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Darwin’s Year 2009


The Morton Arboretum has completed celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of biology’s key thinkers and experimenters.  We strove through a series of invited lectures to highlight some of his seminal work in various fields of study.  Dr. Robert Martin, Field Museum of Natural History, spoke on February 12 (Darwin’s birthday anniversary) to an overflow audience of about 60 people in the library’s beautiful reading room about primate and hominid evolution — his area of expertise.  Dr. Martin had a hand in designing the “Evolving Planet” permanent exhibit at the Field Museum, which is well worth several visits.

Drs. Peter Bernhardt and Retha Meier, on March 10, spoke to a very interested audience in our Cudahy Auditorium about their field of research — orchid biology, which field was pioneered in many ways by Darwin’s book on the “Fertilisation of orchids” that he published in 1862 (revised edition in 1877).  Bernhardt and Meier have worked on orchids and their pollinators on several continents, but primarily in Australia and the United States.  Bernhardt also has written several books of essays on plant topics, the latest being his Gods and Goddesses in the Garden (2008).  Check our online catalog for his other titles — he has a wry sense of humor that is not hidden in his essays.  Bernhardt and Meier teach at St. Louis University and hold adjunct research appointments at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Professor Spencer Barrett, University of Toronto, gave a splendid presentation of research into one of plant biology’s mysterious set-ups in flowers for cross-pollination — called heterostyly.  Darwin researched into this area intensely, beginning with some of England’s most beloved group of plants — the primroses.  The oxlip. cowslip, and common primrose have flowers in some populations with short stamens and long styles (pin form), while others have long stamens and short styles (thrum form).  Darwin’s botany mentor at Cambridge, John Stevens Henslow, pointed this phenomenon out to young Charles, but it wasn’t until the latter began devoting himself to plant study that he worked out in great detail the “legitimate” and “illegitimate” crosses between these different flowers, as well as many other heterostyled plants.  When he came to study the odd situation in Lythrum salicaria (the hated loosestrife introduced into our marsh habitats that has caused such havoc with native vegetation), he wrote to Asa Gray at Harvard that his studies of its trimorphic flowers “practically drove me stark raving mad.”  Professor Barrett gave the audience many examples of dimorphic and trimorphic flowers across many different families.  Darwin reported his extensive researches in these areas in two books:

The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876)
The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (1877)

He claimed in his Autobiography that “no little discovery of mine ever gave me so much pleasure as the making out the meaning of heterostyled flowers.”

Rounding out the guest lecturers for the series we called “Trees of Life” was the September 24th talk by University of Chicago Professor Trevor Price, who had just published his book Speciation in Birds (2008) and who spoke about what “Darwin’s finches” tell us about bird evolution.  Then he elaborated on his work with colleagues and graduate students on a particular group of warbler species that live in and around the Himalaya Mountains.

Finally, on the evenings of 11 and 18 November, Michael Stieber gave two talks through the Education Program on Darwin’s life and works – emphasizing his work as a botanist — jumping off from the library exhibit on Darwin’s Flowers.

It is worth mentioning a couple of books that were very helpful in preparing these talks and the two Darwin exhibits this year.  You may recall that the first exhibit focused on Darwin’s exploratory preparation for his major research and writing — namely, “Humboldt and Darwin Explore New Worlds: 1799-1836” — an exhibit with some lovely images from the library’s Suzette Morton Davidson Special Collections.  Besides Janet Browne’s two-volume biography of Darwin, and Darwin’s own Voyage of the Beagle, the following were particularly helpful to me: 1, Darwin and his Flowers – the Key to Natural Selection by Mea Allen (1977) & 2, The Aliveness of Plants : The Darwins at the Dawn of Plant Science by Peter Ayres (2008).  I highly recommend these books for browsing.

We at The Morton Arboretum do hope that the Darwin commemorative year will stimulate investigation into some of the life and works of Charles Darwin and of his successors.  Uncover for yourself the mysteries of plant life — especially of trees — sign up for a class at the arboretum or your own natural history resources near your home!  Remember all animal life depends on plant life — which is why it is so important to preserve natural areas & endangered species.  Without the diversity of plant life to sustain us via the ecological web we call the biosphere — we are doomed.  Simple as that!


Movements and habits of climbing plants


Although Hugo von Mohl and Ludwig Palm had written in 1827 a couple of ground-breaking papers on climbing plants in Germany, Darwin after years of meticulous observations compiled data on various ways that species across a wide range of families and orders could climb over other objects, including other plants, to compete for light with their neighbors. He singled out stem twiners, those that used the petioles of leaves or developed actual tendrils, and others – like ivy – that produced rootlets to support his contention that natural selection had favored those species with these adaptations to survive in sun-deprived habitats.

To see examples of plants that Darwin discussed in his climbing plants studies, visit  Power of Movement: Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants in this online exhibit.

There is still time to register for November’s class on Darwin and his work with plants!



Tropaeolum pentaphyllum - J. McNabCharles Darwin, Botanist
November 11 and 18, 2009
Michael Stieber, Library Administrator and Reference Librarian, The Morton Arboretum

Delve deeper into Charles Darwin’s life, his trip around the world, and his pioneering studies of flowering plants. After returning from his voyage on the Beagle (1831-1836), Charles Darwin renewed his childhood interest in plants. By his death in 1882, he had written seven major books on pollinators and pollinating mechanisms, insectivorous plants, the power of movement in plants, one specifically on climbing plants, and a pioneering work on orchid biology. Join Michael to explore the current library exhibit, discuss Darwin’s family life and background, the voyage that led to his intense studies on the origin of so many species, and several of his significant contributions to the plant sciences.

Class Schedule

11/11/2009, Wed, 7:00PM –  8:30PM

11/18/2009, Wed, 7:00PM  –  8:30PM


Member Fee: $36.00

Non Member Fee: $46.00


Sterling Morton Library


Register for this class online or by phone (630) 719-2468

Darwin the geologist


nat_his_magFor an interesting look at Darwin’s geological work on the Beagle voyage, see the article in Natural History magazine, February 2009, by Richard Milner — “Seeing corals with the eye of reason – a rediscovered painting celebrates Darwin’s view of life” — which tells the story of Darwin’s gradual understanding of how coral atolls formed over time. One statement struck me in particular, namely when Milner writes “Darwin was struck by the evidence that vast areas of the ocean floor — not just larger landmasses — were seething with activity, both seismic and animal.” Wouldn’t he be surprised to see what living things have been and are being discovered by explorers of the great thermal rifts on the ocean floors today? Lyell had predicted that his theory of coral atoll formation would be contentious, and the article tells how it was not definitively verified until 1950. At that time geophysicists drilled test cores of the coral atoll in the Marshall Islands (Eniwetok) to the deepest point ever done, 4,200 feet, where they hit “a greenish basalt, the volcanic mountain on which the reef had originated.” Then the US Government test of the first hydrogen bomb destroyed the atoll.

Darwin’s Flowers: Unlocking Natural Selection


Welcome to the Sterling Morton Library’s first online exhibit. By putting our library’s current exhibit online, we have the opportunity to share our exhibit with the world, as well as add additional content that is not available in the library.

What I hope to do is to add interesting sidelines as they come to me. I hope this adds to the visitors’ enjoyment of a subject dear to my heart. These biographical tidbits were not in the exhibit but help one place Darwin as a human being with a very amiable personality.  Comments are welcome.

Personal facts to note – Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), Charles Darwin (1809-1882), and Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) became close friends, and their families often visited at Down House.  Huxley, Darwin, and Hooker shared the painful loss of a young child.  Annie Darwin died in 1851 at ten years, Noel Huxley in 1860 at five years, Marie-Elizabeth Hooker in 1863 at six years.  This kind of tragedy in these family-loving people formed a bond between the families over and above the men’s scientific camaraderie.

Hooker & Darwin – A further connection between Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker is in Hooker’s first wife and Darwin’s naturalist mentor at Cambridge University.  John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861) taught Darwin botany in the field and laboratory, recommended him for the Voyage on the Beagle, and discussed botany with him over the years.  Frances Harriet Henslow, daughter of John, married Joseph Hooker in 1851, and before she died in 1874 produced seven children.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895). Huxley defended Darwin’s Origin in a series of famous public debates, but he was an even more significant innovator in scientific educational methods in England and important contributor to invertebrate and vertebrate physiology, anatomy, and classification.

Etching and drypoint engraving by Leopold Flameng

The image to the left is on display in the library as part of the exhibit. It is an etching based on a portrait painted by John Collier in 1881, a year before Darwin died.

Leopold Fleming created this etching in 1881, from which he printed many copies.  Our copy hangs in the current exhibit and resides in the Suzette Morton Davidson Special Collections after the exhibit’s close.  Fleming added at the bottom margin of the etching head views of Collier, Darwin, and himself, not seen here.  John Collier (1850-1934) was, coincidentally, son-in-law of Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895).