skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From Asa Gray   17 November 1862

Cambridge, Mass.

Nov. 17, 62.

Dear Darwin

Nothing to say.— Seeds from a different region of Nesæa verticillata have come in. I send a few—to make surer,—1 and I put upon you the posting of the enclosures,—and the turning over of the 12cts stamp to Leonard, with my compliments—2

Yes—a note about Cypripedium insigne, just flowering in conservatory. Orifice in front very large—different from our species.— The lateral basal orifice under anther pretty large & free. Beard at base of the labellum inside very short and sparse.—

Altogether more room to move into and out of flower, and in it. Fertilization I guess is done by larger insects passing bodily into the cavity.3

But the stigma is smooth! not a vestige of the rasping arrangement which I found in our indigenous species.

What is the use of genera if the structure is not same throughout? Verily, I shall begin to credit your theory of accidents!4

Ever Yours | A. Gray

I rejoice at the removal of McLellan,—lacks decision.5

CD annotations

0.1 Cambridge … compliments— 1.4] crossed ink
Top of letter: ‘(Cypripedium)’ red crayon


At CD’s request, Gray had sent seeds of Nesaea verticillata with his letter to CD of 27 October 1862; CD considered the plant likely to be trimorphic.
Leonard Darwin had written to Gray at his suggestion to tell him which North American postage stamps he most wanted for his collection (see letter from Asa Gray, 22 September 1862 and n. 3).
At CD’s request, Gray had examined the pollination mechanisms in a number of North American species of the orchid genus Cypripedium, concluding that, for the North American species, the account given by CD in Orchids was incorrect (see, for example, letter to Asa Gray, 10–20 June [1862] and n. 16). C. insigne, which is not a native North American species, was one of the species on which CD had based his account (see Orchids, p. 273). In Orchids, pp. 274–5, CD suggested that Cypripedium must be pollinated by an insect inserting its proboscis into one of the two lateral entrances at the base of the labellum, directly over one of the two lateral anthers, and thus either placing the pollen onto the flower’s own stigma, or carrying it away to another flower. However, Gray suggests here that C. insigne supported his view that the flowers were pollinated by insects entering the labellum through the large opening on the upper surface, and crawling out by one of the two lateral orifices (see A. Gray 1862b).
Unlike CD, Gray preferred to interpret natural selection as evidence of design in nature. They had corresponded extensively on the subject in 1860 and 1861 (see Correspondence vols. 8 and 9).
George Brinton McClellan was removed from command of the Union’s army of the Potomac on 7 November 1862 (McPherson 1988, pp. 562 and 570).


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

McPherson, James M. 1988. Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.


Flower structure of Cypripedium insigne.

Letter details

Letter no.
Asa Gray
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Cambridge, Mass.
Source of text
DAR 165: 123
Physical description
2pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3811,” accessed on 7 December 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 10