Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 32.djvu/203

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191
AMERICAN CINQUE-FOILS.

form, however, occurs nowhere in the United States except here on the topmost summits of the White Mountains, and even there it lingers on in scanty numbers, rapidly diminished by the growing warmth and the incursions of botanists. I took but a tiny spray for my own specimen, from a spot not far from Tuckerman's Ravine, and left the remainder of the plant I found there still growing. It would be a pity if these last survivors of the Glacial epoch, pushed up onto these chilly heights by the secular summer of our own day, should be exterminated by the hands of those who above all others are bound by natural piety to preserve and protect them.

All over Canada and the Northern States there grows a third and very common potentilla, the cinque-foil or "five-finger" of popular botany (P. Canadensis), a pretty, prostrate, creeping weed, with golden yellow flowers springing close to the ground, and five leaflets instead of three to each leaf. Ever since the days of Linnæus this plant has been considered distinct from the common European cinque-foil (P. reptans), and the differences are certainly sufficient to justify their division as separate species, as systematic botany goes nowadays. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that we have here merely to deal with the American descendants of the same old circumpolar plant. No European naturalist who saw the Canadian cinque-foil for the first time would ever take it for a distinct type; if he found it growing in an English meadow, he would certainly pass it by unnoticed as the familiar cinque-foil of our eastern hemisphere. The differences can only be observed when you look closely into the plant, and they are all of easy adaptive character. In fact, we have here just the same tendency as that which we noticed in the mountain species, only carried, perhaps, one step farther. In that instance, the differences were only sufficient for sytematic botanists to rank the plant as a mere variety; in this case they are sufficient to give it the dignity of a distinct species. But at bottom nobody knows what is a variety and what a species, and it is a mere matter of individual judgment whether a particular form should be regarded as one or the other. It varies "according to the taste and fancy of the speller." Oakes considered the White Mountain potentilla a distinct American species, different from the Alpine kind in Europe, and christened it, accordingly, P. Robbinsiama, after the first person who discovered it on these chilly hill-tops. Asa Gray regards it rather as a mere variety, though he hesitates as to whether it comes nearer to the P. frigida of the Alps, or to the dwarf form known as P. minima (itself a very ill-marked species). It is always so when you come to compare the plants or animals over a large area. However distinct they may seem in particular localities, they shade off into one another by such imperceptible degrees at distant points that the task of drawing hard-and-fast lines, so lightly undertaken by the systematic biologist, becomes at last absolutely impossible.

This very Canadian cinque-foil, for example, runs into two extreme