The How and Why Library/Life/Plants-Section X

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X. How Plants Are Promoted to a Higher Class[edit]

A long time ago people thought that flowers were given their beautiful colors and perfumes just to make the world a pleasanter place for people to live in. But now we know that everything lives for itself. It lives to eat and grow and make seeds of its own kind. No doubt, flowers have found out that men and women and little girls and boys are very good friends in helping them grow. They want all the help they can get, so they put on pretty dresses, and use perfumes to coax bees and butterflies to visit them, and they offer cups of honey to their little brothers of the air, so they will come back again.

When we see a flower it seems to have got so far away from the little cell full of protoplasm, or magic jelly, that we cannot understand that they can be made of the same things at all. But the little cell has the same power that the most beautiful flower has. It can take lifeless matter out of the air and water, and make living things out of it. And it can change. Lifted into the sunlight some of its cells turned green. Thrown out on the land, the cells clung and spread into a leaf and sent down rootlets. As the cells could no longer break away and float to start new families, it grew spores and used the wind to scatter them.

Plants changed first by dividing the cells, then by budding new ones, then by uniting different kinds of cells to make spores. In doing these things it learned to break up air and water and put them together in new ways. It learned to divide the work of the plant by making organs—roots, stems, leaves, blossoms, fruits. The lowest plant is a cell, but the highest is only a multitude of cells made of the one material—protoplasm, but changed into many forms and given many kinds of work to do. From using water alone to float in, the plant learned to use earth, air, wind, insects, birds and men, to help it make and scatter its seeds, and to grow better plants.

When you go into the fields and woods in the spring to gather wild flowers, haven't you found some blossoms larger, more perfectly colored and with a sweeter perfume than others? No two violets are just alike. Some are small and pale, others large and blue and fragrant. In the plant world it has always been like that. And the stronger plants always have the best chance to live. They havebetter soil, or more room to grow in, or more sunshine or, something that makes them better than their brothers and sisters. So they have a chance to make better seeds. The weak plants die more easily. This is nature's way of picking out the best.

Among the flowers there were some born with deeper little pockets, so the insects could not get at the honey without covering themselves with pollen. So these flowers kept more of their honey for their own use, and made the bees and butterflies scatter their pollen. The kind of flowers that spread their honey, or that had pockets that were easily "picked," died. The flowers that have the stronger perfume have a better chance, too, and those that have attractive colors.

Suppose a bee goes after honey in an apple blossom. It likes the color and the smell. So it goes to another apple blossom and another. It doesn't visit anything but apple blossoms until it goes back to the hive. Just why it does this we do not know, but very likely bees and butterflies are much like little boys and girls. When they get a taste of anything good, they like to make a meal of it. Once a little girl was asked why she didn't eat bread with her jelly. She thought a moment and then said, soberly:

"The delly is dooder."

Maybe that is all the answer the bee could make. For the time it has the color and smell and taste of apple blossoms, and that seems "dooder." The next time it comes it may blunder into a head of clover. Then nothing but clover will satisfy it. In this way insects are kept from mixing the pollens of different plants. The traps and tricks that flowers have learned, to make the insects scatter their pollen, is interesting. Some have hair nets over the honey cups to hold the little visitor until, in his struggles, he rubs the pollen from his legs, onto the little wet buttons on the seed tube. Then they give him a little honey and let him fly away.

You didn't know, perhaps, that some flowers are so much better than others of the same kind that they really are a little different. You know it is like that in human families. Lincoln was better than and different from all his own people and his neighbors. So was the poet Shakspere, and the poet Burns, and Daniel Webster and Washington. Men who have studied plants find some with a genius for going up higher.

One day a man like this was walking in a field of yellow poppies, in California. Yellow poppies grow wild there. There were acres andacres of these poppies, as yellow as gold. Suddenly he saw one blossom that had red stripes on its petals. He tied a label on the stalk so he could find it again, and left it there for the seed to ripen. He gathered these seed and planted them in his garden near some red poppies. When the two blossomed he took the pollen from the red poppy on a camel's hair artist's brush and, as lightly as a butterfly, put it on the seed button of the striped blossom. The seed from that, the next year, grew into big, crimson flowers.

The name of this plant wizard is Mr. Luther Burbank. He has made big, snow-white, double-petaled Shasta daisies from the common field daisy. He has grown white blackberries, and stoneless plums, and thornless cactus that cattle can feed on in the desert, and many other plants. If you ask him how he does it he will say, modestly, that he finds a plant that wants to come up higher, and he helps it a little, just as a rich man or a church will sometimes send a very bright, ambitious boy to college.

Farmers help plants come up higher, and get better and different varieties of seeds all the time. They plant the largest seeds from the biggest, fullest ears of corn, and the best filled stalks of wheat. They take the smoothest, mealiest potatoes with the healthiest eyes. And they change the crops grown on a field. Wheat and cotton and certain other crops use up the plant food in the soil, if they are grown year after year in the same fields. So clover is planted to make nitrates for the soil. Flowers really do want us to look at them and smell them, just as they want the wind to blow on them, the bees and butterflies to visit them, and men and birds to eat their fruits. If we love them and find them useful to us, we help them grow and change.

The old, old call of "come up higher" is still sounded in the woods and fields. Older people can remember the first navel oranges without seeds, and the big Burbank potatoes. Every flower show has some new and more beautiful rose or chrysanthemum; every new spring seed catalogue its new colorings of sweet peas and nasturtiums. Any little boy or girl with a tiny garden, can watch for some flower with a poet's gift for size, color or perfume, and help it "come up higher."