The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 138 of 188

Charles Darwin to W.D. Fox.

Down, May 17th [1855].

My dear Fox,

You will hate the very sight of my hand-writing; but after this time I promise I will ask for nothing more, at least for a long time. As you live on sandy soil, have you lizards at all common? If you have, should you think it too ridiculous to offer a reward for me for lizard’s eggs to the boys in your school; a shilling for every half-dozen, or more if rare, till you got two or three dozen and send them to me? If snake’s eggs were brought in mistake it would be very well, for I want such also; and we have neither lizards nor snakes about here. My object is to see whether such eggs will float on sea water, and whether they will keep alive thus floating for a month or two in my cellar. I am trying experiments on transportation of all organic beings that I can; and lizards are found on every island, and therefore I am very anxious to see whether their eggs stand sea water. Of course this note need not be answered, without, by a strange and favourable chance, you can some day answer it with the eggs.

Your most troublesome friend,
C. Darwin.

Charles Darwin to J.D. Hooker.

April 13th [1855].

…I have had one experiment some little time in progress, which will, I think, be interesting, namely, seeds in salt water immersed in water of 32-33 degrees, which I have and shall long have, as I filled a great tank with snow. When I wrote last I was going to triumph over you, for my experiment had in a slight degree succeeded; but this, with infinite baseness, I did not tell, in hopes that you would say that you would eat all the plants which I could raise after immersion. It is very aggravating that I cannot in the least remember what you did formerly say that made me think you scoffed at the experiments vastly; for you now seem to view the experiment like a good Christian. I have in small bottles out of doors, exposed to variation of temperature, cress, radish, cabbages, lettuces, carrots, and celery, and onion seed–four great families. These, after immersion for exactly one week, have all germinated, which I did not in the least expect (and thought how you would sneer at me); for the water of nearly all, and of the cress especially, smelt very badly, and the cress seed emitted a wonderful quantity of mucus (the ‘Vestiges’ would have expected them to turn into tadpoles), so as to adhere in a mass; but these seeds germinated and grew splendidly. The germination of all (especially cress and lettuces) has been accelerated, except the cabbages, which have come up very irregularly, and a good many, I think, dead. One would have thought, from their native habitat, that the cabbage would have stood well. The Umbelliferae and onions seem to stand the salt well. I wash the seed before planting them. I have written to the “Gardeners’ Chronicle” (A few words asking for information. The results were published in the ‘Gardeners’ Chronicle,’ May 26, November 24, 1855. In the same year (page 789) he sent a P.S. to his former paper, correcting a misprint and adding a few words on the seeds of the Leguminosae. A fuller paper on the germination of seeds after treatment in salt water, appeared in the ‘Linnaean Soc. Journal,’ 1857, page 130.), though I doubt whether it was worth while. If my success seems to make it worth while, I will send a seed list, to get you to mark some different classes of seeds. To-day I replant the same seeds as above after fourteen days’ immersion. As many sea-currents go a mile an hour, even in a week they might be transported 168 miles; the Gulf Stream is said to go fifty and sixty miles a day. So much and too much on this head; but my geese are always swans…

Charles Darwin to J.D. Hooker.

[April 14th, 1855.]

…You are a good man to confess that you expected the cress would be killed in a week, for this gives me a nice little triumph. The children at first were tremendously eager, and asked me often, “whether I should beat Dr. Hooker!” The cress and lettuce have just vegetated well after twenty-one days’ immersion. But I will write no more, which is a great virtue in me; for it is to me a very great pleasure telling you everything I do.

…If you knew some of the experiments (if they may be so-called) which I am trying, you would have a good right to sneer, for they are so absurd even in my opinion that I dare not tell you.

Have not some men a nice notion of experimentising? I have had a letter telling me that seeds must have great power of resisting salt water, for otherwise how could they get to islands? This is the true way to solve a problem!

Charles Darwin to J.D. Hooker.

Down [1855].

My dear Hooker,

You have been a very good man to exhale some of your satisfaction in writing two notes to me; you could not have taken a better line in my opinion; but as for showing your satisfaction in confounding my experiments, I assure you I am quite enough confounded–those horrid seeds, which, as you truly observe, if they sink they won’t float.

I have written to Scoresby and have had a rather dry answer, but very much to the purpose, and giving me no hopes of any law unknown to me which might arrest their everlasting descent into the deepest depths of the ocean. By the way it was very odd, but I talked to Col. Sabine for half an hour on the subject, and could not make him see with respect to transportal the difficulty of the sinking question! The bore is, if the confounded seeds will sink, I have been taking all this trouble in salting the ungrateful rascals for nothing.

Everything has been going wrong with me lately; the fish at the Zoological Society ate up lots of soaked seeds, and in imagination they had in my mind been swallowed, fish and all, by a heron, had been carried a hundred miles, been voided on the banks of some other lake and germinated splendidly, when lo and behold, the fish ejected vehemently, and with disgust equal to my own, all the seeds from their mouths. (In describing these troubles to Mr. Fox, my father wrote:–“All nature is perverse and will not do as I wish it; and just at present I wish I had my old barnacles to work at, and nothing new.” The experiment ultimately succeeded, and he wrote to Sir J. Hooker:–“I find fish will greedily eat seeds of aquatic grasses, and that millet-seed put into fish and given to a stork, and then voided, will germinate. So this is the nursery rhyme of ‘this is the stick that beats the pig,’ etc., etc.,”)

But I am not going to give up the floating yet: in first place I must try fresh seeds, though of course it seems far more probable that they will sink; and secondly, as a last resource, I must believe in the pod or even whole plant or branch being washed into the sea; with floods and slips and earthquakes; this must continually be happening, and if kept wet, I fancy the pods, etc. etc., would not open and shed their seeds. Do try your Mimosa seed at Kew.

I had intended to have asked you whether the Mimosa scandens and Guilandina bonduc grows at Kew, to try fresh seeds. R. Brown tells me he believes four W. Indian seeds have been washed on shores of Europe. I was assured at Keeling Island that seeds were not rarely washed on shore: so float they must and shall! What a long yarn I have been spinning.

If you have several of the Loffoden seeds, do soak some in tepid water, and get planted with the utmost care: this is an experiment after my own heart, with chances 1000 to 1 against its success.

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