Most of us think of Darwin at work on The Beagle, taking inspiration for his theory of evolution from his travels in the Galapagos. But Darwin published his Origin of Species nearly thirty years after his voyages and most of his labours in that time were focused on experimenting with and observing plants at his house in Kent. He was particularly interested in carnivorous and climbing plants, and in pollination and the evolution of flowers.

Ken Thompson sees Darwin as a brilliant and revolutionary botanist, whose observations and theories were far ahead of his time - and are often only now being confirmed and extended by high-tech modern research. Like Darwin, he is fascinated and amazed by the powers of plants - particularly their Triffid-like aspects of movement, hunting and 'plant intelligence'.

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Read the introduction from this fascinating book - which comes complete with integrated black and white illustrations.

darwin's most wonderful plants


INTRODUCTION

If you were writing a book about almost any aspect of the natural world, you could do a lot worse than start with Charles Darwin. And not only because he was the author of The Origin of Species, a book that – ultimately – explains everything. Darwin’s consuming interest in evolution fed, and in turn was fed by, an almost obsessional curiosity about natural history.

Much of this extraordinarily broad interest in the natural world, it’s true, was motivated by a search for evidence for evolution by natural selection. To take one small example, a problem that bothered Darwin (and was used as a stick to beat him by his critics) was the very wide distribution of some kinds of animals and plants. How to explain the presence of a species in two or more widely separated locations (and sometimes nowhere in between), other than that was where a Creator had chosen to put them? Part of the answer lies in plate tectonics, but that discovery lay over a century in the future (one problem with being ahead of your time is having to wait for others to catch up).

Another part of the answer is dispersal: the underappreciated ability of species to travel very large distances, often in unexpected ways. To see if seeds might be dispersed by ocean currents, Darwin spent over a year testing the ability of seeds of many species to survive immersion in sea water. He also suspected that seeds might disperse in mud stuck to the feet of wading birds, many of which were known to migrate over huge distances. But are there seeds in mud? Nothing for it but to find out:

I have tried several little experiments, but will here give only the most striking case: I took in February three table-spoonfuls of mud from three different points, beneath water, on the edge of a little pond; this mud when dry weighed only 6. ounces; I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup! Considering these facts, I think it would be an inexplicable circumstance if water-birds did not transport the seeds of fresh-water plants to vast distances, and if consequently the range of these plants was not very great.

That’s it – Darwin had no more to say on the subject, but those few words had fired the starting gun for the study of soil seed banks, now a thriving sub-discipline of plant biology and ecology.

Sometimes Darwin seemed to stumble on a whole area of biology almost by accident. For example:

I had originally intended to have described only a single abnormal Cirripede [barnacle] from the shores of South America, and was led, for the sake of comparison, to examine the internal parts of as many genera as I could procure. Describing one barnacle, one imagines, would hardly have taken him too long, but that entailed a comparison with other barnacles, one thing led to another and the eventual result, taking eight years’ work, was a two-volume monograph on this enormous class of crustaceans, running to well over 1,000 pages.

Already, we can begin to see some characteristic features of the Darwinian approach: an astonishing capacity for hard work (Thomas Edison’s dictum that ‘Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration’ could easily have described Darwin), and an unwillingness to take anything on trust. He was unimpressed by mere scientific reputation, but once persuaded that someone knew what they were talking about, he was happy to correspond with anyone from gardeners to pigeon fanciers. But if Darwin wanted to know anything, his usual response was ‘let’s find out’, and woe betide any idea that failed to stand up to experimental scrutiny. Thus his attitude to homeopathy, as fashionable among the scientifically illiterate then as it is now, was blunt:

[It is] a subject which makes me more wrath, even than does clairvoyance. Clairvoyance so transcends belief, that one’s ordinary faculties are put out of the question, but in homoeopathy common sense and common observation come into play, and both these must go to the dogs, if the infinitesimal doses have any effect whatever. How true is a remark I saw the other day by Quetelet, in respect to evidence of curative processes, viz. that no one knows in disease what is the simple result of nothing being done, as a standard with which to compare homoeopathy, and all other such things.

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