Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 25.djvu/64

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56
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

ber of its seeds in each fruit to the lowest possible point consistent with its continued existence at all, it still goes on retaining many signs of its ancient threefold arrangement. The ancestral and most deeply ingrained habits persist in the earlier stages; it is only in the mature form that the later acquired habits begin fully to predominate. Even so our own boys pass through an essentially savage childhood of ogres and fairies, bows and arrows, sugar-plums and barbaric nursery tales, as well as a romantic boyhood of mediaeval chivalry and adventure, before they steady down into that crowning glory of our race, the solid, sober, matter-of-fact, commercial British Philistine. Hence the cocoa-nut in its unstripped state is roughly triangular in form, its angles answering to the separate three fruits of simpler palms; and it has three pits or weak places in the shell, through which the embryos of the three original kernels used to force their way out. But as only one of them is now needed, that one alone is left soft; the other two, which would be merely a source of weakness to the plant if unprotected, are covered in the existing nut by harder shell. Doubtless they serve in part to deceive the too inquisitive monkey or other enemy, who probably concludes that, if one of the pits is hard and impermeable, the other two are so likewise.

Though I have now, I hope, satisfactorily accounted for the milk in the cocoa-nut, and incidentally for some other matters in its economy as well, I am loath to leave the young seedling, whom I have brought so far on his way, to the tender mercies of the winds and storms and tropical animals, some of whom are extremely fond of his juicy and delicate shoots. Indeed, the growing point or bud of most palms is a very pleasant succulent vegetable, and one kind—the West Indian mountain-cabbage—deserves a better and more justly descriptive name, for it is really much more like seakale or asparagus. I shall try to follow our young seedling on in life, therefore, so as to give, while I am about it, a fairly comprehensive and complete biography of a single flourishing cocoa-nut palm.

Beginning, then, with the fall of the nut from the parent-tree, the troubles of the future palm confront it at once in the shape of the nut-eating crab. This evil-disposed crustacean is common around the sea-coast of the Eastern tropical islands, which is also the region mainly affected by the cocoa-nut palm; for cocoa-nuts are essentially shore-loving trees, and thrive best in the immediate neighborhood of the sea. Among the fallen nuts, the clumsy-looking thief of a crab (his appropriate Latin name is Birgus latro) makes great and dreaded havoc. To assist him in his unlawful object he has developed a pair of front legs, with specially strong and heavy claws, supplemented by a last or tail-end pair armed only with very narrow and slender pincers. He subsists entirely upon a cocoa-nut diet. Setting to work upon a big fallen nut—with the husk on, cocoa-nuts measure in the raw state about twelve inches the long way—he tears off all the coarse fiber bit