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Darwin Correspondence Project

From L. E. Becker   23–4 May [1863]1

Altham | Accrington.

May 23rd.


Allow me to thank you for your most kind and courteous reply to the communic⁠⟨⁠ation⁠⟩⁠ I ventured to make to you   I am indeed grateful that you wish to investigate the structure and history of the curious Lychnis.2 I hope in the course of next week to send you a small hamper containing roots which will probably continue to flower this season after they have been planted in your garden. On receipt of your second letter this morning I went into the wood and examined 137 plants of Lychnis,3 taking them indiscriminately, though I do not pretend to have examined all I saw. The plants were of four kinds, viz

1 Male flowers of the usual type small pale yellow anthers   56

2 Female flower do. with long spreading pistils   25

3 Hermaphrodites having large dark purple anthers and dark purple anthers and short straight upright pistils   31

Male flowers with stamens like those of the hermaphrodite   25

I searched in vain for a female flower with pistils like the hermaphrodite or an hermaphrodite with pistils like the female flower. this suggests the query Can the long spreading pistils be an adaptation or a struggle to catch the pollen wafted from a distant flower, a provision needless in the hermaphrodite which has an abundant supply close at hand.

I tried in vain to classify the plants according to the ⁠⟨⁠length⁠⟩⁠ of the stamens   this ⁠⟨⁠seems to⁠⟩⁠ vary indefinitely even in the same flower— And I think that when the plant has been gathered a few days, the stamens do grow rather long; you will readily sort the flowers I sen⁠⟨⁠t⁠⟩⁠ under the four heads I have enumerated. I have put in one or two of the common type for comparison with those which grow in your district. I have been given to understand that hermaphrodites occasionally appear in this Lychnis, but have never been able to make out whether they normally differ so much in the character of their stamens and pistils from the common form as do those found at Altham. I have never seen an hermaphrodite Lychnis diurna4 except in the woods ⁠⟨⁠near⁠⟩⁠ here where it is, ⁠⟨⁠as⁠⟩⁠ you may gather from the numbers given above, very abundant, and so I have observed it several years in succession, I fancy it is hereditary. I will take care to collect as much se⁠⟨⁠ed⁠⟩⁠ as I can during the summer marking and noting the plants from which I obtain it, and transmit it to you at the end of the season in the capsules. I will also find out as much as possible of the distribution numbers and range of the variety. There is a practically unlimited supply of specimens here and I need hardly say that I shall be most happy to send you as many, and whenever you would like to have them. I hope it is not asking too much that y⁠⟨⁠ou⁠⟩⁠ will be good enough to favour me ⁠⟨⁠wi⁠⟩⁠th the result of your investigation and also let me know if you hear of the variety occurring in other places.

I am Sir | yours very respectfully | Lydia E. Becker

May. 24. I have kept the flowers fresh till today to avoid the detention in the post office over the Sunday. I hope they will arrive in good condition but I will enclose a tin can also with a bunch of the flowers in the packet of roots.

CD annotations

2.2 Can the … hand. 2.5] scored ink

End of letter:


‘White Lychnis = some Pods in separate paper’ ink

CD note:

May 26th. The purple anthers a fungus— There is beautiful gradation in so-called hermaphrodite ovarium & stigma of all sizes & length—5 In [‘ma’ del] several males a [minute] point, or longish single green style, representing whole female organ.— In pure Female minute vestiges of stamen, some with minute double head, representing anthers.—6


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letters from L. E. Becker, 18 May 1863 and 21 May [1863].
The letter to Becker has not been found. The reference is to Lychnis dioica (Silene dioica) (see letters from L. E. Becker, 18 May 1863 and 21 May [1863]). CD’s interest in information on L. dioica was probably partly related to his investigations into the relationship between differently coloured anthers and dimorphism. He had hypothesised that the structure and colour of stamens might be a better guide to the occurrence of functional dimorphism than the length of stamens and pistils alone (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to J. D. Hooker, 22 [August 1862] and n. 14, and letter to Daniel Oliver, 2 September [1862] and n. 7, and this volume, letter to J. D. Hooker, 15 and 22 May [1863] and n. 13).
The letter to Becker has not been found.
Lychnis diurna was a synonym for L. dioica (Index Kewensis).
CD’s observations of the diseased specimens of Lychnis dioica led him to hypothesise that the pistil was developed in compensation for the pollen having been destroyed at an early period by the fungus (see Becker 1869).
CD had long been interested in the rudimentary sexual organs found in the flowers of Lychnis dioica (see, for example, Correspondence vol. 9, letter to J. D. Hooker, 25 November [1861], and letters to Daniel Oliver, 30 November [1861], and 7 December [1861] and n. 5, and Correspondence vol. 10, letter to W. E. Darwin, 14 February [1862] and n. 6). In Cross and self fertilisation, pp. 410–11, CD used the rudimentary stamens and pistils found, respectively, in the female and male plants of this species to argue that some dioecious plants evolved from hermaphrodite species.


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

Cross and self fertilisation: The effects of cross and self fertilisation in the vegetable kingdom. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1876.

Index Kewensis: Index Kewensis: plantarum phanerogamarum, nomina et synonyma omnium generum et specierum … nomine recepto auctore patria unicuique plantae subjectis. 4 vols., and 20 supplements. Compiled by Benjamin Daydon Jackson, et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 1893–1996.


Gives the results of her observations on Lychnis; lists four different types of flower present and their occurrence.

Letter details

Letter no.
Lydia Ernestine Becker
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 160: 107
Physical description
5pp damaged †, CD note

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4182,” accessed on 21 October 2021,

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