ALS signed “C. Darwin,” four pages on two adjoining sheets, 4.5 x 7, no date. Letter to his old school mate and friend, botanist and lichenologist W. A. Leighton. In full: “I trouble you with a line to thank you for the trouble you have kindly taken in procuring me cuttings of the weeping yew, which my Father's gardener will take great care of & I hope in future years to have a fine tree to remind me of Shropshire.—I have often thought of that curious case of the heath in the stone quarry & the more I think, the greater the pity appears, that it shd not be well made out & published.—Have you ever written about it? Do you know the owners sufficiently well to ask for a cutting,—I ask this because near here Miss Traile of Hayes Place lives whose gardener…is famous for winning prizes at the Hort[icultural] Soc[iety] for Heaths; & I am sure Miss Traile will have any cutting which I forwarded to her, taken care of. And if the Heath flowers I will send specimens to you to describe & publish…you had better ask the person to put a bit of clay to the end of the cutting, & send it direct in a letter to me, & I'll not lose a day in forwarding it to Hayes Place…It will be necessary of course to see whether the heath…live out of doors…the winter.” A short postscript is also added to the lower left corner of the last page. In very good condition, with central horizontal and vertical folds, uniform toning, a repair to separated hinge, and a repair to a small separation to lower right corner of first page.
Born and raised in Shrewsbury, Charles Darwin and William Leighton shared a schoolboy friendship and interest in plants that survived well into adulthood, reigniting at Cambridge and transforming into a wonderful scholarly relationship. As Darwin’s passion took him around the world, Leighton’s returned him home, where he prepared his extensive guide, Flora of Shropshire, published in 1841. Frequently sharing clippings and new discoveries, this extraordinary letter contains references to two important botanical specimens. The first, a weeping yew which, though male, displayed a peculiar habit of bearing female flowers and berries in both the parent tree and resulting offspring, was discussed in Leighton’s Flora and later address in Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868) to illustrate the power of transmitting peculiarities in plants. The second, “the curious case of the heath in the stone quarry,” likely refers to a heath found growing out of a fossilized tree in Derbyshire by Joseph Sidebotham, successfully identified by Leighton as a Tree Heath. Autograph letters by Darwin are exceedingly rare; this one, with its two significant botanical references and notable recipient, is one of the finest we have ever offered. Provenance: Swann Galleries, 2006. Pre-certified John Reznikoff/PSA/DNA and RR Auction COA.
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