The fairy tales of science/Wonderful Plants

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"Wonderful Plants"

Wonderful Plants.

"Give me to drain the cocoa's milky bowl,
And from the palm to draw its freshening wine."


The wonderful plants portrayed by our artist are scarcely more wonderful than some of the vegetable productions of this bounteous earth. The little boy may well be astonished to see such a wonderful crop of good things; but if he will only stop and think a little he will find that plum-puddings, mince-pies, and wearing apparel do really grow, or, more strictly speaking, they spring from the wonderful plants which actually exist. Consider the composition of that famous pudding which crowns the fanciful group on the preceding page. The currants and raisins, the sugar, almonds, and candied lemon-peel which are its principal ingredients, are all vegetable productions; and the suet and eggs may be described as animalized grass and barley, for they are formed out of the vegetable food of the ox and the hen. The plum-pudding tree is not half so preposterous a conception as it appears to be at the first glance. In the present chapter we propose to consider some of the most striking productions of the vegetable kingdom. We shall not attempt to preserve any sort of order in our rapid review, but will jump from one country to another, and throw aside all the elaborate systems of classification that have been devised by botanists. We will promise to bring some wonderful plants before the reader's notice, but we will not bind ourselves to any scientific rules.

The imaginary plum-pudding tree naturally suggests the bread-fruit of the islands of the Pacific, that wonderful plant that bears a crop of penny rolls. The bread-fruit is a beautiful as well as a useful tree. Its trunk rises to a height of about forty feet, and when full grown is from a foot to fifteen inches in diameter. The branches come out in a horizontal manner, becoming shorter and shorter as they near the top. The leaves are of a rich green, are nearly two feet long, and deeply gashed or divided at the edges.

As for its marvellous fruit, we cannot do better than quote the words of Captain Dampier, who first described it in 1688. “The fruit,” says this celebrated navigator, “grows on the boughs like apples; it is as big as a penny loaf when wheat is at five shillings the bushel; it is of a round shape, and hath a thick tough rind. When the fruit is ripe it is yellow and soft, and the taste is sweet and pleasant. The natives use it for bread. They gather it when full grown, while it is green and hard; then they bake it in an oven which scorcheth the rind and maketh it black; but they scrape off the outside black crust, and there remains a tender thin crust; and the inside is soft, tender, and white, like the crumb of a penny loaf. There is neither seed nor stone in the inside, but all of a pure substance like bread. It must be eaten now, for if it be kept above twenty-four hours, it grows harsh and choky, but it is very pleasant before it is too stale. This fruit lasts in season eight months in the year, during which the natives eat no other sort of bread.” This quaint description is singularly accurate, and has been confirmed by many modern travellers. The timber of the bread-fruit, though soft, is much used by the natives in the construction of houses and boats; the flowers, when dried, form a sort of tinder; the viscous fluid that oozes from the trunk serves for bird-lime and glue; the leaves are used for towels; and from the inner bark a coarse kind of cloth is made. Thus we see that food and raiment grow on this wonderful plant.

The cabbage-palm of Surinam is another of our wonderful plants. This gigantic tree has a stem about seven feet in circumference at the base, which ascends straight and tapering to a vast height, and bears a plume of graceful foliage. The cabbage lies concealed within the leaves that surround the top of the trunk. It is about two or three feet long and as thick as a man’s arm. When eaten raw, it greatly resembles the almond in flavour, but is much more tender and delicious. It is generally cut into pieces, boiled, and served up with meat.

"To obtain this small portion," says Dr. Lankaster, "borne on the pinnacle of the tree, and hidden from the eye of man, the axe is applied to the stately trunk, and this majestic lord of the mountain top is laid low, to furnish a small quantity of vegetable matter, which is eaten like cauliflower, and which receives its distinctive name from our lowly cabbage. Surely this rivals the tales handed down to us of Roman epicurism!"

The reader has doubtless heard of the cow-tree of South America, which yields an abundant supply of milk to the Indian of the Cordilleras, and flourishes at a vast height amid arid mountains where no cattle can pasture. This wonderful plant has been described by Humboldt with his characteristic spirit and accuracy. "On the side of a thirsty rock," says the great traveller, "grows a tree whose leaves are dry and husky. Its large roots penetrate with difficulty through the stony soil. During many months of the year not a shower waters its foliage; the branches appear withered and dead; but when its trunk is pierced, a sweet and nourishing milk flows from the wound. It is at the rising of the sun that this vegetable aliment is most plentiful. The natives and the black slaves then gather together from all parts with large wooden vessels to catch the milk, which as it flows becomes yellow, and thickens on the surface. Some make their abundant meal at the foot of the tree which supplies it; others carry their full vessels home to their children."

Our reader will not question the utility of writing-paper, though he may possibly deem this substance of inferior importance to either bread, cabbage, or milk. The poets and sages of antiquity did not write their immortal works upon "foolscap," but upon natural paper, furnished by the papyrus—a reed-like plant, growing in the waters of the Nile. The stem of this wonderful plant is triangular, and shoots up gracefully to the height of some fifteen or twenty feet, its slender top bearing a tuft of thread-like leaves.

The inner bark of the stem was divided into thin plates or pellicles, each as large as the plant would admit. These plates, which were necessarily very narrow, were then laid side by side, with their edges touching, on a smooth hard surface; and then other pieces were laid across them, so as to form a sheet of many pieces, which required adhesion to become one united substance. The whole was then moistened with Nile water, and subjected to pressure; and in this manner the sheet was formed, for the glutinous sap contained in the plant sufficed to cement the various pieces together. The plates procured from the central portions of the stem were the most valuable, and were used to form varieties of paper equivalent to our " cream-laid" and "satin-wove" post. The papyrus must look down upon its aquatic companions with supreme contempt, for it can boast of a long line of ancestors, whose delicate under-skins served to perpetuate the sublime thoughts conceived by the giant intellects of the past.

The fan-palm of Ceylon is another paper-tree. Its stem attains a great height, and is surmounted by many large palmated leaves, the lobes or divisions of which are very long, and are arranged round a foot-stalk, like the ribs of an umbrella. Indeed, these compound leaves are actually used as umbrellas by the Cingalese, a single out-spreading leaf affording ample shelter for seven or eight people. All the religious books of the Cingalese are written, or rather engraved, on tablets plucked from this wonderful palm, the leaves of the book being simply the leaflets of the tree.

The palms are all wonderful plants, from whatever point of view we may regard them. The services they render man are incalculable. The date palm gives him its nourishing fruit, the cocoa palm its milky nuts, the sago palm its farinaceous pith, and the Palmyra palm its sweet juice, which becomes wine by fermentation. Then, as for useful things that are neither eatable nor drinkable, the palm tribe furnishes vegetable oil, wax, and ivory, fibres that may be formed into cordage, leaves that may be used for thatching, and timber that may be applied to a hundred different purposes.

The wax-bearing palm is called the pashiuba, and its peculiar form, were it remarkable for nothing else, would entitle it to a place among our wonderful plants. Its slender stem shoots up to the height of some fifty or sixty feet, and is strangely supported by a tall open cone of roots.

"But what most strikes attention in this tree, and renders it so peculiar, is, that the roots are almost entirely above ground. They spring out from the stem, each one at a higher point than the last, and extend diagonally downwards till they approach the ground, when they often divide into many rootlets, each of which secures itself in the soil. As fresh ones spring out from the stem, those below become rotten and die off; and it is not an uncommon thing to see a lofty tree supported entirely by three or four roots, so that a person may walk erect beneath them, or stand with a tree seventy feet high growing immediately over his head. In the forests where these trees grow, numbers of young plants of every age may be seen, all miniature copies of their parents, except that they seldom possess more than three legs, which give them a strange and almost ludicrous appearance."[1]

These aerial roots are not peculiar to the pashiuba palm. In the mangrove, a wonderful plant that grows on the sea-shore in tropical countries, the trunk springs from the union of a number of slender arches formed by the roots, whose extremities penetrate into the muddy soil. "The larger arches," says Mr. Gosse, "send out secondary shoots from their sides, which take the same curved form, but in a direction at right angles to the former: and thus a complex array of vaulted lines is formed, which to the crabs that run beneath—if they were able to institute the comparison, must be like the roof-groins of some Gothic church, supposing the interspaces to be open to the sky."

But the wonder of wonders in this shore-loving plant, is the premature germination of its long club-shaped seeds. Each seed begins to grow while hanging from the twig, gradually lengthening until the tip reaches the soft soil, which it penetrates, and thus roots itself. The seeds which depend from the higher branches cannot stretch themselves out to a sufficient length to reach the mud; they therefore drop as soon as they feel themselves strong enough to commence an independent existence. In this manner a dense forest of mangroves is speedily produced from a single trunk. Dampier has described such a forest with his usual accuracy.

"The red mangrove," he says, "groweth commonly by the sea-side, or by rivers or creeks. It always grows out of many roots, about the bigness of a man’s leg, some bigger, some less, which at about six, eight, or ten feet above the ground, join into one trunk or body, that seems to be supported by so many artificial stakes. Where this sort of tree grows, it is impossible to march by reason of these stakes, which grow so mixed one among another, that I have, when forced to go through them, gone half a mile, and never set my foot on the ground, stepping from root to root."

There is a species of cane that must surely be considered a wonderful plant, for, though no thicker than the little finger, it is sometimes a quarter of a mile in length. This vegetable cord is studded with sharp prickles, by means of which it is enabled to cling to the leaves and branches of the various trees which it encounters in its serpentine course.

The gum-trees of the Australian forests resemble our own timber trees in form, but their leaves, instead of being extended horizontally so as to catch the falling rain, are placed edgewise, and thus allow the rain-drops and the sun’s rays to pass between them. Near these wonderful trees, which afford no shelter, may be found the grass-tree, displaying what seems to be an immense tuft of wiry grass elevated on the summit of a dark ungainly trunk. A number of tall spikes of blossom, resembling bulrushes, spring from the centre of the grassy crown, and render this wonderful plant still more anomalous.

The famous banyan-tree must not be omitted, for it would be difficult to find a plant to which the epithet "wonderful" could be applied with greater propriety. This sacred tree of the Hindoos attains a prodigious size, sometimes covering an area of nearly 2000 square yards, for its lateral branches send down shoots which take root, till, in course of time, a single tree becomes a vast umbrageous tent, supported by numerous columns. The poet has thus described this marvel of the vegetable kingdom:—

"Branching so broad along, that in the ground
 The bending twigs take root; and daughters grow
 About the mother tree; a pillared shade
 High over-arched, with echoing walks between.
 There oft the Indian herdsman, shunning heat,
 Shelters in cool; and tends his pasturing herds
 At loop-holes cut through thickest shade."

Turn we now to plants much smaller but not less wonderful than those we have mentioned. The mean-looking little plant called the Fly-trap of Venus, is gifted with sensation which compensates for its want of beauty. Each leaf is formed into two halves, which move on a central hinge, and fold up and contract on the slightest contact. The edges are beset with spines, and the whole surface is covered with a sticky mucilage. No sooner does an unfortunate fly alight on one of these ticklish leaves than the two halves spring together, and the insect is made a prisoner. There are other irritable plants, which ought to be mentioned here. The leaves of the sensitive mimosa shrink from the slightest touch, while those of the Hedysarum gyrans have a spontaneous motion, and appear to dance about from pure buoyancy of spirits.

The pitcher-plant, with its marvellous lidded goblet, is another member of the class wonderful; so is the caricature-plant, whose spotted leaves bear such a striking resemblance to human faces. The orchids, whose flowers mimic the forms of various insects; and the cacti, whose quaint shapes render them so remarkable, ought to be included in our review of wonderful plants; but this list must necessarily be imperfect, as the wonders of the vegetable world are innumerable. We have merely selected a few striking forms of vegetable life, to show the reader that botany, as well as the other sciences, has its marvels.

But are not all plants wonderful? If we examine minutely the structure of the humblest moss, we may discover wonders which fill the mind with admiration and astonishment. We may fitly conclude this rambling chapter with an anecdote related by one of the earliest African explorers, who found consolation, when in the depth of misery, in the contemplation of one of the wonderful plants with which the Creator has been pleased to deck this beautiful earth.

"In this forlorn and almost helpless condition," writes Mungo Park, "when the robbers had left me, I sat for some time looking around me with amazement and terror; whatever way I turned, nothing appeared but danger and difficulty. I found myself in the midst of a vast wilderness, in the depth of the rainy season, naked and alone, surrounded by savage animals, and by men still more savage. I was five hundred miles from any European settlement. All these circumstances crowded at once on my recollection, and I confess that my spirits began to fail me; I considered my fate as certain, and that I had no alternative but to lie down and perish.

"The influence of religion, however, aided and supported me. I reflected that no human prudence or foresight could possibly have averted my present sufferings; I was indeed a stranger in a strange land, yet I was still under the protecting eye of that God who has condescended to call himself the stranger’s friend. At this moment, painful as my reflections were, the extraordinary beauty of a small moss caught my eye; and though the whole plant was not larger than the top of one of my fingers, I could not contemplate the delicate conformation of its roots, leaves, and fruit, without admiration.

"Can that Being, thought I, who planted, watered, and brought to perfection, in this obscure part of the world, a thing which appears of so small importance, look with unconcern upon the situation and sufferings of creatures formed after his own image? Surely not! Reflections like these would not allow me to despair. I started up, and disregarding both hunger and fatigue, travelled onwards, assured that relief was at hand; and I was not disappointed."

  1. Wallace’s "Palms of the Amazon."