Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/211

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207
THE CENTURY PLANT

THE CENTURY PLANT, AND SOME OTHER PLANTS OF THE DRY COUNTRY[1]
By Professor WILLIAM TRELEASE
MISSOURI BOTANICAL GARDEN

IT would be interesting if we might know whether Columbus and his fellow voyagers noticed what is oddly called 'bamboo' by the present islanders, when they first saw the Bahamas in the autumn of 1492. The plant, a striking one even to us, must have seemed still stranger to Europeans at that time, for although Meyer and others have attempted to show that the century plant was known in the Mediterranean country as early as the eleventh century, and claim has even been made to its recognition among the mural paintings of Pompeii, a thousand years earlier still, Agave represents an essentially American and very distinct type of vegetation which must have been novel to those travelers into a new world. At any rate—they had little time for botanizing—there is no evidence that this conspicuous element in the Bahamian landscape was among the strange animals and plants that they paraded on their return home, and, curiously enough, it remains to-day without a published description or tenable scientific name.

The discoverers must have seen at least one other species of the same type when, during this first voyage, they found the Greater Antilles; and the busy quarter of a century which followed, with its additions of the Lesser Antilles, upper South America, and a part of the Gulf coast to the map of the world, undoubtedly revealed others.

The native name 'maguey,' which still persists in Porto Rico for a species of the related genus Furcræa, was mentioned in Martyr's book of 1516, and seems to have sufficiently impressed itself on the minds of the adventurers to assume a generic quality, for they later transferred it to the fleshy-leaved agaves of Mexico, which the aborigines knew as 'metl,' from which it is easily inferred that they had repeatedly seen and discussed and inquired about these strange fleshy-leaved plants with tall candelabrum-like inflorescence.

The most familiar of these plants in our gardens has long borne the popular name of century plant. Everybody knows it—or thinks that he knows it—to-day. Its rather narrow, somewhat grayish-green leaves have a peculiar curvature and their ends frequently arch downwards in a characteristic hooked form, while the prickles on their margins stand

  1. A lecture delivered in the Field Museum Course at Chicago, on October 13, 1906.