Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 41.djvu/123

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113
A DESERT FRUIT.

indeed to the reflective mind when you've stung yourself badly with them.

The reason for this bellicose disposition on the part of the cactuses is a tolerably easy one to guess. Fodder is rare in the desert. The starving herbivores that find themselves from time to time belated on the confines of such thirsty regions would seize with avidity upon any succulent plant which offered them food and drink at once in their last extremity. Fancy the joy with which a lost caravan, dying of hunger and thirst in the byways of Sahara, would hail a great bed of melons, cucumbers, and lettuces! Needless to say, however, under such circumstances melon, cucumber, and lettuce would soon be exterminated; they would be promptly eaten up at discretion without leaving a descendant to represent them in the second generation. In the ceaseless war between herbivore and plant, which is waged every day and all day long the whole world over with far greater persistence than the war between carnivore and prey, only those species of plant can survive in such exposed situations which happen to develop spines, thorns, or prickles as a means of defense against the mouths of hungry and desperate assailants.

Nor is this so difficult a bit of evolution as it looks at first sight. Almost all plants are more or less covered with hairs, and it needs but a slight thickening at the base, a slight woody deposit at the point, to turn them forthwith into the stout prickles of the rose or the bramble. Most leaves are more or less pointed at the end or at the summits of the lobes; and it needs but a slight intensification of this pointed tendency to produce forthwith the sharp defensive foliage of gorse, thistles, and holly. Often one can see all the intermediate stages still surviving under one's very eyes. The thistles themselves, for example, vary from soft and unarmed species which haunt out-of-the-way spots beyond the reach of browsing herbivores, to such trebly-mailed types as that enemy of the agricultural interest, the creeping thistle, in which the leaves continue themselves as prickly wings down every side of the stem, so that the whole plant is amply clad from head to foot in a defensive coat of fierce and bristling spear-heads. There is a common little English meadow weed, the rest-harrow, which in rich and uncropped fields produces no defensive armor of any sort; but on the much-browsed-over suburban commons and in similar exposed spots, where only gorse and blackthorn stand a chance for their lives against the cows and donkeys, it has developed a protected variety in which some of the branches grow abortive, and end abruptly in stout spines like a hawthorn's. Only those rest-harrows have there survived in the sharp struggle for existence which happened most to baffle their relentless pursuers.