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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!

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