The fairy tales of science/Animated Flowers

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Animated Flowers.

"Here, too, were living flowers,
Which, like a bud compacted,
Their purple cups contracted;
And now in open blossom spread,
Stretch'd, like green anthers, many a seeking head."

The flowers of the sea far surpass those of the land in splendid and gorgeous colouring. In the "gardens of Nereus" there are anemones of the richest crimson, purple, and orange; chrysanthemums, beautifully striped and variegated; carnations, whose petals are exquisitely cut and fringed; and dahlias, so perfect in form that they could not fail to win the admiration of enthusiastic flower-fanciers.

But these flowers are not only beautiful. Nature has endowed them with wonderful powers. They fold and expand their petals at will; some of them can move from place to place; and others are so peculiarly sensitive, that the slightest touch will cause them to shrink into shapeless lumps of jelly.

What are these extraordinary beings? Are they plants or animals, or do they stand upon some debateable ground between the two great kingdoms of organic nature? In ancient times they were doubtless regarded as sea-nymphs metamorphosed into flowers; but we fear that this opinion would have little weight in the present age of science. Expound the riddle, good naturalist, and tell us all about these animated flowers!

Well, to put an end to the reader's suspense, we will at once inform him that these magic flowers are true animals. Nor will this statement surprise him, since he has already seen what marvellous forms may be endowed with animal life. He has seen living plumes, living stars, and living umbrellas, all of which are quite as wonderful as these living flowers.

The sea-anemones are by far the most conspicuous of the wild-flowers of the deep, and we will therefore give them the precedence in our examination. If we wander about the sea-beach at low tide, we may find plenty of these creatures attached to the rocks and stones left bare by the receding waves. The commonest are those known as the smooth anemones,[1] which seem, when out of the water, to be mere knobs of jelly. On touching them you find that they are tough and leathery, though you would never have imagined so from their appearance. These little knobs are variously coloured, but different shades of green and red are their prevailing hues.

When the sea comes up and covers the anemones they assume the most lovely shapes. Each lump of jelly expands into a beautiful flower, having somewhat the form of a chrysanthemum, but a far more brilliant colour. When fully expanded, each flower displays a ring of turquoise beads, whose pure blue forms a beautiful contrast to the crimson, purple, and orange tints of the petals.

These jewelled flowers are not to be compared with their aristocratic relations, the thick-horned anemones.[2] Words can convey no idea of the beauty of these creatures. They are much larger than the last species, and some of them, when expanded, are five or six inches across. Their petals, which are very thick in proportion to their length, are delicately transparent, and prettily striped and ringed with various brilliant colours. These animated flowers have been well likened to quilled dahlias; but to complete the simile, we must suppose that the terrestrial flowers have petals of gelatine.

The daisy-anemone[3] is another beautiful species. They may be found in abundance upon some coasts, in the tide-pools and hollows. In the sunshine of a fair day they expand beautifully, and you may see them studding the face of the rock just beneath the surface of the water, from the size of a shilling to that of a crown-piece. If you touch one of these sensitive daisies, its circular disc will at once begin to curl and pucker at its margin, and soon take the form of a cup; if further annoyed, the rim of this cup will contract more and more, until it closes. The diameter of the disc is nearly four times that of the body at the point from which it expands. The petals are very small, but numerous, and are arranged on the disc in about six rows. As for colouring, the daisy is not surpassed by any flower of the deep; for though its tints are less brilliant than those of the living chrysanthemums and dahlias, they are so beautifully blended one into another, that they cause the little creature to appear quite as lovely as its flaring cousins. The upper surface of the disc is of a rich umber brown, merging into lavender-colour towards the edge; the petals brown, blotched and speckled with white, and the base white, passing into pink, then lilac, and becoming purple as it joins the disc.

But of all the flowers that bloom in the sea, perhaps the plumose anemone[4] is the most magnificent. It is much taller than any of the creatures we have described, and excels them in delicacy of colouring; pure white, pearly grey, or faint rose, taking the place of scarlet, olive, or brown. It is, indeed, a creature of surpassing loveliness, and has justly been styled the maiden queen of all the beautiful tribe.

The sea-anemones are terribly voracious, devouring everything that comes within their reach. We are not romancing, dear reader, these flowers of the sea have wonderful appetites, and are endowed with digestive powers that the human gourmand might well covet. If we examine the internal structure of these anomalous beings, we shall be able to account for their voracity.

A sea-anemone may be likened to a double bag; the outer bag forming the exterior of the animal, and the inner one its stomach; the intervening space being divided into numerous chambers, by vertical partitions, which pass in a radiating direction between the outer surface of the stomach and the general integument. The arms or tentacles of the anemone, which we have hitherto spoken of as petals, are hollow, and communicate with the internal chambers. These chambers are always filled with water, and by the contraction of the walls, water is forced into the hollow tentacles. The tentacles are also provided with small orifices at the extremity, that can be opened or closed by the animal. Water is taken in by these orifices, so as to distend the radiating chambers and tentacles, and is ejected with considerable violence through the same apertures whenever the creature is alarmed. The tentacles are placed in rows round the mouth, which is usually circular or oval.

Although the anemone is a mere membranous bag distended with sea-water, it is endowed with powers that render it more than a match for many animals occupying a much higher position in the scale of being. No sooner does a small fish, a crab, or a shelled mollusk come within reach of its tentacles, than it is seized by them, and drawn to the gaping mouth of the greedy flower, the tentacles closing upon it on all sides. After awhile the tentacles again expand, and an empty crust or shell is ejected through the mouth, the nourishing contents having been mysteriously extracted in the stomach of the anemone.

And now, abstemious reader, can you wonder at the voracity of these strange creatures? If you had a stomach of proportional capacity, a mouth equally extensive, and a hundred arms constantly picking up dainties, depend upon it you would be quite as voracious!

The anemone attaches itself to the rock by means of a sucking base, but it seldom remains long in the same place. In travelling it pushes forward one portion of the base, and having fixed it firmly, draws the remaining portion after it, a mode of progression very similar to that adopted by the snail. There are many more wonderful things connected with the sea-anemones which we cannot stop to consider, as we must now pass on to another kind of living flower.

The madrepore[5] is allied to the anemones, but differs from them in many important points. This beautiful little flower of the sea has a stony skeleton, consisting of a number of thin chalky plates standing up edgewise, and arranged in a radiating manner round a low centre. We have informed the reader that the interior of an anemone is divided into numerous chambers by perpendicular veils of membrane. If he will now imagine that every one of these membranes is turned into stone, he will understand the formation of the madrepore's skeleton, and its relation to the soft investing flesh.

Mr. Gosse, the naturalist, to whom we are indebted for many striking facts relating to the beautiful inhabitants of the sea, has given a charming description of the living madrepore in one of his pleasant books. "Let it," he says, "after being torn from the rock, recover its equanimity; then you will see a pellucid gelatinous flesh emerging from between the plates, and little exquisitely formed and coloured tentacles, with white clubbed tips fringing the sides of the cup-shaped cavity in the centre, across which stretches the oval disc, marked with a star of some rich and brilliant colour, surrounding the central mouth, a slit with white crenated lips, like the orifice of one of those elegant cowry-shells which we put upon our mantle-pieces. The mouth is always more or less prominent, and can be protruded and expanded to an astonishing extent. The space surrounding the lips is commonly fawn-colour or rich chesnut brown; the star, or vandyked circle, rich red, pale vermilion, and sometimes the most brilliant emerald green, as brilliant as the gorget of a humming-bird."

The madrepores are quite as greedy as their wandering friends the anemones, and the presence of food stimulates them to more active efforts and the display of greater intelligence than we should give them credit for. Mr. Gosse relates a very amusing anecdote about feeding a madrepore. He once put a minute spider, as large as a pin's head, into the water, pushing it down with a bit of grass to a coral, which was lying with partially exposed tentacles. The instant the insect touched the tip of the tentacle it adhered, and was drawn in with the surrounding tentacles between the plates, near their inward margin. Watching the animal with a lens, he saw the small mouth slowly open, and move over to that side, the lips gaping unsymmetrically; while at the same time, by a movement as imperceptible as that of the hour-hand of a watch, the tiny prey was carried along between the plates towards the corner of the mouth. The latter, however, moved most, and at length reached the edges of the plates, and gradually took in and closed upon the insect; after which it slowly returned to its usual place in the centre of the disc. After some quarter of an hour Mr. Gosse caught a house-fly, and taking hold of its wings with a pair of pliers, plunged it under water. The tentacles held it at the first contact as before, and drew it down upon the mouth, which instantly began to gape in expectation. But the struggles of the fly's legs perhaps tickled the coral's tentacles in an unwonted manner, for they shrank away, and presently released the intended victim, which rose to the surface like a cork; only, however, to become the breakfast of an expectant daisy, which was much too wise to reject or let slip so dainty a prey. The poor coral evidently regretted the untoward necessity of letting it go, for his mouth kept gaping for some time after the escape.[6]

The animated flowers of the tropical seas far surpass those that bloom on our own shores. In the Red Sea, for instance, branching corals, madrepores, anemones of the most brilliant hues, flourish in such luxuriance as to form a submarine garden of unparalleled magnificence. "Where is the paradise of flowers," exclaims a German naturalist, "that can rival in variety and beauty these living wonders of the ocean?"

And these gardens of Nereus, through the introduction of the aquarium, may be brought into our homes. The brilliant and sparkling hues of the marine creatures will prove equally attractive in the tiny vase and in the boundless ocean, the more so as we may be fettered to bricks and mortar, shut in our town prison, or hemmed round by stern duties which we cannot elude; so the deep sea may roar a bluff greeting, but we hear it not! Let us consider how one of these mimic oceans may be formed. We procure a tank of plate glass, and cover its slate bottom with a layer of sand from the sea-beach, or even well-washed river sand. But perhaps the best of all materials for forming a bottom are broken granite and coarse shingle. Rock-work must now be introduced, so as to provide shady nooks for those delicate creatures that shun the light or are of a retiring disposition. We may fashion the rock-work into a rude arch, or three large pieces of stone may be built up in the form of a table or druidical cromlech.

The aquarium having been filled with sea-water is now ready for stocking with marine plants and animals. The plants render the water fit for the maintenance of animal life, while the animals check the too rapid increase of vegetation. Thus, the success of our aquarium will depend upon the proper balance of animal and vegetable life. We select the green and red weeds, as the brown and olive are apt to discolour the water. Sea-plants have no roots, but adhere by minute discs to the surface of the rock; a piece of stone has accordingly to be knocked off with each plant, in order that it may be removed to our glass tank.

Some days should be allowed to elapse before the animals are introduced, so that the plants may have time to impregnate the water with their minute spores. Among the finny inhabitants of the mermaid's home the little mullets rank first, then the blennies and gobies, but many other kinds of fish may find a place in our mimic ocean. The common periwinkle is essential to the aquarium, as it fulfils the duties of a scavenger, and carefully removes the green film that sometimes forms upon the glass. The star-fishes, crabs, serpulæ, and the prawns are favourites with aquarian naturalists; but the lovely sea-anemones are the crowning glories of the glass tank. We must carefully remove all dead plants and animals from our aquarium. It is indispensable that there should be a free access of light, but we must not expose our tank to the full glare of the sun's rays, or the water will become heated, and its delicate inhabitants will surely die. These tanks require constant attention, but their beauty will more than repay us for any amount of trouble. They have been beautifully described as "flower gardens which never wither, fairy lakes of perpetual calm, which no storm blackens."

  1. Actinia Mesembryanthemum.
  2. Bunodes Crassicornis.
  3. Actinia Bellis.
  4. Actinia Dianthus.
  5. Caryophyllia Smithii.
  6. A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast.