“Spontaneous Revolutions” Darwin’s Diagrams of Plant Movement, Natalie Lawrence, δημοσίευση The Public Domain Review [26/10/2022]Marilena Pateraki
After weeks of watching young tendrils slowly corkscrew their way toward the sun, Charles Darwin set about inventing a system for making botanic motion visible to the naked eye. Natalie Lawrence delves into a lesser-known chapter of the naturalist’s research, discovering revelations about the vegetal world that remain neglected to this day.
One day in 1863, during a long, hot summer, Charles Darwin wrote a letter to his close friend, the botanist Joseph Hooker. He related: “I am getting very much amused by my tendrils— it is just the sort of niggling work that suits me”.1 Darwin had spent the preceding weeks confined to bed at his home in Down House, laid low by an unpleasant bout of eczema. His usual fervent energy for research and correspondence had been frustrated by incapacity. He found solace in turning attention to the inhabitants of his bedchamber: houseplants. Darwin spent hours each day simply watching the young cucumber plants grow from the pots on his windowsills, observing how they explored the world around them seeking for things to climb up. It happened to be a very rewarding pastime. In his normal state of constant activity, Darwin would not have had the time to watch plants at plant pace. But, forced to slow down and exist at a different speed, he had become entranced.
The genesis of this interest in tendrils occurred when Darwin read a short paper in 1862 by Asa Gray, a botanist at Harvard. His “Note on the coiling of tendrils” in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences described the sensitivity of growing plant tendrils to touch.2 With his imagination captured by this prospect, Darwin wrote to Gray saying “I should like to try a few experiments on your Tendrils; I wonder what would be good & easy plant to raise in pot”.3 Gray sent him seeds of two climbing plants: the bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatus) and wild mock cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), which Darwin could plant in the spring to begin his observations. Gray did warn, however, that whilst the mock cucumber was “genteel”, the bur cucumber was “as nasty and troublesome” as any plant he knew, so Darwin would have to watch it closely.4
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