A new article in the journal Nineteenth-Century Contexts:
No abstract, First paragraph What do plants want? What do they think? What do they mean to do? Such questions raise problems of intent, of affect, of sentience, that seem inappropriate to vegetal life. Charles Darwin felt differently. He was captivated by what he termed the “contrivances” of orchids—his word for uncannily intelligent adaptations. “You cannot conceive how orchids have delighted me” wrote Darwin on July 27, 1861, to his friend, the botanist Joseph Hooker; he added the following month that “The Orchids are more play than real work” (Darwin, letters). He’d long been interested in the marvelous flowers that grew locally in the neighborhood of Down House, especially a nearby copse the family dubbed “Orchis Bank.” Relieved by the printing of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), Darwin’s interest in the strange and beautiful flowers quickly blossomed into something more. His letters from the period emphasize his intense attraction. “Orchids have interested me more than almost anything in my life,” he confessed in his July 27 letter to Hooker, after writing in June to another correspondent to explain that, “This subject is a passion with me” (Darwin, letters). By 1861 Darwin was totally absorbed in floral research. When he wrote to propose a new book on orchids, publisher John Murray (who had nurtured the Origin through its third printing in less than two years) quickly offered generous terms. A year later, it appeared as On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects (1862).