It's all about the orchids

but I didn't attend to the focus so they're blurry. Even though they are only common spotted orchids, of which we have hundreds here, I didn't want to pick any so I set this blip up in situ.

The reason is that on this day 150 years ago, May 15th 1862, Charles Darwin published On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects , not his best known work but one of several which argued for evolution through natural selection rather than divine creation, and which promoted the idea of co-evolution: how plants and insects evolve in tandem, each adapting to meet needs of the other. So, when he described the 8-12 inch spur of the Madagascan orchid's flower, he predicted the existence of a moth with a proboscis long enough to delve into it for nectar (and pollination) and he was proved correct when just such a moth was later discovered.

Orchids were only one of many diverse subjects studied by Darwin: coral reefs, barnacles, geology, earthworms, pigeons, facial expressions and so on. All were directly or indirectly concerned with his major hypotheses presented in The Origin of Species (1859) and the publication that proved even more explosive, The Descent of Man in 1871.

I've included in the picture my old vasculum (botanists' collecting box) given to me by my father when I was 9 or 10 years old, containing a few more common flowers. Underneath that is a book Darwin, A Life in Poems by Ruth Padel. Not only an acclaimed poet, she is also the great-great-grandchild of Charles Darwin and she too has a keen interest in the natural world. She has used his own words from letters and diaries as a basis for a poem sequence which traces his personal and scientific life. She describes in a preface how the passage in Darwin's autobiography dealing with his loss of faith was suppressed by his wife after his death and re-instated by her own grandmother (his grand daughter) in the 1950s.

Darwin was devoted to his children (and devastated when his 10 year old daughter Annie died.) Early in his marriage he and his wife Emma debated whether to protect the furniture or prioritize their children. They decided on the latter and allowed their offspring to incorporate the tables and chairs in their games regardless of the damage that ensued.

Here's two verses from one of the poems, called Painting the Bees.

The questions buzz at him like birds. They cling
like burrs, delight him like the children, paw like dogs.
They scratch, torment and swarm; they pollinate
like wasps. It's got to be vast -- proof, evidence,
minutiae. Orchids, fertilizing in the greenhouse.
Birdskins from India, horse-markings from Norway, finch
beaks from Galapagos, a parcel of flora from Kew...

...He sets the girls to search for worm casts. 'Damp evenings are best.'
Horace finds him snake and lizard eggs. Frank play bassoon
to worms (are they really deaf?) and even flowers
to see how they like vibration. He strings all seven children over
long grass and scabious in a chain, to paint
and track the bumble bees who pollinate red clover.

The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online
The Darwin Correspondence Project

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