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Darwin’s garden: an evolutionary adventure

Volume 5 Number 2 - October 2008

George Shakespear

French title: Le Jardin de Darwin : une aventure évolutionniste

Spanish title: El Jardín de Darwin: una aventura evolutiva


The untold story of Charles Darwin’s lifelong fascination and work with plants was presented in an exhibition entitled Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure at The New York Botanical Garden, April 25–June 15, 2008. Rich in interpretation and educational programming, Darwin’s Garden included displays of living plants and historical documents in three venues plus an ‘evolutionary tour’ of living plants in the Tree of Life. It showed how Darwin’s botanical experiments and discoveries helped shape his contributions to the understanding of life in general. A symposium with leading scientists, extensive hands-on programmes for children, and lectures for adults were among the highlights in the educational programming. Darwin’s Garden was the latest in the botanical garden’s ongoing flower shows and exhibitions combining horticulture, botanical science, and education, the three pillars of its institutional mission as an advocate for the plant kingdom. Major sponsors included the National Endowment for the Humanities and Mr. and Mrs. Marvin H. Davidson.

Few people know that Darwin was an avid gardener and that many of his scientific discoveries were inspired by more than 40 years of research and experimentation with plants and flowers. Darwin historian and Darwin’s Garden curator David Kohn, Ph.D., explains the significance of the exhibition: “Only in his work as a botanist can we truly see all the dimensions of Darwin as a scientist—that is as a successful collector, as a powerful theorist, as an insightful observer, and as a rigorous and almost prophetic experimenter.”

Darwin’s own garden re-created

Darwin’s Garden was a garden-wide exhibition, with components in multiple venues. In the Botanical Garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a stunning flower show re-created Darwin’s own garden in Kent, England, filled with colourful delphiniums, foxgloves, and other typical English cottage garden flowers that Darwin and his wife, Emma, grew, as well as a ‘kitchen garden’ and orchard. The exhibition also featured Darwin’s work with living plants and botanical research. Interactive displays of plants explained some of Darwin’s often simple yet ingenious experimental studies, such as his investigations into pollination and co-evolution of plants and their pollinators, and his many explorations into the power of movement in plants, from insectivorous plants that dynamically trap their prey to the many different climbing mechanisms of vines and other climbing plants. On June 16, 2008, The New York Times observed,

“…the garden can make us feel like Darwin, looking through his window on the variety and density of life, seeking fundamental principles. And out of the careful observation of differentiation and interaction, out of the pleasures taken in park and forest, the garden works that timeless ancient magic: we begin to see things whole.”

Darwin’s botany in his own words

The exhibition in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library’s Rondina and LoFaro Gallery included original historical documents exploring Darwin’s deep personal relationship with plants, beginning in childhood. It combined information about Darwin as a person with the story of his rich botanical ideas, featuring Darwin’s own writings and collections. Illustrated books, manuscripts, and other historical documents offered insight into his thinking and demonstrated the importance of botany throughout his life. A handsome exhibition catalogue accompanied the exhibition, featuring a scholarly essay by Dr. Kohn on the essential role of plants in Darwin’s life and science. On May 29, 2008, The Christian Science Monitor (an international daily paper published by The First Church of Christ, Scientist) commented,

“the documents and artifacts at the botanical garden’s Mertz Library… chronicle Darwin’s ‘journey of the mind.’ The library exhibit illuminates Darwin’s long love affair with plants, not only as experimental subjects and objects of enthralling beauty, but as examples of nature’s greater process.”

Children’s adventures with Darwin

In the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden, an interactive exhibition including plants important to the development of the concept of evolution invited children to explore and learn through hands-on activities. A centerpiece of the display was a replica of the ship, HMS Beagle, which took Darwin on a five-year voyage to South America and around the world. Children’s activities included potting up a vegetable plant, creating a herbarium specimen, and investigating various bogs. At an interactive Tree of Life, focused on the oak family, children were invited to create their own evolutionary tree to show simple relationships between different species of oak trees.

Darwin’s living legacy

As part of Darwin’s Garden, visitors were also brought up-to-date on current evolutionary plant science. The concept of evolution is the foundation of all plant science today at institutions such as the New York Botanical Garden. To educate visitors on the latest thinking, the exhibition also included an Evolutionary Tour and a scientific symposium.

The Evolutionary Tour consisted of a 40-minute scavenger hunt in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory and surrounding outdoor plantings. Representative plants in the evolutionary Tree of Life were highlighted at stops along the way, using signage and commentary by the exhibition curator and garden scientists and visitors were also able to access this information using their mobile phones. In the Conservatory, visitors saw living representatives of some of the earliest forms of plant life such as algae, mosses, ferns, and cycads, while in the surrounding outdoor plantings, the Evolutionary Tour featured some of the great diversity of flowering plants that have evolved on Earth in the past 140 million years. In 1859, Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the engine of evolution shattered basic assumptions about science and the world. The impact of the thinking that he launched is no less significant today. A symposium on two evenings in May featured presentations by scientists, historians, philosophers, and environmentalists. Hosted by The New York Botanical Garden in collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History, the symposium, entitled Darwin: 21st-Century Perspectives, offered an opportunity to hear top class scholars and commentators discuss how his thinking continues to influence science and society today. Edward O. Wilson, Ph.D., two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, entomologist, and biologist known for his pioneering work on evolution and socio-biology, introduced both sessions and served as moderator.

Many other educational tools and programmes were employed to tell the historical story of Charles Darwin’s work with plants, to explain the cultural and historical context of his work, and to relate it to today’s scientific challenges. A special website ( was created for the exhibition, including an interactive diagram of the Evolutionary Tour, information on the other various elements of the show, and background material on the life of Charles Darwin. Weekend programmes featured drop-in lectures, workshops, and guided tours. Performances featured music and poetry from Darwin’s era, much of it heavily influenced by nature. An audio tour—separate from the Evolutionary Tour—was available to guide visitors through Darwin’s Garden in the Haupt Conservatory and Mertz Library.

Results and travelling exhibition

Both the exhibition and the symposium received extensive press coverage and were very well attended, with more than 200,000 visitors to the Botanical Garden during the run of the exhibition. In a popular feature of the exhibition in the Haupt Conservatory, visitors were invited to sit at Darwin’s desk and to jot down their observations as they looked out the window at the re-creation of his own garden. It allowed visitors to literally put themselves in his home and surroundings, to take on Darwin’s worldview. Feedback included sketches of the flowers in the garden as well as commentary, which ranged from the personal to the philosophical. Many visitors commented on the sheer beauty of the flowers and others on Darwin’s penetrating insights or the exhibition’s celebration of the diversity of life.

After closing in New York, parts of the Darwin’s Garden exhibition are travelling to The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California and will be on display from October 4, 2008 – January 5, 2009.


L’histoire non relatée de la fascination et du travail incessant de Charles Darwin sur les plantes a été présenté dans une exposition intitulée « Le jardin de Darwin : Une aventure évolutionniste » au Jardin botanique de New York du 25 avril au 15 juin 2008. Exposition riche en interprétations et en programmations pédagogiques, « Le jardin de Darwin » était composé de galeries de plantes vivantes et de documents historiques disposés dans trois salles, plus une « visite évolutionniste » de plantes vivantes sur l’Arbre de l’évolution. Cette exposition témoigne de la façon dont les expériences et découvertes botaniques de Darwin lui ont permis de formuler ses contributions à la compréhension de la vie en général. Un symposium rassemblant des personnalités scientifiques, de vastes programmes pratiques pour les enfants, et des cours pour adultes ont constitué les points forts de la programmation pédagogique.


La historia desconocida del largo y fascinante trabajo de Charles Darwin con las plantas, se presentó en una exhibición titulada “El Jardín de Darwin: una aventura evolutiva” en el Jardín Botánico de Nueva York del 25 de abril al 15 de junio de 2008. Una exhibición de gran riqueza interpretativa y con programas educativos, El Jardín de Darwin incluyó la exposición de plantas vivas y documentos históricos en tres sitios del jardín botánico, así como el “recorrido evolutivo” en la colección viva de El Árbol de la Vida. El recorrido mostraba cómo los experimentos botánicos de Darwin y sus descubrimientos le ayudaron a moldear sus contribuciones al entendimiento de la vida en general. Un simposio con investigadores, actividades prácticas, programas para niños y pláticas para adultos fueron las acciones más sobresalientes del programa educativo.

George Shakespear
Director of Science Public Relations
New York Botanical Garden
200th St. & Kazimiroff Boulevard
Bronx, NY 10458-5126