 42, Hooker explained why he considered the genus Oxalis to have only two species in New Zealand: I have carefully examined an immense suite of specimens of this plant, from New Zealand and all other parts of the world; and having compared all Mr. Cunningham’s original ones, I can confidently assert, that the author’s eight species (included here under one) are due to his not being familiar with the O. corniculata and O. stricta of Europe, which vary quite as much elsewhere when they grow freely, as they do in New Zealand.
Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
Allan Cunningham, who had collected plants for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in New Zealand, 1826–31 and 1838, before his death in Sydney in 1839 (J. D. Hooker 1853–5, 1: iv).
J. D. Hooker 1853–5, 1: 103, in which four species of the genus are listed.
A very large New Zealand genus, in which Hooker eventually identified 19 species (J. D. Hooker 1853–5, 1: 103–11).
Hooker maintained this opinion in J. D. Hooker 1853–5, 1: xviii, and concluded that, although a number of species and genera showed marked variability, he had not proved ‘whether in this respect the New Zealand flora is more variable than others’ (p. xxxix).
The only two species of Calceolaria that appear outside America are those found in New Zealand (J. D. Hooker 1853–5, 1: 187).
Hooker eventually listed three genera of Leguminosae in New Zealand: Clianthus, Edwardsia, and Carmichælia, the latter confined to New Zealand (J. D. Hooker 1853–5, 1: 49–52).
The Quarterly Review, no. 89, September 1851, pp. 412–51, carried an unsigned review of the eighth edition of Charles Lyell’s Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1850), of the third edition of the Manual of elementary geology (C. Lyell 1851a), and of Lyell’s anniversary address to the Geological Society (C. Lyell 1851b), in which Lyell attacked the doctrine of progressive development in the fossil record. The review, entitled ‘Lyell—on life and its successive developement’, was critical of Lyell’s views and defended the idea of progressive development. Richard Owen was the author (Wellesley index 1: 735, no. 1040).
The numbers refer to CD’s portfolios of notes for his species work. Portfolio 20 contained material on geographical distribution, and 3 notes on variation. The subject of portfolio number 1 has not been identified.


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

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1853–5. Flora Novæ-Zelandiæ. 2 vols. Pt 2 of The botany of the Antarctic voyage of HM discovery ships Erebus and Terror, in the years 1839–1843, under the command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross. London: Lovell Reeve.

Wellesley index: The Wellesley index to Victorian periodicals 1824–1900. Edited by Walter E. Houghton et al. 5 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1966–89.


Flora of New Zealand.

Reconsidering variability of insular species.

Becoming convinced of the probability that the southern flora is a fragmentary one – all that remains of a great southern continent.

Letter details

Letter no.
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 100: 82–5
Physical description
7pp inc †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1460,” accessed on 28 July 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 5