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Apr 14

Down amongst the butterworts

I lived within 30 minutes’ drive of Charles Darwin’s house for the whole of my childhood. It’s been open to the public since it was acquired by English Heritage in 1998. I’ve been a biologist of sorts for about 18 years.

It’s taken me until today to actually visit Down House, and to wander down the famous sandwalk behind the house, where Darwin used to do his thinking. I am a very bad, and very lazy boy. Also a very lucky one to have a husband prepared to schlepp to yet another greenhouse.

The Sandwalk at Down House [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

The Sandwalk at Down House

Darwin’s greatest work was – of course – his 1875 treatise Insectivorous Plants in which he described the carnivorous activities of sundews, butterworts and their ilk.

Drosera rotundifolia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Darwin did much of his observations of carnivory in plants on the round-leaved sundew Drosera rotundifolia. This is a photo of some of these plants at Darwin’s glasshouse.

The glasshouses at Down are home to a small but beautifully formed collection of plants including the lovely large-flowered butterwort, Pinguicula grandiflora, one of just nine species of insectivorous plant native to Britain and Ireland (three sundews, three butterworts, three bladderworts, plus one introduced pitcher-plant).

Pinguicula grandiflora [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Pinguicula grandiflora, also at Down House

This species forms a hibernaculum, a very tight overwintering bud, like a more extreme version of the non-carnivorous winter rosettes of my Mexican species, so we were quite lucky to see them in flower given that it’s been winter since – IIRC – September 2010.

Alex and Steve on the Sandwalk at Down House [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Me and my lovely husband on the Sandwalk

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