Charles Darwin's 'Lawn Plot Experiment'

by Irene Palmer, March 2013.

Darwin's tree sketch showing diversification over time. Darwin's tree sketch showing diversification over time.

In 2009 Orpington Field Club members set up a three-year survey on Downe Bank with the aim of repeating the 'lawn plot experiment' that Charles Darwin described in the Origin of Species. The initial group included myself, Jan Hendey, Geoff Bird, Rosemary Ferguson and Beryl Hodge.

Paul Glanfield and Grace Green constructed a square plot 4'0" x 3'0", similar to the plot Darwin had described. The Field Club recorded the different species that grew within the square on several occasions during the next 3 years. We compared our results with Darwin's study and a similar recent study recently carried out by English Heritage on the lawn at Down House.

In view of the interest in our project, the team are surveying a new experimental plot (2012-2014). Unfortunately Geoff Bird has been prevented by ill health from continuing to record.

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, Chapter 3, 'Struggle for Existence'.

English Heritage (2005) began a survey in the orchard at Down House. They found a similar number of plants to those that Darwin found on his lawn.

Orpington Field Club (2009-2011) carried out a similar study on Downe Bank.

New species appeared and others disappeared during our study. A total of 46 different phanerogams + 2 bryophytes were recorded over three years, confirming Downe Bank's high biodiversity. The number of grass species remained constant but we saw an anticipated change in the habitat as it began to revert to scrub with plants such as Dogwood colonising and then to a woodland climax community.

A surprise visit from BBC Countryfile that led to a brief appearance by Jan Hendey and Irene in the 25th September 2011 programme. After filming at Down House the film crew arrived at Downe Bank as the light was fading in the early evening. It fell to Irene to explain our reasons for repeating Darwin's experiment on Downe Bank to the presenter James Wong, in brief gaps between aircraft flying overhead.

This article is copyright © Irene Palmer 2013.