Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 41.djvu/122

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112
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

the process; but the jointed stem usually answers the purpose of leaves under such conditions far better than any thin and exposed blade could do in the arid air of a baking desert. And therefore, as a rule, desert plants are leafless.

In India, for example, there are no cactuses. But I wouldn't advise you to dispute the point with a peppery, fire-eating AngloIndian colonel. I did so once, myself, at the risk of my life, at a table d'hôte on the Continent; and the wonder is that I'm still alive to tell the story. I had nothing but facts on my side, while the colonel had fists, and probably pistols. And when I say no cactuses, I mean, of course, no indigenous species; for prickly pears and epiphyllums may naturally be planted by the hand of man anywhere. But what people take for thickets of cactus in the Indian jungle are really thickets of cactus-like spurges. In the dry soil of India, many spurges grow thick and succulent, learn to suppress their leaves, and assume the bizarre forms and quaint jointed appearance of the true cactuses. In flower and fruit, however, they are euphorbias to the end; it is only in the thick and fleshy stem that they resemble their nobler and more beautiful Western rivals. No true cactus grows truly wild anywhere on earth except in America. The family was developed there, and, till man transplanted it, never succeeded in gaining a foothold elsewhere. Essentially tropical in type, it was provided with no means of dispersing its seeds across the enormous expanse of intervening ocean which separated its habitat from the sister continents.

But why are cactuses so almost universally prickly? From the grotesque little melon-cactuses of our English hot-houses to the huge and ungainly monsters which form miles of hedgerows on Jamaican hillsides, the members of this desert family are mostly distinguished by their abundant spines and thorns, or by the irritating hairs which break off in your skin if you happen to brush incautiously against them. Cactuses are the hedgehogs of the vegetable world; their motto is Nemo me impune lacessit. Many a time in the West Indies I have pushed my hand for a second into a bit of tangled "bush," as the negroes call it, to seize some rare flower or some beautiful insect, and been punished for twenty-four hours afterward by the stings of the almost invisible and glass-like little cactus-needles. When you rub them they only break in pieces, and every piece inflicts a fresh wound on the flesh where it rankles. Some of the species have large, stout prickles; some have clusters of irritating hairs at measured distances; and some rejoice in both means of defense at once, scattered impartially over their entire surface. In the prickly pear, the bundles of prickles are arranged geometrically with great regularity in a perfect quincunx. But that is a small consolation