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For the Advanced Science Hobbyist: Repeat Charles Darwin's Orchid Pollination Experiments

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  • Charles Darwin's Evolution Theory

    A cartoon of Charles Darwin, Illustrates how his theory of evolution was met with ridicule
    A cartoon of Charles Darwin that Illustrates how his theory of evolution was met with ridicule
    Much is known about Darwin’s theory of evolution. A short description follows:

    Under the constant struggle to exist, inferior organisms are more likely to die before they can reproduce. On average, superior living things with useful traits are more likely to survive and reproduce and thus to pass on their helpful features. As a result, the next generation changes slightly, the struggle for survival goes on among the descendants and the process is repeated. In other words, the struggle for existence selects organisms with helpful variations but makes others die out.

    Another useful definition of evolution: A gradual development, from a less adaptable to a more adaptable form through the process of natural selection.

    Darwin outlined his theory in his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 which was met with ridicule, antagonism and skepticism before it was accepted.

    Charles Darwin's Experiments With Orchids

    Less known are Darwin's botany experiments, especially with orchids.

    In 1862 Darwin showed that orchid's beauty was not “designed” by God to please humans but honed by natural selection to attract insect cross-pollinators.

    But why the importance of cross-pollination? Darwin's botanical work was always related to his evolutionary mechanism. He believed that cross-pollinated plants would produce fitter offspring than self-pollinators, and he used considerable ingenuity in conducting thousands of crossings to prove the point.

    Darwin published his results in a few books:
    The Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects (1862)

    The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876)

    The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (1877)

    More resources about Darwin’s experiments with orchids:
    Fertilisation of Orchids - Wikipedia
    Darwin Correspondence Project - University Library, Cambridge
    Darwin Correspondence Project - University Library, Cambridge
    On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects (Chap. VI)
    Reasonings February 2002
    Darwin from Orchids to Variation - Wikipedia
    Ironically named 'Star of Bethlehem' orchid supports Darwin's theory of evolution -

    The genus Cypripedium (Ladyslipper Orchids) that Darwin Experimented With
    The genus Cypripedium (Ladyslipper Orchids) that Darwin Experimented With

    Darwin got some support for his cross-pollination idea from modern science evidence:
    Orchids Profit From False Advertising - James Owen, National Geographic News
    Pollen Carryover, Geitonogamy, And The Evolution Of Deceptive Pollination Systems In Orchids
    The effects of nectar addition on pollen removal and geitonogamy in the non-rewarding orchid Anacamptis Morio

    Darwin also studied insectivorous plants, climbing plants, and the response of plants to gravity and light (sunlight, he thought, activated something in the shoot tip, an idea that guided future work on growth hormones in plants).

    A few good general links about Darwin and evolution:
    Darwin - American Museum of Natural History
    Evolution Website - BBC
    The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online - John van Wyhe
    Evolution - PBS
    Do You Believe in Evolution? - Bob Riggins
    Rocky Road: Charles Darwin - Strange Science
    Robert Fitzroy: The Captain of the HMS Beagle
    Darwin Jokes and Evolution - Jokes and Science
    Evolution Science Fair Projects and Experiments

    How to grow orchids
    Orchid Growing Instructions & Background Information

    Further Reading

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    Last updated: June 2013
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