Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 41.djvu/119

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.
109
A DESERT FRUIT.

A DESERT FRUIT.
By GRANT ALLEN.

WHO knows the Mediterranean, knows the prickly pear. Not that that quaint and uncanny-looking cactus, with its yellow blossoms and bristling fruits that seem to grow paradoxically out of the edge of thick, fleshy leaves is really a native of Italy, Spain, and North Africa, where it now abounds on every sun-smitten hillside. Like Mr. Henry James and Mr. Marion Crawford, the Barbary fig, as the French call it, is, in point of fact, an American citizen, domiciled and half naturalized on this side of the Atlantic, but redolent still at heart of its Columbian origin. Nothing is more common, indeed, than to see classical pictures of the Alma-Tadema school—not, of course, from the brush of the master himself, who is impeccable in such details, but fair works of decent imitators—in which Caia or Marcia leans gracefully in her white stole on one pensive elbow against a marble lintel, beside a court-yard decorated with a Pompeiian basin, and overgrown with prickly pear or "American aloes." I need hardly say that, as a matter of plain historical fact, neither cactuses nor agaves were known in Europe till long after Christopher Columbus had steered his wandering bark to the sandy shores of Cat's Island in the Bahamas. (I have seen Cat's Island with these very eyes, and can honestly assure you that its shores are sandy.) But this is only one among the many pardonable little inaccuracies of painters, who thrust scarlet geraniums from the Cape of Good Hope into the fingers of Aspasia, or supply King Solomon in all his glory with Japanese lilies of the most recent introduction.

At the present day, it is true, both the prickly-pear cactus and the American agave (which the world at large insists upon confounding with the aloe, a member of a totally distinct family) have spread themselves in an apparently wild condition over all the rocky coasts both of southern Europe and of northern Africa. The alien desert weeds have fixed their roots firmly in the sunbaked clefts of Ligurian Apennines; the tall candelabrum of the Western agave has reared its great spike of branching blossoms (which flower, not once in a century, as legend avers, but once in some fifteen years or so) on all the basking hillsides of the Mauritanian Atlas. But for the origin, and therefore for the evolutionary history, of either plant, we must look away from the shore of the inland sea to the arid expanse of the Mexican desert. It was there, among the sweltering rocks of the Tierras Calientes, that these ungainly cactuses first learned to clothe themselves in prickly mail, to store in their loose tissues an abundant supply of sticky moisture, and to set at defiance the persistent attacks of all