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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Henry Nicholson Ellacombe   16 May 1868

Bitton Vicarage | Bristol

May. 16. 1868

Dear Sir,

Will you allow me to trouble you with a question upon the structure of Orchids, which though probably presenting no difficulty to you, has puzzled me—

I have very little acquaintance with greenhouse or Stove orchids—but I grow several hardy Orchids—and I am puzzled to make out whether there is any special purpose in the twisted character in so many of them— In Neottia spiralis the whole flower stem is twisted— In Epipactis latifolia & in others the germen stalk1 is twisted—in Epipactis grandiflora the germen itself is twisted—in Cypripedium pubescens the petals are all much twisted—and generally speaking there seems to be a twistiness in the whole family, & not confined to any one portion of the plant— I think I have noticed in some that the leaves are resupinate,2 as in Alstrœmeria or Bomarea, but of this I am not sure. Now my puzzle is this—having learned from your most interesting book on Orchids3 the difficulties attending their fertilization, I have been led to think whether this twistiness can have any connection with it? Can it in any way facilitate the fertilization? or preserve it when made? I cannot myself see the slightest connection, but believing that every action in a plant’s life has some reference to its reproduction, I think it at least an interesting question whether this character of the orchids is in any way essential.

It seems to be a wonderful year for the Orchids. I never saw the O. mascula4 in such grand beauty, both for size & colour— I have several orchids now in flower in my garden, but the grandest is a plant of Cypripedium pubescens with between 30 & 40 blossoms well out—C. Calceolus is also in good flower—& C. spectabile5 promising well—

I must conclude by apologing for troubling you in this way as a perfect stranger—& am, Sir, | Yours faithfully | Henry. N. Ellacombe


Germen stalk: i.e. pedicel. Epipactis latifolia is a synonym of E. helleborine.
Resupinate: upside down by twisting (Chambers). The term ‘resupinate’ is generally used for any orchid flower that has the lip on the lower side. See Dressler 1981, pp. 41–3 for more on varieties of resupination in different orchids.
Orchis mascula (the early purple orchid).
Cypripedium spectabile is a synonym of Cypripedium reginae.


Chambers: The Chambers dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap Publishers. 1998.

Dressler, Robert L. 1981. The orchids: natural history and classification. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press.


Asks function of several twisted parts (stem, petals, germen) in hardy orchids. His reading of Orchids makes him suspect that the parts are connected with fertilisation.

Letter details

Letter no.
Henry Nicholson Ellacombe
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 163: 14/1
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6177,” accessed on 19 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 16