Sam Jacoby

Darwin's Orchid

I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders.

I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything.

Charles Darwin, Letter to Charles Lytrell, 1860

The lines above, taken from Darwin’s grumpy letter to a friend, is a source of consolation to the not-quite Darwins among us: it says—”Hey, I may be one the greatest scientists of all time, but I’m not so sure about this shit.”

When I first came across it—forwarded to me as apropos of my basic mentality—I thought it’d be perfect for a broadside, and a nice chance to do a little design and printing work. I fired up the ol’ InDesign and got cracking.

So Darwin was having a bad day. That’s amusing enough—but what of these orchids? And why did Darwin hate them so? A quick web search pointed me towards Angraecum sesquipedale, Darwin’s Orchid.


This is my kitchen, painted a fetching blue.

Found only in Madagascar, Angraecum sesquipedale has an unusually long spur. Examining a specimen relayed to him by a botanist friend, Darwin posited that any accompanying pollinator would have to be equipped with appropriately distended hardware. Imagine everyones’ delight then, when “21 years after [Darwin’s] death,” a moth with just such a 25-centimeter proboscis was discovered.

So inspired, I was initially thinking of printing the broadside from polymer, but put that aside in favor of more expedient digital printing. To that end, I started looking for good illustrations. I found what I was looking for at the Harvard University Herbaria, one of those odd corners of campus that I’ve always noticed—greenhouses poking above its roof—but never had made it to. Pleased for the excuse, I made an appointment.

There, the alarmingly helpful staff pulled a number of books from the archives—pulling a number of scans for me on the spot. The below is taken from Revue Horticole, from the Librarie Agricole de la Maison Rustique, Paris, 1860. Quite elegant, I thought!


The rest was easy. I snipped out the text, pushed a few pixels around, and sent it off to the good men & women of the Puritan Press, who took care of the rest.

As for Darwin? Apparently, he made it through that lousy day. His “Book for Murray” became Fertilisation of Orchids, published by John Murray in 1862, and a classic in its field.

Darwin’s Orchid” is set in Palintino and digitally printed by the Puritan Press in an edition of 75.


Darwin’s Orchid