VEGETABLE LIFE IN THE TROPICS
A. HYATT VERRILL
In a former article I have already-mentioned the lianas, but doubtless it will prove of interest to many, to learn that the "rattan," so much used in making chairs, baby carriages, etc., is nothing more nor less than one of these long, trailing vines carefully cut and dried. Although rattan itself is very useful,—almost indispensable I might say,—to civilized man, yet many of the lianas are even more valuable in their natural state.
Every one has doubtless noticed the numerous, tiny holes in the end of a piece of rattan. These are really minute tubes running the entire length of the vine and serving as veins through which the sap flows. If you cut off a living liana, a steady stream of sap will issue from these tubes, until the fluid, which is usually of a yellowish or whitish color, coagulates and forms a coating or scab across the injured end, exactly as does the blood of an animal or human being. It is oftentimes poisonous, but in two or three species, it is as transparent, cool and refreshing as the purest spring water. Many a time have I slaked my thirst with this cool and wholesome draught, drawn from Nature's storehouse by a single stroke of my machete.
Strange as the drawing of water from a living vine may appear, there is another tropic vegetable which furnishes a yet stranger drink; this is a handsome palm tree, known as the "travellers' palm." From this palm, when an incision is made, there issues a thick, white sap, looking and tasting much like fresh cows'-milk. This milk is very nutritious, and because of its value to travellers in the tropics, the French Government has set out fine specimens of this Madagascan tree at intervals along all the roads in the French West Indies.
Although coco-nuts and cocoa are both well known in every northern household, yet many people who daily use these two useful products of the tropics, find it difficult or impossible to exactly describe the difference between the two. The coconut is the fruit of a tall and graceful palm tree, a familiar sight in nearly every tropical landscape, and too well known to necessitate any description, whereas the cocoa,—or more properly cacao,—is the powdered seed of a small and handsome tree, bearing no resemblance whatever to the coco-palm.
Perhaps no cultivated tree presents such an odd and striking appearance as the cacao, and nobody who has ever seen one will forget it or mistake it for anything else. The tree itself grows to a height of twenty or twenty-five feet, with a rather smooth and slender trunk, thick, bushy and symmetrical top, and handsome, broad oval leaves of a deep purple or bronze color. Instead of growing at the ends of the branches or twigs as do most blossoms, the cacao flowers bud out directly from the bark of the limbs and trunk. The flowers are small and insignificant, but the fruit, shaped like a cucumber, grows to a large size, in the better varieties 8 or 10 inches in length and 3 or 4 inches in diameter.
Moreover, the fruit is brilliantly colored orange-red and yellow, and under favorable conditions fairly covers the tree, presenting a very odd and beautiful sight. The fruit or pod is completely filled with a soft slimy pulp in which the cacao-beans are imbedded. When first taken from the pods these beans, and the pulp as well, emit a fetid disagreeable odor. After being separated from the pulp, the beans are placed in large wooden trays and exposed to the sun to dry. These trays are usually set on the ground, outside the huts of the natives, and as they are entirely unprotected, are walked over time and again by sheep, pigs, dogs, and bare-footed children. In fact, a necessary part of the curing process, is to have the negro-laborers tread out the beans, in order to impart a rich, brown color and gloss to their surface. Consumers of cocoa, however, need have no compunctions as to eating or drinking cocoa on this account, as the outer skin is removed in the process of manufacture.
A well-known plant in our conservatories and hot-houses is the "century-plant." It is from a variety of this plant that the famous "pulque,"—the favorite beverage of the Mexicans,—is made, but, although the Mexican cultivates the "Agave" or "maguey" mainly for its sap, yet he puts it to many another use. The maguey to the Mexican Indian serves as many useful purposes as does the reindeer to the Laplander. From the juice he procures his drink and liquor, from the roots a coarse but nutritious flour, while from the fibre of the leaves he weaves mats and clothing, which he sews with a thread and needle from the same source.
When the Indian tears his garment, he does not have to wait until he reaches his humble home to repair the damage. Cutting a leaf from the nearest maguey, he pounds away the fleshy, green pulp between two stones, leaving the slender, sharp spine at the point of the leaf and the numerous fine, strong fibres attached thereto intact, when lo and behold, he possesses a needle and bundle of tough threads ready to hand!
Many another strange plant, with as many strange uses, can be found in the tropics of America, but wonderful as they are individually, nothing is so incredible as the remarkable vitality and rapid growth of the tropical trees. In many places the climate is so favorable and the soil so rich and conducive to rapid growth, that almost any stick, if placed upright in the earth, will spring into life.
In some portions of Central America this is particularly noticeable. Here one may see mile after mile of fences, apparently composed of growing trees, which upon a closer examination will prove to have once been barbed wire, the fence-posts having branched out and grown into good-sized trees. It is hardly to be believed that telegraph poles will grow, yet such is the case and many a Central American telegraph pole bears at its top a crown of green-leaved branches, which have sprouted since the last visit of the linemen. Here in the northland, where we expend so much time and labor in trying to make trees grow, we find it hard to imagine it difficult for the Spanish Americans to keep them dead, yet in many of these countries one of the greatest difficulties encountered in railroad work has been to prevent the railway ties from sprouting!