(Frontispiece: "Flora Attired by the Elements" [earth, fire, air, and water]--left--and title page--right--of first edition with "Philosophical Notes")
Darwin's Botanic Garden was widely criticized for its frank and suggestive discussions of the sexual lives of plants. But his analysis of plant life, even in the section entitled "Loves of the Plants," is designed primarily to generate wonder at the complexity of plant biology rather than to stimulate prurient interest. His account of the Amaryllis formosissima (left) is characteristic: "Most beautiful Amaryllis. Six males, one female [in a single plant]. Some of the bell-flowers close their apertures at night, or in rainy or cold weather, as the convolvulus, and thus protect their included stamens and pistils. Other bell-flowers hang their apertures downwards, as many of the lilies; in those the pistil, when at maturity, is longer than the stamens; and by this pendant attitude of the bell, when the anthers burst their dust falls on the stigma; and these are, at the same time, sheltered as with an umbrella from rain and dews [. . .] Many of these flowers, both before and after their seasons of fecundation, erect their heads perpendicularly to the horizon, like the Meadia, which cannot be explained from mere mechanism" ("Loves of the Plants," II, 20 n.). This last comment reveals another goal of Darwin's work. He wants his readers to see plants as closely related to all other living things. His tendency to attribute intention and even emotion to plants--"cannot be explained by mere mechanism"--also links to his emphasis on vegetable "sensation" throughout this influential work.
Darwin develops his commentary on the similarities between the plant and animal kingdoms in an extended note on the Cypripedium (below left). This large lily practices a remarkable form of animal mimicry that he describes in detail: "The cypripedium from South-America is supposed to be of larger size, and brighter colours, than that from North America, from which this print is taken; it has a large globular nectary, about the size of a pigeon's egg, of a fleshy colour, and an incision, or depression, on its upper part, much resembling the body of the large American spider: this globular nectary is attached to divergent slender petals, not unlike the legs of the same animal. This spider is called by Linnaeus arenea avicularia, with a convex oricular thorax, the centre transversely excavated; he adds, that it catches small birds as well as insects, and has the venomous bite of a serpent. [. . .] The similitude of this flower to this great spider seems to be a vegetable contrivance to prevent the humming-bird from plundering its honey. About Matlock, in Derbyshire, the fly-ophris is produced, the nectary of which so much resembles the small wall-bee, perhaps the apis ichneumonea, that it may be easily mistaken for it at a small distance [. . .] A bird of our own country, called a willow-wren (motacilla), ruins up the stem of the crown-imperial (frittillaria coronalis), and sips the pendulous drops within its petals. White's Hist. of Selborne" ("Economy of Vegetation," IV, 125 n.). Reflections on mimicry led directly to evolutionary thought, since creatures produced by separate creation could not have had any pre-existing relationship to determine such forms of dependence or protection.
One of Darwin's most curious discussions in The Botanic Garden is the extended commentary in his notes on the famous Portland Vase (left). This treasure had recently been "purchased by the Duke of Portland for a thousand guineas" from the Barberini family of Florence. Darwin argues that the ornate reliefs on the funeral vase depict "part of the Eleusinian mysteries." He describes the side of the vase depicted here as follows: "Three figures of exquisite workmanship are placed by the side of a ruined column, whose capital is fallen off, and lies at their feet with other disjointed stones; they sit on loose piles of stones, beneath a tree, which has not the leaves of the evergreen of this climate, but may be supposed to be an elm, which Virgil places near the entrance of the infernal regions. [. . .] This central figure, then, appears to me to be an hieroglyphic, or Eleusinian emblem of MORTAL LIFE, that is, the lethum, or death, mentioned by Virgil amongst the terrible things exhibited at the beginning of the mysteries [. . .] The man and the woman on each side of the dying figure must be considered as [. . .] hieroglyphic or Eleusinian emblems of HUMANKIND" (Botanic Garden, I, 197-99 n.). Darwin then links the Eleusinian mysteries to the ancient conflict between nomadic and agricultural cultures, adding that Adam and Eve were also "allegorical" figures taken from these early religious rites. Any attempt to interpret religious stories as myths was obviously controversial in the late eighteenth century. Darwin's "atheism" was always evident just below the surface of his writings.
Here, he also discussed the naturalistic figure of immortal life depicted on the other side of the vase in graphically sexual terms, "fondling between her knees a large and playful serpent, which, from its annually renewing its external skin, has from great antiquity, even as early as the fable of Prometheus, been esteemed an emblem of renovated youth" (200 n.). He does not bother to make the obvious connection between this serpent and sexual reproduction as an analogue for immortality; we make ourselves immortal by extending our genetic inheritance into eternity. Finally, Darwin describes why the butterfly was sacred to the Egyptians: "The Psyche of the Egyptians was one of their most favourite emblems, and represented the soul, or a future life; it was originally no other than the aurelia, or butterfly, but in after times was represented by a lovely female child, with the beautiful wings of that insect. The aurelia, after its first stage as an eruca or caterpillar, lies for a season in a manner dead, and is enclosed in a sort of coffin: in this state of darkness it remains all the winter; but, at the return of spring, it bursts its bonds and comes out with new life, and in the most beautiful attire. The Egyptians thought this a very proper picture of the soul of man, and of the immortality to which it aspired" (202 n.). In all such comments, Darwin draws powerful connections between the origins of religious belief and human responses to the natural world. (A.N.)