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Darwin's Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure Opens at The Huntington Library
Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale), from Robert Warner’s Select Orchidaceous Plants (1865-67). Darwin predicted that there must be an insect with a proboscis adapted to reach the flower’s nectar at the base of the long spur of this beautiful orchid from Madagascar. Nearly 40 years later, he was proven correct. Collection: Huntington Library.

SAN MARINO, CA Charles Darwin (1809–1882) is best known for his theory of evolution and other natural history achievements, but little is known about his enduring and insightful work with plants and the important role they played in formulating his ideas. “Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure” at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens explores the untold story of these botanical influences, Darwin’s research, his contribution to the understanding of plants, and ultimately, of life in general. The exhibition will be on display in the West Hall of the Library from Oct. 4, 2008, to Jan. 5, 2009.

The exhibition originated at the New York Botanical Garden, with curator David Kohn, Darwin expert and Drew University science and society professor emeritus. “Kohn amply illustrates that Darwin’s early work in botany was the basis for his theories of evolution,” says David Zeidberg, the Avery Director of the Huntington Library, who welcomes the exhibition to its only traveling venue. “Origin of Species focuses on animals, but it was Darwin’s work on plants that laid the foundation for the great work.” Next year marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the book.

The exhibition features more than 60 items, including rare books, manuscripts, and prints from the New York Botanical Garden’s collection and loans from private individuals and institutions such as the Cambridge Herbarium, Cambridge University Library, Down House (Darwin’s home), the archives and library of the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University, and the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society. Some items from Cambridge are too fragile to travel, but facsimiles will Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure be available for viewing. The Huntington will display its own copies of a selection of items from the exhibition checklist, including The Botanic Garden (1791) by Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin; Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), which features drawings of the first microscopic views of plant cells; and James Bateman’s The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatamala (1837–43), a large-format book containing 40 color plates of orchids.

Darwin’s work with plants provided credible and enduring evidence in support of his theory of evolution through natural selection. He laid the foundation of modern botany as an evolutionary discipline. Darwin also became an expert on virtually every British species of orchid. He discovered and demonstrated that the key to orchid pollination was the touch of an insect’s proboscis, which releases spring-loaded pollen. From this breakthrough Darwin structured a convincing argument for adaptation by natural selection. He contended that plants—no less than animals—are sensitive creatures in possession of behaviors that permit them to respond to their environment, including elements such as sunlight, touch, and gravity. Plants climb over neighbors, track the movement of the sun, capture and digest insects, and respond to the “touch from a child’s hair.” Darwin delighted in discovering these adaptations.

The exhibition is divided into three parts: Darwin’s formative years in education; development of Origin of Species based on botanical work; and evolutionary botany. As an undergraduate, Darwin collected specimens for his botany professor’s herbarium. While still a young man, he traveled aboard the HMS Beagle, writing in his journal that his mind was “a chaos of delight” as he reveled in the luxuriance of tropical forests. He spent much of his time collecting plants along with fossil bones and bird skins. Darwin’s collection of “all plants in flower” from the Galápagos Islands, for example, became the basis for the first flora of that archipelago and provided his strongest evidence for evolution.

“Even before he had gone on that trip, he began to crossbreed plants,” says Zeidberg. “This early study of variation would become another principle of Origin of Species and one of the underlying concepts of the notion of survival of the fittest.”

The exhibition also chronicles Darwin’s professional friendships and intellectual exchanges with leading botanists of the era, including Joseph Dalton Hooker, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and Asa Gray, renowned Harvard University botanist, and shows how they contributed to Origin of Species.

The exhibition begins just weeks before the grand opening of The Huntington’s new Dibner Hall on the History of Science. The permanent installation, titled “Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World,” opens Nov. 1 and will showcase galleries devoted to four subject areas: astronomy, natural history, medicine, and light. The section devoted to natural history will include a 20 foot wide display of more than 300 editions and translations of Origins of Species, including one of The Huntington’s four copies of the first edition of that seminal work.

A catalog of the exhibition, Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure, by guest curator David Kohn, will be available for purchase in the Huntington Bookstore & More.

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