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if they are^ as Martins describes, they may be justly considered
as rivalling the Adansonias both in point of age and dimensions.

Passing from trees of strange habit and growth, only familiar
to the inhabitants of the tropics, we shall now advert to some
which are common in European forests, and which occasion-
ally attain dimensions little if at all inferior to the baobabs and
banyans of India and Africa. Among these we may notice, in
the'^lirst place, the cypress, yew, and cedar, which respectively
belong to the Coniferce, or lir tribe, and which are all remark-
ably long-lived and enduring. The largest known specimens of
the cypress are to be met with in Mexico. At Atlexo, for in-
stance, there is one said to be 76 feet in girth; and another
at St Maria del Tuli, which is 118 feet in circumference ! This
is larger, certainly, than any of Adanson's baobabs ; " but,"
says Humboldt, on examining it narrowly, " M. Anza discovered
that what excites the curiosity of travellers is not a single in-
dividual, but three united trunks." There is, however, at Cha-
pultepec, in the same region, a third cypress, which is said to
be 117 feet 10 inches round; and the j^ounger De Candolle con-
siders it even older than any of the baobabs of Senegambia.
Michaux, who published a splendid work on the forest trees of
America, says that the largest stocks of the cypress are 120 feet
in height, and from 25 to 40 feet in circumference above the
conical base, which, at the surface of the earth, is always three or
four times as large as the continued diameter of the trunk. In
the East, the cypress is the emblem of mourning, and is generally
to be found overshadowing with its dark branches the spots con-
is



CURIOSITIES OF VEGETATION.

secrated to the dead ; and it is owing* to the respect which they
meet with in such situations that so many gig-antic and venerable
specimens have been allowed to survive. Nearly allied to the
cypress, and applied to the same funereal purposes, is the yew
tree of our own country, which often attains to enormous dimen-
sions. That of Hedsor, in Bucks, measures about 27 feet in
diameter, and is still in full health and vigour ; that of Forting-al,
in Perthshire, mentioned by Pennant in 1770, was 21^ feef in
diameter; those of Crowhurst, in Surrey, were more than 11 feet;
and those of Fountain Abbey, in Yorkshire, well known so early
as 1155, about the same dimensions. Respecting the cedar of
Lebanon, Maundrell tells us that when he went into the East, a
few of the old trees were then growing on the loftiest parts of the
mountains. Measuring one of the largest, he found it to be 36
feet in girth, and 111 feet in the spread of its boughs. About
18 feet from the ground it divided into 5 limbs, each of which
equalled in bulk an ordinary tree. The cedar, like the jew and
cypress, is an evergreen, and occupies a pre-eminence over all
other trees in the East in point of beauty and duration.

Belonging to the same natural order we may mention the
Norfolk pine, or kauri, of the New Zealanders, which occasion-
ally grows to a very large size. Mr Terry, in his recently pub-
lished work on New Zealand, mentions two extraordinary indivi-
duals which he saw on the eastern coast, near Mercury Bay, and
which were supposed to be the largest on the island. The available
trunk of one, which was cut down and brought to England, was
150 feet in length, and 25 feet in circumference at the'base; the
other is still standing, and is called by the natives the Father of
the kauri. " Although almost incredible, it measures 75 feet in
circumference at its base ! The height is unknown, for the sur-
rounding forest is so thick, that it is impossible to obtain an accu-
rate view of the tree. There is an arm some distance from the
trunk, which measures 6 feet in diameter at its junction with the
main stem." Some of our own native pines, such as those of Glen-
more and Athole, have reached to a great age and size ; but they
are mere saplings compared with this " Father of the kauri."

The Oak, Chestmit, and Beech, though differing* consider-
ably in external aspect, belong to the same natural order,
namely, Corylaceae, or CupulifercB, so called from the cup or
cupule in which the fruit is contained, as is well illustrated
by the common acorn. They are excellent timber trees, gene-
rally flourishing for centuries, and growing to a large size,
sometimes attaining proportions truly colossal, and outli-ving*
dynasties and kingdoms. As a complete record of celebrated
oaks would require several volumes, we shall merely allude to
some of the more remarkable found in Britain. The Shire
Oak, .which grew near Worksop, deserves honourable men-
tion, in respect both of its ow^n dignity and that of its situa-
tion. In point of grandeur, few trees equalled it. Its boughs

17



CURIOSITIES OF VEGETATION.

overspread a space of 90 feet in diameter — an area capable, on
mathematical calculation, of containing 235 horse. It stood on
a spot where the counties of York, Nottingham, and Derby
unite, and spread its shade over a portion of each. From the
honourable station of thus fixing the boundaries of three large
counties, it was equally resjDected through the domains of them
all, and was known far and wide by the honourable distinction
of the Shire Oak, by which appellation it was marked on all the
larger maps of England. Fahdop, known for centuries as the
monarch oak of Hainhault Forest, in Essex, has attained dimen-
sions even still more gigantic. The tradition of the country
traces it half way up the Christian era. It is still a noble tree,
though it has now suffered greatly from the depredations of time.
About a yard from the ground, where its rough fluted stem is
36 feet in circumference, it divides into eleven vast arms, yet
not in the horizontal mamier of an oak, but rather in that of a
beech. Beneath its shade, which overspreads an area of 300
feet in circuit, an annual fair was held on the 2d of July, and no
booth was suffered to be erected beyond the extent of its boughs.
" Honours, however," says Kirkby, " are often attended with
inconveniences, and Fairlop has suffered from its honourable
distinctions. In the feasting that attends a fair, fires are often
necessary ; and no place seemed so jDroper to make them in as
the hollow cavities formed by the heaving roots of the tree.
This practice has brought speedier decay on Fairlop than it
might otherwise have suffered." The next we shall mention is
Damory's Oak, which formerly grew not far from Blandford, in
Dorsetshire, and five or six centuries ago was probably in its
maturity. At the ground, its circumference was 68 feet, and
17 feet above the ground its diameter was four yards. As this
vast trunk decayed, it became hollow, forming a cavity which was
15 feet wide and 17 feet high, capable of holding twenty men.
During the civil wars, and till after the Restoration, this cave
was regularly inhabited by an old man, who sold ale in it. The
tree suffered greatly during the storm of 1703, by which several
of its noblest hmbs were broken down ; and in 1755, the remnants
of the venerable trunk were sawn asunder and sold as firewood.
The Skelton Oak, near Shrewsbury, in sight of which the famous
battle betwixt Henry IV. and Hotspur was fought in 1403, is still
standing, and in foliage. It is 37 feet in circumference at a foot
and a half from the ground, and is otherwise proportionally
large. It divides into two enormous limbs, both of which have
been fractured ; and the lower portion of the trunk is hollowed
out into a recess capable of accommodating a dozen persons.

One of the noblest trees on record is a chestnut upon Mount
-^tna, though it has now lost much of its original dignity.
Many travellers have taken notice of this extraordinary tree.
Brydone, who wrote his account in 1771, says it had then the
appearance of five distinct trees, the space between which, he



CUmOSITIES OF VEGETATIOX.

was assured, had once been filled with solid timber. The possi-
bility of this he could not at first conceive ; for the five trees
together spread over a space of 204 feet in diameter. At length,
however, by an examination, he was convinced that at one period
these had been but one mighty tree; and he found that this
chestnut was of such renown, that it appeared marked in an old
map of Sicily, published a hundred years before ; and an account
of it at that period is given by Kircher, fully corroborating its
dimensions. The gTeat chestnut which stood at Finhaven, in
Forfarshire, was long accounted the larg'est tree in Scotland.
In 1744, the measures of this remarkable trunk were taken before
two justices of the peace, when the circumference at half a foot
from the g-round was 42 feet 8i inches. A chestnut cut down at
Kinfeuns Castle in 1760 was 224 feet in girth ; and there is at
present a beautiful chestnut at Riccarton, in Edinbm'ghshire,
full 27 feet in circumference ; its branches covering an area of 77'
feet in diameter. There are also several measurements of gigan-
tic beeches on record ; but of these our space will not allow us to
take even a passing glance.

GIGANTIC FLOWERS AND LEAVES.

Of the blossoms which adorn our conservatories and gardens,
those of the rose, the peony, the dahlia, hollyhock, and passion-
flower, are amongst the most showy and gigantic. These, how-
ever, are but mere pigmies to many that are found in other lands,
where excess of light and sunshine call into existence myriads of
flowers as remarkable for size as they are exuberant in colour
and fragTance. The larg-est and most perfect yet discovered and
described is that of Victoria JRegia, belongmg to the NymiihecB,
or water-lily tribe, the leaves of which measure above 18 feet,
and its flower nearly 4 feet in circumference ! It was met with
in British Guiana, in 1837, by INIr Robert Schomburgk, who
thus speaks of his discovery : — " It was on the 1st of January this
year, while contending with the difficulties of nature, opposed in
diff'erent forms to our progress up the river Berbice, that we
arrived at a point where the river expanded and formed a cur-
rentless basin. Some object on the southern extremity of the
basin attracted my attention. It was impossible to form any
idea of what it could be ; and animating the crew to increase the
rate of their paddling, we were shortly afterwards opposite the
object which had raised my curiosity — a vegetable wonder ! All
calamities were forgotten ; I felt as a botanist, and felt myself
rewarded. A gigantic leaf, from 5 to 6 feet in diameter, salver-
shaped, with a broad rim, of a light green above, and a vivid
crimson below, resting upon the water. Quite in character with
the wonderful leaf was the luxuriant flower, consisting of many
hundred petals, passing in alternate tints from pure white to rose
and pink. The smooth water was covered with the blossoms, and
as I rowed from one to the other, I always observed something

19



CURIOSITIES OF VEGETATION'.

new to admire. The leaf, on its upper surface, is a bright green',
in form almost orbicular, except that on one side it is slightly''
bent in ; its diameter measured from 5 to 6 feet. Around the
whole margin extended a rim from 3 to 5 inches high ; on the
inside light green, like the surface of the leaf; on the outside,
like the leaf's lower surface, of the brightest crimson. The calyx
is four-leaved, each sepal upwards of 7 inches in length and 3
inches in breadth ; at the base they are white inside, reddish
brown and prickly outside. The diameter of the calyx is from 12
to 13 inches ; on it rests the magnificent corolla, which, when
fully developed, completely covers the calyx with its hundred
petals. When it first opens, it is white, with pink in the middle,
which spreads over the whole flower the more it advances in age,
and it is generally found the next day altogether of a pink
colour : as if to enhance its beauty, it is sweet-scented. We met
the plants frequently afterwards ; and the hig'her we advanced,
the more gigantic they became. We measured a leaf which was
6 feet 5 inches in diameter, its rim SI inches high, and the
flower across 15 inches ! "

Of more colossal dimensions than the Victoria, but inferior in
organisation, is the Hajjiesla Arnoldi, a native of the hot damp
jungle of Sumatra. This plant grows parasitically on a kind of
vine, and in structure is intermediate between the fungi and the
endogens, forming one of the rhizanths, or root-flowers, which
have no true stem or leaves. It was discovered in 1818 by Dr
Joseph Arnold, and named after Sir Stamford Raffles, then gover-
nor of that island. The discoverer thus describes it : — " At Pulo
Lebban, on the Manna river, I rejoice to tell you I met with
what I consider the greatest prodigy of the vegetable world. I
had ventured some way before the party, when one of the Malay
servants came running to me with wonder in his eyes, and said,
' Come with me, sir, come! — a Jioivcr, very large, hcautiful, won-
derjuir I went with the man about a hundred yards into the
jungle, and he pointed to a flower growing close to the ground,
under the bushes, which was truly astonishing. My first impulse
was to cut it up, and carry it to the hut. I therefore seized the
Malay's parung', and found that the flower sprung from a small
root which ran horizontally (about as large as two fingers). I
soon detached it. To tell you the truth, had I been alone, and
had there been no witnesses, I should, I think, have been fear-
ful of mentioning the dimensions of this flower, so much does
it exceed any other I have heard of; but I had Sir Stamford and
Lady Raffles with me, and Mr Palsgrave, who, though equally
astonished with myself, yet are able to testify as to the truth.
The whole flower was of a very succulent substance, the petals
and nectary being in few places less than a quarter of an inch
thick, and in some places three quarters of an inch. It measured
a full yard across, the petals being- 12 inches high, and a foot
apart from each other. The nectarium, in the opinion of us all,

20



CURIOSITIES OF VEGETATION.



would hold twelve pints, and the weig*ht of this prodigy we cal-
culated to be fifteen pounds."

Besides these floral Titans, of which v/e have g-iven details,
there are many other gig:antic blossoms to whose dimensions we
can merely advert. The flowers of the Aristolochits, or birth-
worts of tropical America, are often from 15 to 16 inches across,
and are larg-e enoug-h to be drawn over the heads of the Indians,
who make caps of them in their sports. The Magnolia Grandi-
Jiora, or tulip tree of the French Canadians, is not less remark-
able for the size of its leaves and flowers than for its lofty
stature. Its trunk is commonly straight, and not unfrequently
90 feet in height, and about 3 in diameter, having" a fine pyra-
midal head of foliage and blossom. Its leaves are like those of
the laurel, but much larger, being- 8 or 9 inches in length ; the
flowers are white, 7 or 8 inches in diameter, and of an agreeable
odour. They are larger than
those of any other tree with
which we are acquainted, and
on detached trees are exceed-
ingly numerous, rendering' the
magnolia one of the most su-
perb productions of the vege-
table kingdom. The Agave
Americana, which was at one
time regarded as a marvel, is
also remarkable for its gig-antic
panicle of flowers. This plant
is often known by the name
of the " Great American Aloe,"
because resembling the aloes
in its leaves ; but it belongs to
the BromcUacece, or pine-apple
tribe, and has little in com-
mon with the aloes. The
flowering of the ag-ave was con-
sidered to be of rare occurrence
(taking place only once in a
century) ; but this has been
disproved — the plant, in good
condition, producing- terminal
flowers in seven or ten years.
"When these do come forth, they
present a most interesting spec-
tacle, the stem rising from
30 to 40 feet high, and bearing
hundreds of greenish - white
flowers on an elegant branched spike. The panicle, or bunch
of fresh flowers, is often 15 feet in height, and is in this respect
without a parallel.

21







A'lave Americana.






CURIOSITIES OF VEGETATION.

We have already alluded to several gigantic leaves, but all
of them fall infinitely short of the dimensions attained by the
leaves of the palm family. The largest of which we have
an authentic account is that of the Talipat palm, which grows
luxuriantly among the mountains of Ceylon. Knox quaintly
speaks of this tree as being " as tall as a ship's mast, and
very straight, bearing only leaves, which are of great use to
the inhabitants of Ceylon; one single leaf being so broad and
large, that it will cover fifteen or twenty men, and keep them
dry when it rains." The Rev. H. Caunter says he has seen
specimens of the Talipat 200 feet in height, the leaves of which
were 11 feet in length, and 16 in breadth, and the fruit about
the size of a twenty-four pound shot. While on the banks of
the Calamy, his attention was particularly arrested by several
rafts on the river, over which a complete canopy was thrown,
formed of a single leaf of the Talipat, that entirely covered both
freight and crew !

MINUTE PLANTS.

As we have vegetables celebrated for their gigantic size, so
we have others remarkable for the minuteness and delicacy of
their proportions. Nature knows no limit either in the ascend-
ing or descending scale : she is as wonderful and perfect in the
formation of a fungus, which the unassisted eye cannot detect,
as she is in the structure of the oak and cedar, which command
our veneration. With the characters of the latter the botanist
has been long familiar, because their dimensions more forcibly
arrest the eye of sense ; to the structure of the former he is only
beginning, as it were, to have access through the lenses of the
microscope.

One of the most extraordinary of microscopic plants is the
Aclilya prolifera, whose soft silky threads may sometimes be
seen adhering to the surface of gold-fishes, and covering them,
as it were, with a whitish slime. This appearance is generally
looked upon as a species of decay or consumption in the ani-
mal itself, and not as an external clothing of parasitic plants.
It is, however, a true vegetable growth, each individual con-
sisting of a single filament, with a minute pear-shaped ball
on the top, containing numerous grains, which are the seeds
or embryos of future plants. The green slime, which in summer
gathers over the surface of stagnant water, is of the same
order of vegetation; namely, Co7iferva — an order entirely
dependent upon water for their growth and propagation, and
to which drought is certainly fatal. The aclilya has been exa-
mined by Dr Unger, who describes it, when at its full growth,
as consisting of transparent threads of extreme fineness, packed
together as closely as the pile of velvet, and much resembling,
in general appearance, certain kinds of mouldiness. When
placed under the microscope — for the unassisted eye can per-

22



CURIOSITIES OF VEGETATION.

ceive nothing* of its true construction — each thread is termi-
nated by the pear-shaped ball already alluded to, which is about
l-1200th of an inch in diameter, and consists of a sing-le cell
filled -with a mucilag-inous fluid, in which float the procreative
g-ranules. The contents of this cell are seen to be in constant
motion from the earliest stag'e of their existence; but as they
advance to maturity, the mucilage disappears, and then the
motion of the granules becomes more rapid and violent, till ulti-
mately they burst their way through the cell, and are transferred
to the water, there to perform their circle of being, and to give
birth to new races of granules. All this takes place with such
amazing' rapidity, that we are assured an hour or two suffices
for the complete development and escape of the spores ; so that
we need not wonder when we are told that, once established, the
Achlya proUfera will often complete the destruction of a healthy
gold-fish in less than twelve hours.

Another of these curious parasites is the Mucor mvcedo, which
abounds in bruised fruit and other substances containing fecula
or sugar. It belongs to that portion of the fungi generally
known under the name of moulds, of which that on stale bread,
the ergot of rye, the rust, mildew, and smut in wheat, are fami-
liar examples. These moulds are of all shapes — simple, branched,
spherical, radiating, presenting* a surface like velvet, or a net-
work of the most delicate texture ; and
of all hues — green, blue, yellow, and
vermilion. The Mucor miicedo consists
of a single filament, headed by a very
minute ball-shaped receptacle. In the
_ young' state, this little ball is covered
^^^ by a thin membrane, which bursts as
the spores arrive at maturity, which
Mucor Mucedo. ^^^^ ^^^^^^^^^ themselves like so many

dusty particles congregated round a central nucleus. Being so
minute, the slightest touch or the gentlest breath of air is suffi-
cient to scatter them in thousands ; and thus the mucors increase
with amazing rapidity. As they require abundant nutriment,
it is only on succulent pa.rts that they luxuriate, and for this
reason they are principally injurious to fruits — the slightest
injury from an insect affording them a basis for propagation.

From the examples we have just g'iven, it must not be sup-
posed that plants of microscopic dimensions are to be found
only among parasitic fungi. There are others equally minute,
and stiU more wonderful in the aggregate, which are of inde-
pendent growth, and which twine and interlace their tiny
branches into a net-work as tough as the strongest felt, and
extending over many yards of surface. Tliese are the fresh-
water confervse, of which the substance called " water-flannel"
may be taken as a well-kno^ii example. A specimen is thus
described by a correspondent of the Gardeners' Chronicle for

23




CURIOSITIES OF VEGETATION.

1§43 : " A friend put into my hand the other day a yard or two

of what seemed a coarse kind of flannel, gray on one side, and
greenish on the other, and a full quarter of an inch in thickness.
It had heen thrown up by the river Trent, and washed ashore
in vast sheets. Those who had seen it pronounced it a manu-
factured article : and so it was, but by the hand of nature. When
this substance is handled, it is harsh to the touch, although com-
posed of the finest threads. To the naked eye, it presents no cha-
racter by which it may be known from any coarse and loosely-
woven cloth. The microscope reveals its nature. It is then
found to consist of myriads of jointed threads, whose joints are
compressed alternately sideways and vertically; they are here
and there transparent, but for the most part opaque and rough
to the eye. The white side is more opaque than the other, and
more unexaminable ; but if a little muriatic acid be added to the
water in which the frag-ments of water -flannel float, copious
bubbles of air appear. These are bubbles of carbonic acid, extri-
cated by the action of the muriatic acid on a coating of carbonate
of lime, with which the plant is more oi less completely invested.
If, after this operation, the threads are again examined, the con-
tents of the joints become visible: in the green parts of the
flannel, they were tilled with an irregular mass of green matter ;
in the white part with myi'iads of globules, intermixed with a
shapeless substance. The globules are the seeds. If a little
iodine is then given to the flannel, it is readily absorbed ; and
the contents, shapeless matter, globules, and all, become deep
violet, showing that all this substance is starch. Hence it ap-
pears that the water-flannel is a microscopic plant, composed of
jointed threads, secreting carbonate of lime on their surface, and
forming seeds composed of starch within them. And when we
consider that the joints are smaller than the eye can detect, while
each contains from fifty to one hundred seeds, it may easily be
conceived with what rapidity such a plant is multiplied. Besides
which, as their contents consist to a great extent of starch, the
most readily organisable of vegetable materials, the means of
growth with which the plant is provided are far more ample
than anything we know of in the higher orders of the vegetable
kingdom." This vegetable swarms on stagnant pools, where it
lives on the decaying matter which all waters more or less con-
tain, and thus tends to their puritication, the while that its own
substance forms food for myriads of animalcules that wander



Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of useful and entertaining tracts (Volume v.5-6) → online text (page 55 of 59)