Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 41.djvu/121

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
111
A DESERT FRUIT.

finger and thumb you find that, though the outer skin or epidermis is thick and firm, the, inside is sticky, moist, and jelly-like. The reason for all this is plain: the stone-crops drink greedily by their roots whenever they get a chance, and store up the water so obtained to keep them from withering under the hot and pitiless sun that beats down upon them for hours in the baked clefts of their granite matrix. It's the camel trick over again. So leaves and stems grow thick and round and juicy within; but outside they are inclosed in a stout layer of epidermis, which consists of empty glassy cells, and which can be peeled off or flayed with a knife like the skin of an animal. This outer layer prevents evaporation, and is a marked feature of all succulent plants which grow exposed to the sun on arid rocks or in sandy deserts.

The tendency to produce rounded stems and leaves, little distinguishable from one another, is equally noticeable in many seaside plants which frequent the strip of thirsty sand beyond the reach of the tides. That belt of dry beach that stretches between high-water mark and the zone of vegetable mold is to all intents and purposes a miniature desert. True, it is watered by rain from time to time; but the drops sink in so fast that in half an hour, as we know, the entire strip is as dry as Sahara again. Now, there are many shore weeds of this intermediate sand-belt which mimic to a surprising degree the chief external features of the cactuses. One such weed, the common salicornia, which grows in sandy bottoms or hollows of the beach, has a jointed stem, branched and succulent, after the true cactus pattern, and entirely without leaves or their equivalents in any way. Still more cactus-like in general effect is another familiar English seaside weed, the kali or glasswort, so called because it was formerly burned to extract the soda. The glasswort has leaves, it is true, but they are thick and fleshy, continuous with the stem, and each one terminating in a sharp, needle-like spine, which effectually protects the weed against all browsing aggressors.

Now, wherever you get very dry and sandy conditions of soil, you get this same type of cactus-like vegetation—plantes grasses, as the French well call them. The species which exhibit it are not necessarily related to one another in any way; often they belong to most widely distinct families; it is an adaptive resemblance alone, due to similarity of external circumstances only. The plants have to fight against the same difficulties, and they adopt for the most part the same tactics to fight them with. In other words, any plant, of whatever family, which wishes to thrive in desert conditions, must almost as a matter of course become thick and succulent, so as to store up water, and must be protected by a stout epidermis to prevent its evaporation under the fierce heat of the sunlight. They do not necessarily lose their leaves in