“I do not think anything in my scientific life has given me so much satisfaction as making out the meaning of the structure of these plants.” [(Charles Darwin) OLIVER SACKS]

“I do not think anything in my scientific life has given me so much satisfaction as making out the meaning of the structure of these plants.” [(Charles Darwin) OLIVER SACKS]

In the eighteenth century, the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus had shown that flowers had sexual organs (pistils and stamens), and indeed had based his classifications on these. But it was almost universally believed that flowers were self-fertilized—why else would each flower contain both male and female organs? Linnaeus himself made merry with the idea, portraying a flower with nine stamens and one pistil as a bedchamber in which a maiden was surrounded by nine lovers. A similar conceit appeared in the second volume of Darwin’s grandfather’s book The Botanic Garden, titled The Loves of the Plants. This was the atmosphere in which the younger Darwin grew up.

But within a year or two of his return from the Beagle, Darwin felt forced, on theoretical grounds, to question the idea of self-fertilization. In an 1837 notebook, he wrote, “Do not plants which have male and female organs together yet receive influence from other plants?” If plants were ever to evolve, he reasoned, cross-fertilization was crucial—otherwise, no modifications could ever occur, and the world would be stuck with a single, self-reproducing plant instead of the extraordinary range of species it actually had. In the early 1840s, Darwin started to test his theory, dissecting a variety of flowers (azaleas and rhododendrons among them) and demonstrating that many of these had structural devices for preventing or minimizing self-pollination.

He had observed, as others had, that primrose flowers came in two different forms: a “pin” form with a long style—the female part of the flower—and a “thrum” form with a short style. These differences were thought to have no particular significance. But Darwin suspected otherwise, and examining bunches of primroses that his children brought him, he found that the ratio of pins to thrums was exactly one to one.

Darwin’s imagination was instantly aroused: a one-to-one ratio was what one might expect of species with separate males and females—could it be that the long-styled flowers, though hermaphrodites, were in the process of becoming female flowers and the short-styled ones male flowers? Was he actually seeing intermediate forms, evolution in action? It was a lovely idea, but it did not hold up, for the short-styled flowers, the putative males, produced as much seed as the long-styled, “female” ones. Here (as his friend T. H. Huxley would have put it) was “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

What, then, was the meaning of these different styles and their one-to-one ratio? Giving up theorizing, Darwin turned to experiment. Painstakingly, he tried acting as a pollinator himself, lying facedown on the lawn and transferring pollen from flower to flower: long-styled to long-styled, short-styled to short-styled, long-styled to short-styled, and vice versa. When seeds were produced, he collected and weighed them and found that the richest crop of seeds came from the crossbred flowers. He concluded that heterostyly, in which plants have styles of different length, was a special device that had evolved to facilitate outbreeding and that crossing increased the number and vitality of seeds (he called this “hybrid vigour”). Darwin later wrote, “I do not think anything in my scientific life has given me so much satisfaction as making out the meaning of the structure of these plants.”

Although this subject remained a special interest of Darwin’s (he published a book on it in 1877, The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species), his central concern was how flowering plants adapted themselves to using insects as agents for their own fertilization. It was well known that insects were attracted to certain flowers, visited them, and could emerge from blossoms covered with pollen. But no one had thought this was of much importance, since it was assumed that flowers were self-pollinated.

Darwin had already become suspicious of this by 1840, and in the 1850s he set five of his children to work plotting the flight routes of male humble bees. He especially admired the native orchids that grew in the meadows around Down, so he started with those. Then, with the help of friends and correspondents who sent him orchids to study, and especially Hooker, who was now director of Kew Gardens, he extended his studies to tropical orchids of all kinds.

The orchid work moved quickly and well, and in 1862 Darwin was able to send his manuscript to the printers. The book had a typically long and explicit Victorian title, On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects.

Darwin interrogated orchids, interrogated flowers, as no one had ever done before, and in his orchid book he provided enormous detail, far more than is to be found in the Origin.

It was here that Darwin made a radical break and cracked the secret of flowers, by showing that their special features—the various patterns, colors, shapes, nectars, and scents by which they lured insects to flit from one plant to another, and the devices which ensured that the insects would pick up pollen before they left the flower—were all “contrivances,” as he put it; they had all evolved in the service of cross-fertilization.

What had once been a pretty picture of insects buzzing about brightly colored flowers now became an essential drama in life, full of biological depth and meaning. The colors and smells of flowers were adapted to insects’ senses. While bees are attracted to blue and yellow flowers, they ignore red ones, because they are red-blind. On the other hand, their ability to see beyond the violet is exploited by flowers which use ultraviolet markings—the honey guides that direct bees to their nectaries. Butterflies, with good red vision, fertilize red flowers but may ignore the blue and violet ones. Flowers pollinated by night-flying moths tend to lack color but to exude their scents at night. And flowers pollinated by flies, which live on decaying matter, may mimic the (to us) foul smells of putrid flesh.

It was not just the evolution of plants but the coevolution of plants and insects that Darwin illuminated for the first time. Thus natural selection would ensure that the mouth parts of insects matched the structure of their preferred flowers—and Darwin took special delight in making predictions here. Examining one Madagascan orchid with a nectary nearly a foot long, he predicted that a moth would be found with a proboscis long enough to probe its depths; decades after his death, such a moth was finally discovered.






The River of Consciousness

Oliver Sacks



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