Charles Darwin lived at Down House, Orpington Kent, from 1842 until he died in 1882. He shared the house with Emma his wife and ten children. Unfortunately English Heritage did not allow photography in the house. Here is a photo of the house from the garden.
Charles Darwin came from a wealthy family. His father was a doctor and his mother was from the Wedgewood family. In the Victorian era Charles Darwin would be a ‘gentleman’, not needing to work to support himself. This meant he was able to concentrate on his studies and writing.
Every day Darwin would walk the Sand Path, just outside his home, and think about his work. This is a circular walk through a wooded glade. Each lap was one tenth of a mile and Darwin is said to have walked this ten times to make a mile. I walked a circuit today and saw my first ever Violet Helleborine Orchid. It was difficult to photograph as it was protected by a cage.
Orchids fascinated Darwin and he studied the ones in the fields around his house trying to understand how they were pollinated. Darwin’s collection of tropical orchids were housed in his greenhouse. In those days a coal burning stove heated water filled pipes to keep it warm. Now a gas boiler and electric fans do the job. The greenhouse, built 1860, has been beautifully restored and consists of three sections. In Darwin’s day there were more sections to the building.
Inside is a treasure trove of species orchids. They are the same species that Darwin cultivated and many of which we have at Writhlington. All are beautifully cared for and very healthy.
The first section, by the widow, is home to carnivorous plants as well as Bifrenaria harrisoniae.
Against the back wall, on staging, are cool growing orchids which included Coelogynes, Cymbidiums, Dendrobiums, Laelia anceps veitchiana and a Ludicius discolour. I thought there would be too much light for the Ludicius discolor but it seemed to be growing very well, not minding the light
I did note this was a plastic free greenhouse with plants either in terracotta pots or wooden baskets . Environmentally friendly and authentic as Darwin would not have had access to plastic. The orchids didn’t seem to mind being in terracotta pots.
I was told by Susan -Mary who looks after the orchids that they are only watered once a week but, the floors are damped down regularly. The orchids are watered with RO water, rather than rainwater, and are given Rain Mix feed. At Writhlington we water every day and, for Anthony O’Rouke, who asked me which feed we use, add 250ml of Universol Blu fertilizer to to our watering system once a week. We occasionally add calcium sulfate to the water because our rainwater does not contain calcium. The sulfate does not leave unsightly white deposits on the orchid leaves. I really enjoyed talking with Susan- Mary and Anthony O’Rouke about the orchid collection at Down House. Your orchids are obviously treasured. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
Among the collection, in the warm section of the greenhouse, were two Angraecum sesquipedale. Darwin hypothesized the pollinator being a moth with a very long proboscis to reach nectar from the bottom of the flower’s very long spur. This orchid was first discovered by a French botanist, Louis Marie Aubert in 1798 but it was not cultivated until 1855 when William Ellis managed to bring it live back to England. Its first flower in captivity was in 1857. Darwin had a number of specimens in his collection at a time when they would have been very rare indeed.
I was rather taken with this enormous Angraecum Crestwood Veitchiana. It is a hybrid between Angraecum sesquipedale and Angraecum eburneum. I have one in my own collection but it is not as girthy as this one.
Despite driving for six hours, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to Darwin’s home. It not just all about orchids but an absolutely fascinating insight into an incredible man’s life.