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Charles Darwin’s interest in plants goes back to childhood, when he tended his father’s plants in a substantial greenhouse and garden at their home in Shrewsbury, northwestern England – not far from the Welsh border. Young Charles also helped his father with his serious hobby of pigeon breeding – and later Darwin’s own work on variation in animal species included a section on varieties of pigeons, tracing them to a common variety used by the breeders.

However, it was those few years at Cambridge (beginning in 1828) with the botanist John Stevens Henslow, that Darwin focused some of his energies on the plant world. In fact, Henslow recommended Charles for the job of naturalist on the Beagle in 1831. Every land that he explored during the five years on the trip round the southern hemisphere brought him face to face with an entirely new world of plants that he had only sampled in his life up to then.

In August 1833, at Punta Alta, near Bahia Blanca, Argentina, Darwin discovered a cache of fossils – including the bones of elephant-sized sloth-like creatures of the genera Megatherium and Megalonyx, and a hippopotamus-like creature of the genus Toxodon. Combining fossil with geological discoveries, Charles began thinking in terms of evolving planet/evolving life.

In 1859 he published his “long argument” – On the Origin of Species. He continued amassing evidence for his theory that natural selection was the main driving force for evolution. Plants were easy to work with, and his debilitating health problems required that he deal with experiments in his greenhouse not out exploring the hinterlands. His plant researches not only led to many discoveries but also pioneered new areas for botanists to study in the years ahead.

Next: The Victorian Passion for Plants

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