The course of investigation in this instance does not differ from that ordinarily pursued by working botanists nor, in deed are the theoretical conclusions other than those to which a similar study of other orders might not have equally led. The oaks afford a very good occasion for the discussion of questions which press upon our attention, and perhaps they offer peculiarly good materials on account of the number of fossil species.
Preconceived notions about species being laid aside, the specimens in hand were distributed, according to their obvious resemblances, into groups of apparently identical or nearly identical forms, which were severally examined and compared. Where specimens were few, as from countries little explored, the work was easy, but the conclusions, as will be seen, of small value. The fewer the materials, the smaller the likelihood of forms intermediate between any two, and—what does not appear being treated upon the old law-maxim as non-existent—species are readily enough defined. Where, however, specimens abound, as in the case of the oaks of Europe, of the Orient, and of the United States, of which the specimens amounted to hundreds, collected at different ages, in varied localities, by botanists of all sorts of views and predilections—here alone were data fit to draw useful conclusions from. Here, as De Candolle remarks, he had every advantage, being furnished with materials more complete than any one person could have procured from his own herborizations, more varied than if he had observed a hundred times over the same forms in the same district, and more impartial than if they had all been amassed by one person with his own ideas or predispositions. So that vast herbaria, into which contributions from every source have flowed for years, furnish the best possible data—at least are far better than any practicable amount of personal herborization—or the comparative study of related forms occurring over wide tracts of territory. But as the materials increase, so do the difficulties. Forms, which appeared totally distinct, approach or blend through intermediate gradations; characters, stable in a limited number of instances or in a limited district, prove unstable occasionally, or when observed over a wider area; and the practical question is forced upon the investigator, What here is probably fixed and specific, and what is variant, pertaining to individual, variety, or race?
In the examination of these rich materials, certain characters were found to vary upon the same branch, or upon the same tree, sometimes according to age or development, sometimes irrespective of such relations or of any assignable reasons. Such characters, of course, are not specific, although many of them are such as would have been expected to be constant in the same species, and are such as generally enter into specific definitions. Variations of this sort, De Candolle, with his usual painstaking, classifies and tabulates, and even expresses numerically their frequency in certain species. The results are brought well to view in a systematic enumeration: