The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Tropical Forests
TROPICAL FORESTS. The beauty of a tropical forest is greatly overestimated by dwellers in temperate climes. The testimony of nearly all travelers to the tropics is to the effect that nowhere did they see such an expanse of flowers and charming forests as those they had left, and they all complain of the monotonous greenness of the trees, which have never to prepare for winter. Where the trees are most immense and crowded, as in the Amazon district, and in the East Indies, the forest is lonely and silent, shadowy and sombre in the subdued light. The trunks rise without branches for many feet, tied together with creepers and lianes, in an indescribable confusion of festoons and ropes and cables, reaching from tree to tree, and to the ground; some flat, some twisted either around each other or smothering a tree; some limp and swaying, others drawn taut like the stays of a ship's mast. Many of them are climbing palms (Calamus) and many are armed with cruel fishhook-like thorns. The lianes, and the trees themselves, support myriads of small epiphytic or parasitic plants, ferns, fungi and countless other species. Overhead the forest is roofed by the tops of the trees and of the creepers; the foliage is sharply defined against the sky, even the finely-cut delicate leaves of the great leguminous trees characteristic of these forests. Nearly all the flowers of the deep forests are confined to this upper stratum, where the sun's rays can reach them, and they are not always easily seen, being often green or white, and inconspicuous amid the verdure. The flowers of the most tropical trees, moreover, are, even when brilliant, very fugacious; one reads of people walking through the maple leaves petals of a day, as through the maple leaves in autumn. The forest trees, however, are very prolific, and many of them bear bud, blossom, and unripe and mature fruit at the same time. The forest giants in some instances have protected themselves against the dangers of the great height and top-heaviness. Tapangs and figs have great buttresses like undulating wooden walls, others, as the screw-pines and the mangroves, perch on aerial roots, sent down from trunk and branches. The last are found along sea-shores, stepping far out into the water, backed by the screw-pines and nipa-palms and presenting an almost impenetrable front, woven into a thicket by interweaving creepers, interminably long and even thorny. It is at such edges of the forest, in clearings and along roadsides, that one sees the imagined beauty of the tropics. There the under-shrubs have a chance to grow and bloom, interspersed with graceful tree ferns and waving palms. The creepers and tree-branches descend and hang waving and blossomladen over the masses of ferns and ground plants; and there the brilliant blossom of orchid and parasite and epiphyte are visible.
African forests are often like those of temperate zones, with open glades and clumps of trees. One can hardly call the oases of palms in the deserts, forests. In Abyssinia the country has been likened to the Scotch Highlands.
It is Australia, however, which has the most peculiar tropical forest, for in spite of the fact that her gum trees are the tallest trees in the world, it is a shadeless land. So burning are the sun's rays, that the leaves of the predominating eucalyptus are so disposed as to present always their edge to the sky; the acacias have delicate compound leaves, the ti-shrub has reduced its foliage to mere needles, and the weird she-oak has dispensed with leaves altogether, string-like branchlets taking their place. The first impression of an inland Australian forest is one of monotony in color and appearance, and of burning heat and desolation heightened by the flapping strips of the bark of the gum-trees, which is cast away as northern trees shed their leaves.