Charles Darwin and the fuchsia
Thursday, February 12, 2015
Everybody knows Darwin. The man surely needs no introduction. Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) was, of course, the great British naturalist, geologist and biologist best known for his seminal and explosive work, On the Origin of Species in 1859, in which he proposed the then-controversial scientific theory that the process of natural selection drives the branching and evolution of species. Well on his way to becoming a clergyman in rural England, Darwin was providentially recruited to join the HMS Beagle for its famed second voyage surveying the coast of South America from 1831-1836.
Despite the Beagle's rather routine warrant, the mission would prove to be historic for the profound influence it had on the young Darwin. But the questions it raised in his curious mind would only come later. The ship returned to England via New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia. Darwin didn't rejoin the Beagle for its third mission to map the entire coast of Australia (1837-1843) but the crew might well have missed him as they named Port Darwin in his honor. Or at least in honor of a new type of fine-grained sandstone found at Port Darwin that reminded them of him.
It was from the Tierra del Fuego in June 1834 that Darwin first quoted Captain Phillip Parker King's (1791-1856) observation of "large woody stemmed trees of Fuchsia and Veronica, in England considered and treated as tender plants, in full flower, within a very short distance of the base of a mountain covered for two-thirds down with snow, and with the temperature at 36°…Hummingbirds were seen sipping the sweets of the flowers after two or three days of constant rain, snow, and sleet, during which time the thermometer had been at the freezing point”.
Later on December 18th of the same year, he recounted his own first personal brush with the fuchsia at Cabo Tres Montes when he "succeeded in reaching the summit of this hill. It was a laborious undertaking, for the sides were so steep, that in some parts it was necessary to use the trees as ladders: there were also several extensive brakes of the Fuchsia covered with its beautiful drooping flowers, but very difficult to crawl through”. There’s no mention of Darwin’s descent through the fuchsias.
According to Duncan Porter in "Charles Darwin's Chilean Plant Collections" (Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 72: 181-200, 1999), Darwin apparently sent a scientific specimen of those very same fuchsias back to England as well. The specimen, however, is listed by Porter as missing from Darwin's known collections preserved at Cambridge, Kew and in other herbaria. A set of Darwin's Chilean plants had been sent to John Stevens Henslow at the Cambridge Botanic Garden for identification but Henslow was unable to work much on the almost fifteen hundred specimens due to his other duties. In an appeal from Henslow, it had fallen to Sir William Jackson Hooker, an eminent botanist at Glasgow University and first director of Kew from 1841 to 1865, to help identify mainly plants from the Aster Family.
However, it is to his friend Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker—one of the greatest British botanists and explorers of the nineteenth century and next director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew after his father from 1865 to 1885—that we seem to owe the sole record of Darwin's collection of the fuchsia. According to Porter, the younger Hooker ascribes "Fuchsia magellanica Lam. (Onagraceae). Prov. Aisén: Bahía San Andres, Península de Taito, 22 December 1834" to Darwin in The botany of the Antarctic voyage of H.M. discovery ships Erebus and Terror (1843-1847). The date and location make sense as this Fuchsia would have been collected by Darwin only days after his arduous climb through those difficult thickets of fuchsias to the top of the hill at Cabo Tres Montes.
Unfortunately, Porter doesn't provide a firm citation and the only reference to Darwin and the fuchsia in Hooker’s Botany of the Voyage is simply an abbreviated confirmation of habitat. Live specimens of some of the Chilean plants sent on by Darwin from Valdivia and Valparaíso were grown in the Cambridge Botanic Garden by Henslow from seed as well. It's not known if F. magellanica might have been among any of those Chilean plants raised by Henslow. Darwin did many experiments in botany to support his theories at his home at Down House in Kent, using his own children and gardeners as assistants. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that he grew fuchsias there himself but it would have been unusual if he hadn’t at least one. Fuchsias were increasingly popular and fashionable garden and greenhouse plants during the Victorian period and he does make mention of them in a horticultural context. The whole of Darwin’s extensive archives are slowing being digitized in a massive project between Cambridge and the American Museum of Natural History and it’s hoped that there will eventually be some indication in his other manuscripts. He was a meticulous record keeper in all aspects.
No other Fuchsia species were noted by Darwin during the next legs of the trip. F. magellanica is the only member of the genus, besides Fuchsia lycioides at the edge of the arid Atacama Desert of Chile, that comes down from the mountains to the coast on this side of South America so it's not surprising that Darwin seemed more taken with the numerous finches in the Galápagos Islands by the time the expedition passed through the archipelago. The British did after all have a profound affection for collecting exotic birds and the Islands had ornithology in spades even if the landscape seemed a bit meagre.
Darwin's take on F. lycioides might have been especially interesting if he had encountered it as the Beagle slowly made its way up the Pacific coast That species, also sometimes called the box-thorn fuchsia, seems to be evolving into a thorny cactus in its harsh desert habitat. During the dry season, its leaves fall away unusually leaving the leaves’ stems behind to bristle from the branches. On the Atlantic coast of southern São Paulo and Paraná states, in mountainous areas of southeastern Brazil, Fuchsia brevilobis does occur from 900 meters (3000 feet) down to sea level but the Beagle never made landfall in the area after stopping in Rio de Janeiro for supplies in 1832.
Fuchsia did rate a mention in On the Origin of Species itself. But only as a garden inhabitant: "The practical experiments of horticulturists, though not made with scientific precision, deserve some notice. It is notorious in how complicated a manner the species of Pelargonium, Fuchsia, Calceolaria, Petunia, Rhododendron, &c., have been crossed, yet many of these hybrids seed freely." In The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), Darwin refers to it but, again, only in the company of other popular garden plants as "one of the plants which are cultivated for their flowers alone [and] in their present state are the descendants of two or more species crossed and commingled together".
In the same work he quotes, “…the remarkable case of a seed from Fuchsia coccinea fertilised by Fuchsia fulgens, which contained two embryos, and was 'a true vegetable twin.' The two plants produced from the two embryos were 'extremely different in appearance and character,' though both resembled other hybrids of the same parentage produced at the same time”. Darwin seems more fascinated by this odd chimera as a freak of horticulture than as a normal plant and the remarkable number of differentiated Fuchsia species hiding out in the Andes remain unnoticed.
Only in a private letter to the eminent British geologist and close friend Charles Lyell in 1866, does Darwin finally come close to recognizing the scientific potential and evolutionary usefulness of the many diverse Fuchsia species as anything more than pleasing garden ornaments. "It seems I had erred greatly about some of the plants on the Organ Mountains," he writes. "But I am very glad to hear about Fuchsia, etc”.
Darwin had himself only viewed these distant peaks, home of a number of fuchsias such as Fuchsia regia and Fuchsia alpestris, from the Beagle as it slowly passed down the coast of Brazil in 1832. He later wondered "how any, ever so few, temperate forms reached the mountains of Brazil" and was now trying to understand what the evidence of these temperate-climate plants separated from their relatives in the Andes Mountains across "low intervening hot countries" might mean.
As a route of dispersal and differentiation he supposed that they "traveled by the rather high land and ranges (name forgotten) which stretches from the Cordillera [Chilean-Argentinean Andes between 31° and 39° S latitude] towards Brazil. Cordillera genera of plants have also, somehow, reached the Silla of Caracas [in the Venezuelan Coastal Range of the Andes]”. Scientists in this period, of course, were only beginning to understand the vast changes that have happened in the Earth's drifting geology, as well as the causes and effects of these changes on climate and plants and animals.
Today, by the way, is Charles Darwin’s 206th birthday. Happy Darwin Day!
(Illustrations: 1. Detail from the Portrait of Charles Darwin. George Richmond, 1840; 2. H.M.S Beagle 1832. Raymond Massey, 1832; 3. The rounded knob of the Cabo Tres Montes at the end of the Taitao Peninsula. The Bahía de San Andrés lies on the Pacific Ocean and is the indent in the upper western corner of the map; 4. Down House, Charles Darwin's residence in Kent. Engraving by J. R. Brown, 1869; 5. Entrance of Rio de Janeiro. Engraved by Louis Haghe, published by Day & Haghe, Smith Elder & Co., Cornhill, about 1830; 6. Interior view of Darwin's greenhouses at Down House. "The Debt of Science to Darwin," The Century, Vol. 25, Issue 3 (January 1883);
7. The Organ Mountains in Brazil. Illustrated Travels: A Record of Discovery, Geography, and Adventure, London, 1880; 8. Detail of the earliest known likeness of the young Darwin at the age of seven from a chalk drawing by Ellen Sharples of Charles and his sister Catherine done in 1816. Interestingly Sharples, and her artist husband and children, spent several years in America before returning to England. They were noted for their portraits of prominent people such as Joseph Priestley, Martha and George Washington, Benjamin Rush, John and Mrs. Bard, Eleanor Parke Custis, Alexander Hamilton, Sir Joseph Banks, and the Marquis de Lafayette; 9, Fuchsia. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859, p. 251; 10. Below, Portrait of Charles Darwin. George Richmond, 1840; 11. Far bottom, Fuchsia magellanica at the edge of a lake in Patagonia. Fuchsias in the City, 2010.)