For this year’s annual orchid exhibit, which celebrates
Charles Darwin’s 200th Birthday, the Smithsonian Institution
Libraries (SIL) has played a small, but pivotal role. In the middle of the exhibit room, you will find a
beautifully displayed first edition of Darwin’s book, On the various contrivances by
which British and foreign orchids are fertilized by insects and on the good effects of intercrossing published
in 1862. It is bound in a plum cloth with an orchid gilt on the front cover. You’ll also find quotes from
this book on several of the interpretation panels.
In this book, he describes the relationships between
orchids and the insects that fertilized them. The observations Darwin made by studying
orchids and their pollinators, gave support to the theory of natural selection that he describes in his more famous book “On the
Origins of Species”. “Fertilization
of Orchids” was praised at the time by his contemporaries in natural history and
However, initially, the book was not a bestseller, selling only six thousand copies by the turn of the
century. Later editions found the title shorten a bit by removing “On”,“British and foreign” and "and on the good effects of intercrossing". Darwin updated the
second edition which was published in 1877.
Today, the book is still in print and considered an important early work
in the science of orchidology and pollination biology.
The exhibit Orchids through Darwin’s Eyes is located
on the first floor of the National Museum of Natural History from January 24,
2009 to April 26, 2009. Go to: http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/orchids/index.html —Robin Everly