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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Alfred Newton   21 March 1863

Elveden, Thetford

21 March 1863.

My dear Sir,

A few days ago I received from Mr. Sclater a note written to him by Dr. Hooker mentioning your wish to obtain a tuber of the Wild Potato—1 I am very glad to say that it is in my power to supply you with two—the only two I have left— Had I known you were desirous of a specimen—I should certainly have placed the whole dozen that I brought home at your disposal. They were given to me by a Mr. Colchester who is a merchant at Valparaiso, and was my fellow passenger from the West Indies a short time ago—2 He told me he dug them up just before he came away—I suppose in November last—

He said they were growing on low hills near the sea, and on ground which had never been disturbed, for I asked him as to the possibility of their having been descended from cultivated ancestors— This gentleman though no naturalist, is very intelligent in matters of natural history—and if you wanted a correspondent in that part of the world might prove very useful. He assured me however that these wild potatoes are very bitter to the taste—which does not accord with your experience of the Chiloë ones, as given in your ‘Journal’—3

I hope shortly to send you the foot of a Red-legged Partridge to which an enormous ball of clay is attached, in illustration of what you have said as to Birds transporting seeds4—though in this case I am not sure that the bearer of the incumbrance could have ever flown with it.

I mean to show the specimen at a meeting of the Zoological Society—and will then, with the owner’s permission, hand it over to you—5 If this bird could have flown it could certainly have conveyed a very extensive Flora to a new island—the mass of clay being about 3 inches x 212 x 2.

I hope the potatoes will arrive safely, and I remain, Yours very truly | Alfred Newton

Charles Darwin Esqre. | F.R.S.


Learning that Joseph Dalton Hooker had received, through Philip Lutley Sclater, specimens of South American wild potato brought back by Newton from his visit to the Americas, CD expressed a desire to obtain such specimens in order to test their fertility with cultivated varieties (see letters from J. D. Hooker, [6 March 1863] and [15 March 1863], and letter to J. D. Hooker, 13 [March 1863]). Hooker subsequently wrote to Sclater, asking him to pass on his request to Newton (see the letter from Hooker to Sclater, dated [15 March 1863], and the covering letter from Sclater to Newton, dated 16 March 1863, in Cambridge University Library, Alfred Newton papers).
Mr Colchester has not been further identified. Newton made a short visit to the West Indies in October and November 1862, returning to Britain in January 1863 (see Wollaston 1921, p. 75, and letter to Alfred Newton, 24 March [1863], n. 2).
Newton apparently refers mistakenly to CD’s description in Journal of researches, p. 347, of the wild potatoes he found in the Chonos Archipelago in January 1835. CD stated that the tubers, when cooked, were ‘watery and insipid’, and he contrasted this with the bitter taste others had reported of the wild potatoes growing on the nearby island of Chiloé.
In the 1850s CD had made an extensive study of the geographical dispersal of seeds (see Correspondence vols. 5 and 6); the subject is discussed in Origin, pp. 356–65.
Newton exhibited the foot of the partridge Caccabis rufa at a meeting of the Zoological Society of London on 21 April 1863; its owner was Henry Stevenson, secretary of the Norfolk and Norwich Museum (see Newton 1863). Newton made the specimen available to CD in October 1863 (see letter from Alfred Newton, 31 October 1863). In the fourth edition of Origin, p. 432, CD reported that the earth adhering to the foot of the specimen weighed 612 oz, and that, despite having been kept for three years, it yielded eighty-two plants when broken, watered, and placed under a bell glass.


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

Journal of researches: Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy, RN, from 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.

Newton, Alfred. 1863. On an illustration of the manner in which birds may occasionally aid in the dispersion of seeds. [Read 21 April 1863.] Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1863): 127–9.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Wollaston, Alexander Frederick Richmond. 1921. Life of Alfred Newton, professor of comparative anatomy, Cambridge University, 1866–1907. With a preface by Sir Archibald Geikie. London: John Murray.


Sends tuber of Chilean wild potato, requested through Hooker and P. L. Sclater.

Plans to exhibit a bird’s foot with a large ball of clay attached. This phenomenon supports CD on seed dispersal.

Letter details

Letter no.
Alfred Newton
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Elveden, Thetford
Source of text
DAR 172: 39
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4054,” accessed on 2 August 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 11