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Charles Darwin, gardener

An exhibition at The New York Botanical Garden reveals the naturalist’s botanical roots .

COLORFUL: Charles Darwin's garden in Kent, England, has been re-created for an exhibition at The New York Botanical Garden.

Courtesy of Mick Hales/The New York Botanical Garden

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In 1857, Charles Darwin staked out a two-by-three-foot patch of ground in his orchard, cleared away all the grass and other plants, and fenced it off. Then he waited, watched, and took notes.

Any gardener can predict what happened next: the rectangle of bare earth soon sprouted seedlings — of weeds. This little plot, which Darwin called his “weed garden,” was a testing ground for the principle of natural selection, one of the key mechanisms in his theory of evolution.

Darwin’s home gardens – and the meadows, bog, and orchard surrounding Down House, his estate in Kent, England – composed his field station for the botanical research he pursued before and after the publication of "Origin of a Species by Means of Natural Selection."

The gardens yielded lovelier and more useful plants than scrappy weed seedlings, as demonstrated by the representative flower beds, kitchen garden, and orchard re-created in "Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure," an exhibition at The New York Botanical Garden (through June 15).

In the botanical garden’s Haupt Conservatory, brilliant spires of hollyhock, delphinium, and larkspur surround a partial replica of Darwin’s study at Down House. Visitors approach the structure on a facsimile of the “sandwalk,” well known to Darwin scholars, on which the naturalist strolled and pondered questions posed by the curve of a stem or a flower’s distinctive form.

In his study, equipped with a microscope and a camera, he dissected flowers like the surgeon he had once aspired to be. He was searching for the mechanisms that familiar plants used to function and survive. What cellular processes caused them to bend toward the light? What happened when they “slept”? What drew a bee to one flower, a hummingbird to another?


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