Darwin’s Living Laboratory

Learn about the important role the garden at Down House played in Darwin's work

English Heritage

Pages from one of Charles Darwin's notebooks from the 'Beagle' voyage by Charles DarwinOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) was a naturalist whose scientific theories form the basis for modern studies of evolution. In the 1830s he travelled around the world on the voyage of the HMS Beagle, writing his thoughts and observations in extensive journals.      

Home of Charles Darwin – Down House in early autumnOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

In 1839 Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, and a few years later they moved to Down House in Kent, to accommodate their growing family. They had ten children, although sadly three died in childhood.   

A watercolour of Down House in Kent (1880) by Albert GoodwinOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Down House was built in the early 18th century. Over the years it was remodelled and enlarged many times by the Darwin family. Charles and Emma also started work on improving the garden shortly after they moved in. 

The garden was integral to family life. It provided a place of play and relaxation, a kitchen garden to grow food, and perhaps most famously a place for Darwin to experiment and test his theories of evolution. 

The mulberry tree at Down HouseOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

A mulberry tree survives from the time when the family lived at the house. Permanent iron props now support its weight.

The children used the tree as part of their garden playground, often climbing down it from their first-floor bedrooms before helping their father with his scientific experiments in the garden.     

A photograph of Emma Darwin and son Leonard (c.1854)Original Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Emma Darwin had charge of the day-to-day running, design and management of the garden. She ordered bulbs, harvested fruit and decided what should be planted and where. 

The Sandwalk at Down HouseOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The garden was also a place where Darwin could reflect deeply upon the results of his experiments and their meaning. The Sandwalk was his ‘thinking path’, a quarter-mile walk that formed the basis of his daily perambulations around the estate.

His children skipped alongside him from time to time, teasing their father by adding stones to the pile he was using to count each lap.

The title page of 'On the Origin of Species' (First published in 1859) by Charles DarwinOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

It was at Down House that Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. This book provided an explanation for the ‘preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life’. 

A detailed view of Darwin's worktable at Down HouseOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Many of Darwin’s published theories were developed through experiments in his garden – in particular, his ideas on evolution and natural selection.

He jotted the results of his investigations in his ‘Experiment Book’, begun in 1855 and kept until 1867.    

A view of Down House from across the Great MeadowOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Behind the house is the wild meadow where Darwin monitored plant and insect activity. It was here in 1854 that he first orchestrated his children to watch for bumblebees buzzing from tree to tree, and discovered that red clover depends on bumblebees to fertilise its flowers.

Page 137 from 'The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication' (First published in 1868)Original Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The following year, Darwin entered the world of the pigeon-fancier as he wanted to investigate his theory that all varieties of fancy pigeon descended from the wild African rock dove.

A list of pigeons kept by Charles DarwinOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

To this end, he constructed a pigeon house and enlisted his daughter Henrietta to help him look after a large collection.    

A bed of cowslips flowering in the kitchen garden at Down HouseOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

In the late 1850s, Darwin took over a corner of the kitchen garden for his ‘experimental beds’, working extensively with primrose seeds (Primula vulgaris) and cowslips (Primula veris).

He discovered that there were two distinct forms of the same genus in these plants, and that these existed in order to compel an insect pollinator to cross-fertilise between the two. 

A recreation of Darwin's lawn experiment, in the garden at Down HouseOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Darwin carried out his lawn plot experiment in the garden between March 1856 and May 1858. He wanted to investigate the number of different species that could be found living in a small area.

Notes taken by Charles Darwin for his lawn plot experiment at Down House (1856–58) by Charles DarwinOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

His experiment revealed the significance of competition, for light and space, as a factor in the survival and loss of different plant species.  

In his notes he writes: ‘Small bare patches had appeared in spring and in these I noted many seedlings coming up, but by this time all had perished: thus confirming my experiment of sowing seeds.’ 

In the early 1860s, Darwin erected a hothouse alongside the greenhouse in the kitchen garden. Sloping glass roofs captured the sun's rays and a boiler system kept the environment warm and well-suited to delicate specimens.

Detail of a comet orchid in bloom at Down HouseOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Here he investigated his theory of orchid reproduction being dependent on insect pollinators. He ended up correctly predicting that one day a moth would be found with a 30cm tongue, capable of reaching the nectar of the Comet orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale).   

Insectivorous plants in the greenhouse at Down HouseOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Darwin reserved perhaps his greatest botanical fascination for insectivorous plants, in particular the sundew Drosera rotundifolia. He cultivated dozens of Drosera in his greenhouse, noting the gradual curling of their sticky tentacles around an unsuspecting fly. 

Diagrams of Drosera rotundifolia from 'Insectivorous Plants' (First published in 1875) by Charles DarwinOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

His resulting work Insectivorous Plants (1875) reveals the relationship between insects and plant predators.    

Bryonia dioica diagram from 'The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants' (Illustrated book first published in 1875) by Charles DarwinOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Darwin also studied many different plants to determine whether all kinds of plant movement are related to one basic movement: circumnutation (the circular movement of a growing plant organ). 

Inside the greenhouse at Down House, home of Charles DarwinOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Today you can see several of Darwin’s experiments recreated in the grounds at Down House, as well as his beloved greenhouses where he made revolutionary discoveries about the reproductive behaviour of plants. 

Charles Darwin in his study (Mid 20th century) by Victor EustaphieffOriginal Source: DOWN HOUSE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Many of Darwin’s garden experiments ended up in his published books. These publications, alongside his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, helped change the course of science forever.  

Credits: Story

Text by Emily Parker

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps