Illustrations of Indian Botany, Vol. 1/Bombaceae

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Illustrations of Indian Botany, Vol. 1  (1840)  by Robert Wight


This is a small order consisting almost entirely of tropical trees and shrubs, but remarkable for embracing among the number the largest tree yet known, namely, the Adansonia digitala. The prominent distinctive features between this and the neighbouring orders, Malvacece and Byttneriacece, is found in their anfractuose anthers and in the calyx, which in this, is campa- nulate or tubular from the union of the sepals, in these polysepalous from the sepals remaining altogether distinct, or only adherent at the base. In other respects they are so much alike, that Bartling ( or dines natural es fyc. ) proposes to reunite the Bombacece with Malvacece, as a section only of the latter order, while Dr. Lindley on the other hand, following Endlicher, thinks them more justly referable to Byttneriacece, of which, in his arrangement, they accordingly form a portion. Between such authorities I presume not to decide, and shall therefore follow the beaten track by continuing to adopt the arrangement of our Prodromus, according to which the Bombaceae form a distinct order intermediate between these two, leaving to future and abler Botanists, the task of determining which is right. In habit they are mostly arborious or shrubby,

the leaves are alternate, having stipules, and the pubescence on the young and herbaceous por- tions, stellate as in Malvacece.

The following is the character of the order as given by DeCandolle and others.

"Sepals 5, cohering in a campanulate or cylindrical tube, which is either truncate, or with 5 divisions : at the base of this, on the outside, are sometimes a few minute bracteae. Petals 5, regular; or sometimes none, but in that case the inside of the calyx is coloured. Stamens 5, 10, 15, or more ; filaments cohering at the base into a tube, which is soldered to the tube of the petals, divided at the apex into 5 parcels, each of which bears one or more anthers, among which are sometimes some barren threads; anthers 1 celled, linear, reniform or anfractuose. Ovarium consisting of 5 carpella, rarely of 10, either partly distinct or cohering strictly, and dehiscing in various ways ; styles as many as the carpella, either distinct or more or less co- herent ; ovula 2, or many. Fruit variable, capsular, or indehiscent, usually with 5 valves, septi- ferous in the middle. Seeds often enveloped in wool or pulp ; sometimes albuminous, with flat cotyledons ; sometimes exalbuminous, with shrivelled or convolute cotyledons. Trees or shrubs. Leaves alternate, with stipulae. Pubescence of the herbaceous parts stellate."

Affinities. The plants referred to this order are said to be distinguished from Mal- vaceae on the one side by their Polyadelphous stamens and habit; and from Byttneriacece or Sterculiacece on the other, by their 1 -celled anthers ; and from both, by their gamosepalous (sepals united into one) calyx. Such are the distinctions which induced Kunth in his disserta- tion on the Malvacece, to propose their separation as an independent order. The opinions of some able Botanists, as has been already observed, are unfavourable to this separation, though approved by most, one recommending their being retained as a section of Malvacece, while others prefer arranging them among the Byttneriacece, thus affording a pretty convincing proof that the original distribution of Jussieu was nearly correct, and that Botanists will pro- bably do well to revert to it, or at all events to reduce Bombacece, by referring one section Hniicterece to Byttneriacece, and the other, Bombicece to Mxlvacece. To me it appears certain that the order as constituted by Professor Kunth can scarcely be maintained, since Helicteres, with the single exception of the gamosepalous calyx, differs so widely from Bombax the type of the order. In this genus the filaments are united throughout into a tube bearing on the apex ten distinct, imperfectly 2-celled anthers, (the division is transverse and rather indistinct) while in Bombax, they, being all united at the base only, and broken into irregular parcels with 1 -celled or anfractuose anthers, seem rather to place it, as Bartling has done, among Malvacece : on this point however, I refrain from offering any decided opinion, as I am not aware of the modifications, that most accomplished Botanist, Professor Endlicher of Vienna, proposes to intro- duce into the character, by which to unite both under his order Sterculiacece, and at she same time exclude them from Malvacece. Whatever they may be, it is certain that these oi'ders must al- ways remain more nearly united to each other, than to any others, and stand as a warning against lightly departing from Jussieu's original distribution of the natural orders. Mr. Brown, while he departs from the letter continues to adopt the spirit of Jussieu's arrangement, in so far as, that he looks upon his order Malvaceae, to which he (Mr. Brown) adds Tiliaceae, as forming a large class ; an idea, in which he has been followed by Bartling, Lindley and Martius, who combine the whole under their class Col umni ferae, the former however, splitting the order Byttneriacece into as many distinct orders as other Botanists make sections, denominating them respectively Sterculiacece, Byttneriacce, Hermanniacece, and Dombeyacece, assigning the following abbre- viated or synoptical characters to the class and orders.

Class. Colunmiferae. — Segments of the calyx valvate in (Estivation ! Petals hypogy- nous twisted, rarely by abortion wanting Ovaries several free or combined. Leaves alternate, stipulate.

Ordrr. — Tiliaceae calyx deciduous. Anthers 2-celled. Filaments free. Albumen fleshy. Embryo erect. Stercidiaceae calyx deciduous. Corolla wanting. Anthers 2-celled extrorse. Embryo erect in the axis. Byttneriaceae calyx persistent. Petals with the claws concavely vaulted, ( concavo- fornicatis J sometimes aborting. Anthers 2-celled. Seeds often albuminous. Herman niaceae calyx persistent. Stamens 5. Anthers 2-celled extrorse. Albumen between farinacious and fleshy. Embryo curved. Dombeyaceae calyx persistent. Petals flat. Stamens monadelphous, some definite multiple of the number of the petals. Anthers adnate, 2-celled extrorse. Albumen fleshy. Malvaceae.— Calyx persistent. Stamens monadelphous. Anthers 1-celled. Under this last the Bombaceae are arranged on account of their 1-celled anthers.

To this class Von Martins adds Depterocarpeae, and Lindley Lythrariecp. Tn so large an assemblage presenting so few and so slight modifications of structure, it is not to be won- dered at that Botanists should have found it difficult to determine the limits of each of its subdivisions, since in truth the peculiarities of the above orders are scarcely greater than we meet with in sections of other orders, and yet, the varieties of habit met with in each are such as renders it in every way desirable that they should be distinguished ; while the number of species referable to each subdivision, makes it preferable to distinguish them under a sepa- rate name rather than to unite the whole under a single denomination. This has successfully accomplished, by classing them under one common name, and distributing the minor groups under so many others.

Geographical Distribution. The Bombaceae properly so called constitute but a small order. They are all tropical plants, for the most part large trees, and most abouud in America : those of Asia being limited to a few genera, with rarely more than two species to each — three or four only are found in Africa, among which however, is that most extraordinary of trees, the Colossus of the vegetable kingdom, the Adansonia digitata, a tree, which has been estimated to live thousands of years, and the trunk of which is said sometimes to attain the astonishing circumference of 80 or 90 feet, and to afford in its hollow, when decayed by age or disease, accommodation for several families. The cotton trees of this country afford the most genuine examples of the order. Helicleres lsora, a very common shrub in India, readily distinguished by its curiously twisted fruit, I look upon, as above remarked, as less meriting a place here, though generally referred to the order. The Durian so celebrated on account of its fine fla- voured but excessively fcetid fruit, is a representative of the order peculiar to the eastern shores of the Bay of Bengal, but totally unknown on the western, though our genera are all found on the other coast, and more or less copiously scattered all over India.

Properties and Uses. Musilagenous and emollient properties are common to the whole of the Columniferae. The juice of the roots of Bombax ceiba, an American tree, is said to be aperient, while the bark of the tree is emetic. Blume (medical plants of Java) states that the bark of the root of B. Malabarica is emetic, and is employed as such in Java. The Erioden- dron anfractuosum or Bombax pe?itandrum, produces a gum which is esteemed for its medi- cinal properties in this country, but being usually administered in combination with aromatics, it is probably indebted to them for much of its supposed virtue. The woolly cotton which enve- lopes the seed of both these species is remarkable for its softness, and is much and deservedly esteemed for making cushions and bedding, owing to its freedom from any tendency to become lumpy and uneven by getting impacted into hard knots. Various attempts have been made to fabricate it into cloth, but hitherto without success, except a sort of very loose texture, which the committee of the Society of Arts, to whom some specimens were sent, pronounced only fit for quilting Lady's muffs and boas, but thought, that for such purposes it was superior to woollen or common cotton stuffs, the looseness of its texture rendering it an excellent non-conductor, while its extreme lightness supplied the other desiderata required in an article employed for such a purpose.

The Adansonia digitata is in high esteem among the Africans — all its parts abound with a thick mucilaginous juice, which they draw by tapping, and use in various ways. The wild bees perforate and form cavities in its young wood, which is very soft and tender, for the purpose of lodging their honey, which is much sought after. The young leaves dried and powdered constitute the Alo of the negroes, which they use as a condiment, and suppose that it moderates excessive perspiration. The fruit, which somewhat resembles a citron in shape, is filled with a redish spongy pulp, of a sweetish acid taste, enveloping the seed, of which agreeable and refreshing acidulous drinks are prepared, and employed as a cooling beverage in the fevers so frequent in Senegal : mixed with tamarinds it is considered by the natives a certain cure for dysentery, while the gum is equally prized as a remedy against heat of urine. As this tree is not uncommon in India now, and as I can bear testimony to the correctness of the description of the sensible qualities of the pulp, it seems desirable that it should be subjected to some trials to ascertain whether the curative properties attributed to this substance, not by vulgar report only, but by attentive medical men, who have had many opportunities of observing its effects and have themselves used it, are such as they describe. According to the predominating theories of the day, all these intestinal affections are attributed to an inflammatory or sub- inflammatory state of the lining membranes of the intestines, for which acidulous emollient drinks are strongly recommended. Such a combination of acidulous and aperient emollients seem therefore well suited to fulfil the indications of cure laid down for the treatment of the milder forms of these complaints, and which, according to the French school, are the only certain ones in the cure of these diseases so frequent in hot countries and seasons. We are indebted to Dr. Louis Frank, a French physician, who witnessed the mode of treatment pursued in dy- sentery in the caravans travelling from Nubia to Cairo, and had in that situation an opportunity of observing the good effects of the remedy, which he afterwards most successfully adopted, for much of the information we possess regarding the medical properties of the fruit of the Boabab tree. I extract his account as given in Merat's and DeLens' Dictionnaire Universel de Mat : Medicale, of the method of using it for the cure of dysentery.

On the first appearance of the disease the patient restricts himself to a very spare diet, using for drink a weak decoction of tamarinds. If the disease does not speedily abate he then has recourse to the fruit of the Boabab, which some precede by small doses of rhubarb. It is the spongy redish friable substance of the fruit that is used. If there is no amendment at the end of a few days, a paste is made of the powdered bark of the fruit mixed with water, of which about the size of a chesnut is given several times in the course of the day, and sometimes a drink is prepared of the torrified seeds, of which the patient takes repeated doses daily.

In one case of dysentery of twenty-five days standing, in which Dr. Frank prescribed this fruit " it cured as if by enchantment." — Many other patients were thus treated with equal suc- cess. The following interesting account of this tree was drawn up by Dr. Hooker, and published in the Botanical Magazine, Nos. 2791—92. " The Adansoni& digitata, Ethiopian Sour Gourd, Monkiey Bread, or Baobab, is a native of Senegal. It is said likewise to be found in Egypt and Abyssinia, and is besides cul- tivated in many of the warmer parts of the world. There seems to be no question that it is the largest known tree ; the diameter of the trunk, Adanson says, being sometimes no less than thirty feet. Although it has been introduced into Britain, according to the Hortus Kewensis so long ago as the year 1724, by William Sherard, Esq. yet, as may be supposed, so vast a tree is not likely, in our stoves, to arrive at that size, when its flowers and fruit may be expected. Hence, I trust, that representations of so great a rarity, taken, in part, from drawings made in India, and kindly lent to me by Major General Hardwicke, and in part, from specimens of the fruit and flowers sent to me in spirits, by Mr. Guilding, from St. Vincent, may be generally acceptable to the Botanical world. Adanson, during his visit to Senegal, has given a full and interesting account of this tree and, certainly, not the least striking circumstances respecting it are, its enormous size, and its great age, whence it has been called " Arbre de mille Ans," and whence too, Humboldt has been led to speak of it as, " the oldest organic monument of our planet." Its trunk, indeed, great as is its diameter, has a height by no means proportionable to its breadth. Adanson cal- culates as follows : That a tree of I year old is 1 in. or 1^ in. diameter, 5 in. in height. 20 I foot 15 30 2 22 100 4 29 1000 .. 14 58 2400 18 64 5150 30 73 The roots, again, are of a most extraordinary length, having numerous ramifications. In a tree, whose trunk was only ten or twelve feet high, with a trunk seventy-seven feet in circum- ference, Adanson has determined the main branch, or tap-root, to be one hundred and ten feet long. A figure of the whole tree may be seen in a beautiful vignette, at p. 141, of Lord Macart- ney's Embassy to China, drawn from a fine specimen in St. Jago, one of the Cape de Verd islands. The foliage there, indeed, is not so abundant as to conceal the vast proportion of the trunk, but it often happens, that the leaves are so numerous, and the branches spread out, drooping at the extremities, to such a degree, that the trunk is almost entirely concealed, and the whole forms a nearly hemispherical mass of verdure, from one hundred and forty to one hundred and fifty feet in diameter, and sixty or seventy feet high.

The wood is pale coloured, light, and soft, so that, in Abyssinia, the wild bees perforate it, for the purpose of lodging their honey in the holes, which honey is reckoned the best in the country. I know not that the wood itself is applied to any particular purpose, but the Negroes on the eastern coast of Africa employ the trunks in a certain state to a very extraordinary pur- pose. The tree is subject to a particular disease, owing to the attack of a species of Fungus, which vegetates in the woody part, and which, without changing its colour or appearance, destroys life, and renders the part so attacked, as soft as the pith of trees in general. Such trunks are then hollowed into chambers, and within them are suspended the dead bodies of those who are refused the honor of burial. There they become mummies, perfectly dry and well preserved, without any further preparation or embalmment, and are known by the name of guiriots.

This plant, like all of the neighbouring order of Malvaceae, is emollient and mucilaginous in all its parts. The leaves dried and reduced to powder constitute lalo, a favourite article with the natives, and which they mix daily with their food, for the purpose of diminishing the exces- sive perspiration to which they are subject in those climates, and even the Europeans find it serviceable in cases of diarrhaea, fevers, and other maladies.

The fruit is, perhaps, the most useful part of the tree. Its pulp is slightly acid and agree- able, and frequently eaten ; while the juice is expressed from it, mixed with sugar, and consti- tutes a drink which is valued as a specific in putrid and pestilential fevers. Owing to these circumstances, the fruit forms an article of commerce.* The Mandingos convey it to the eastern and more southern districts of Africa, and through the medium of the Arabs, it reaches Morocco and even Egypt. If the fruit be decayed or injured, it is burned : the leys are boiled with rancid oil of palm, and the negroes use it instead of soap."

I shall now conclude these, I fear, rather too extended remarks on Adansonia, which the interest of the subject, has led me into, by extracting from the Flora Senegambiae, a short account of its mode of growth. " It is surprising that in a country so hot and dry as the west- ern coast of Africa, the Boabab can acquire such enormous dimensions. Individuals are often found in Senegal and Gambia having a circumference of even 60 or 80 feet, without however attaining a height in proportion to such thickness. These dimensions diminish in proportion as they recede from the sea coast. This singular vegetable seems to increase in diameter without our being able to attribute this effect solely to the influence of the leaves, since it is deprived of them during nearly two-thirds of the year. The herbaceous envelope, of a shining' green colour, by which the shapeless mass of its trunk is covered is very thin but full of life. From the slightest wound we can make in it, there bursts forth an abundant stream of liquid, a kind of nutritive sap, coming from the herbacious envelope which answers the same purpose as leaves, and which, so to speak, has been the principal focus of vegetable life. In a word the Baobab has a vegetation analogous to that of certain Cacti, which draw their nourishment not from the soil but from the air by their whole surface."

The Durian so much esteemed to the eastward is said by Rumphius, to be of a very heat- ing quality; and liable to excite inflammatory derangements of the system. Whether these statements are in accordance with the results of modern experience is more than I can tell, but I rather suspect not, as all who have been able to reconcile themselves to the odour of the fruit

  • In Bowdich's account of Banjole, it is mentioned that this fruit possesses an agreeably acid flavour, and, being very abun-

dant, it forms a principal article of food among the natives, who season many of their dishes with if, especially a kind of g; uel made of corn, and called Rooy. Mr. Bowdich further observes, that this tree" loses its leaves before the periodical rains come on. speak of it in the highest terms, and seem to think it not less wholesome than grateful to the palate. It is remarkable that it has never been introduced on this side of the Bay, as it cer- tainly seems a most desirable plant to have among us.*

Remarks on the Genera. Three indigenous genera only of this order are found in the Indian Peninsula, and are described in our Prodromus under the names of Helicteres, Bombax, and Eriodendron. These names Professor Endlicher of Vienna, in the course of a revision of the order has seen reason to change. The species, which originally formed the types of these genera are all of American origin, and on being carefully compared with the Indian species which have been associated with them, were found to differ so much, as to render necessary the separation of the Asiatic from the American forms. Under such circum- stances, it was incumbent on him in separating the former as new genera, to retain the old names with the American forms, to which they had been originally assigned, and give new names to the Indian ones. Whether the new genera recommended by him will be adopted by other Botanists is still uncertain, but that the readers of these remarks may have an opportunity of judging for themselves of the propriety of the changes, I append, for comparison, the generic characters of both the American and Indian genera, but without for the present, offering any opinion of my own on the propriety or otherwise of the change, as I have not yet had an oppor- tunity of satisfying myself on that point by a comparison of the plants themselves, and written characters do not always convey, to the mind, a very clear or satisfactory idea of the differences which may actually exist, and be very apparent to the eye, though not easily de- scribed.

In addition to the species here figured there is another, or a very distinct variety found at Courtallum, approaching in some respects to Wallich's B. insigne, in the large size of its flowers. It differs, I think, specifically from B. Malabarica, in having the petals linear, nearly twice the length of the stamens ; the stamens many times more numerous, the filaments much more slender and filiform, and the anthers small in proportion. The flowers being fully twice as large as those here represented, and the relative proportion in the size of the parts being changed, added to the capsule being hard and woody, leaves scarcely a doubt on my mind of its being distinct, but notwithstanding, I refrain for the present from naming it as such, owing to my specimens being imperfect, and not sufficient to admit of my adequately characterizing the species from them.

Helicteres L. Calyx tubulosus bilabiatim 5 fidus. Petala ligulata, ungue appendiculata, bilabiatim disposita. Staminum tubus carpophoro connatus, longe exsertus. Filamenta fertilia 5 — 10; sterilia 5 petaloidea, paribus fertilium staminum opposita. Ovarium longe stipitatum e carpellis 5 (cum staminibus sterilibus alternantibus). Styli contorti. Stigmata obsoleta. Fructus e carpellis 5 distinctis, spiratim contortis 1. rectis, polyspermus. Semina angulata, albuminosa. Cotyledones convolutae. — Frutices praecipue Americas tropicee, foliis latecordatis crenato-dentatis dense tomentosis, floribus cymosis terminalibus, albis vel rubro-fuscis.

Isora. Calyx clavato-campanulatus subinflatus 5 fide bilabiatus, labio superiore producto. Petala ligulata bilabiatim disposita, 3 inferiora exappendiculata, superiora 2 appendiculo unila- teral! maximo. Staminum tubus carpophoro connatus, longe-exsertus in urceolum ovarium cingentem ampliatus, filamentis sterilibus 5 liguliformibus minutis .... capsulae 5 in spiram arete contortae. Species indicae. Is. corylifolia (Hel. Isora L.). Is. grewiaefolia (Hel. grewiaefolia Cand.).

Eriodendron DC. Calyx irregulariter sub 5 fidus. Petala erecta. Tubus stamineus medio ampliatus apice in 5 crura divisus, antherosomata bilocularia longitudinaliter adnata recta gerentia. Stigmata connexa unicum capituliforme mentientia. Capsula lignosa 5 locu-

  • Since the above was written 1 have learned from General Bishop that there are two trees growing in Trichinopoly, and one

of them has twice borne a single fruit, but on neither occasion brought it to maturity ; the first blighted on the tree, the second was blown down after it had attained a considerable size. p laris, 5 valvis. Semina lana pericarpii obducta. — American® foliis digitato-compositis, floribus magnis albis. E. leiantherum DC.

Gossampinus. Calyx irregulariter 5 fidus. Petala erecta. Tubus stamineus basi ampli- atus, apice in crura 5 divisus, antherosomata lunata flexuosa 2 — 3 distincta gerenfia. Stigmata connexa in stigma capitato-subrotundum. Capsula 5 locularis, 5 valvis, cortice crasso duro rugoso, basi dehiscens. Semina lanse immersa. — Indica foliis digitato-compositis, floribus minoribus flaventibus. G. Rumphii (Bombax pentandrum orientale Auct.).

Salmalia. Calyx subtruncatus irregulariter ad basin usque rumpens. Petala tandem revoluto-recurva. Tubus stamineus pluriserialis, in phalanges poly-1. monostemones plures divisus, cruribus (phalangis divisiones ultimas) simplicibus. Antherae extrorsum affixae reni- formes, interiorum staminum geminata? majores, exteriorum simplices minores. Stigmata in lobos 5 radiatim-posita. Cetera Eriodendri. — Indica? foliis digitato-compositis, floribus speciosis coccineis. S. insignis (Bombax insigne Wall.). S. malabarica (Bombax heptaphyllum Roxb.j.

Bombax. Calyx irregulariter 3—5 fidus extus eglandulosus. Petala 5 patentia v. reflexa. Tubus stamineus in phalanges polystemones 5 — v. plures divisus, cruribus 2 fidis. Antherae erectee oblongae, loculis confiuentibus marginalibus 1 loculares. Stigmata in capitulum 5 sulca- tum coadunata. Capsula 5 locularis, 5 valvis, placentis incrassatis. Semina lana pericarpica obducta — Americana?, foliis digitatis, floribus spicatis, albidis. B. Ceiba L. B. Munguba Mart. etc.


1. Bombax Malabaricum— natural size. 4 and 5. Anthers. 2. A flower, the corolla removed to show the calyx 6. Ovary style and stigma. and stamens. 7- Ovary cut transversely — all more or less magni- 3. Portion of the same removed from the calyx, fied. showing the short tube formed by the union of the 8. Full grown capsule before bursting, base of the filaments round the ovary. 9. Mature capsule burst.

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