Art. XXXV.—Notes, Remarks, and Reminiscences of Two Peculiar Introduced and Naturalised South American Plants.
[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, 10th July, 1893.]
Extremes in Nature equal good produce;
Extremes in man concur to general use.
Pope: Moral Essays.
-find A tale in everything.
Wordsworth: Simon Lee.
1. The American Aloe = Agave americana, Linn.
In passing lately through the Town of Waipawa, my attention was drawn towards an American aloe that had flowered during the past summer in a garden there; the tall withered flowering-stem was still standing erect, and the parent plant had its usual large number of young ones (suckers, offshoots) nestling around it; but these, amounting to nearly twenty, presented the uncommon and peculiar appearance of all bearing flower- ing-stems about 3ft. high, each having many flowers (several dozen) similar in size, colour, disposition, and show to those of the parent plant. As I had never before noticed this phenomenon, and had frequently seen and closely watched several specimens of these plants in flower, in my own gardens and in those of others, both at the warmer climate of the north (Bay of Islands) and here in Napier, I have deemed this event worthy of recording. And as the real value of this huge and striking plant is, very likely, but little known—especially to our rising generation—perhaps, also, to some of my audience, who may have seen it after flowering, here in Napier, chopped up and cast out and carted away, a few words concerning its uses may not be out of place.
Its native home (as its specific name imports) is America; there in equinoctial America the plant is very common, from the plains even to 9,000ft. altitude, where it is useful as im-penetrable hedges with its hard, big, and spiny leaves. In Mexico it has also been cultivated from time immemorial, under the names of Maguey or Metl, in order to obtain a kind of wine, called pulque by the Spaniards, made from the inner leaves just before its flowering-stem is developed. Humboldt has given a full account of its culture. The juice is said to be of a very agreeable sour taste; it easily ferments, on account of the mucilage and sugar it contains. This beverage, which somewhat resembles cider, has, however, an odour of putrid meat, extremely disagreeable. But the Europeans who have been able to get over the aversion which the fetid odour inspires prefer the pulque to every other liquor. A very intoxicating brandy is formed from the pulque, which is called mexical, or aguardiente de maguey. The Government drew from the Agave juice a nett revenue of £166,497 in three cities (Royle).*
Its fibre, and that of some allied species, especially the Pita (thread) plant, is extremely tough, and forms excellent cordage; this is separated by bruising and steeping in water and afterwards beating, and is obtained from the roots as well as the leaves. The ancient Mexicans also made their paper of Agave leaves laid in layers.† Its root is diuretic and anti-
[Footnote] * “Before the Revolution, the duties on the pulque formed so important a branch of revenue that the cities of Mexico, Puebla, and Toluca alone paid $817,739 to Government.”—(Humboldt: “Essai Politique,” tom. ii., p. 47).
[Footnote] † “Their manuscripts were made of different materials—of cotton-cloth, or of skins nicely prepared; of a composition of silk and gum; but for the most part of a fine fabric from the leaves of the aloe (Agave ameri-cana), which grows luxuriantly over the tablelands of Mexico. A sort of paper was made from it resembling somewhat the Egyptian papyrus, which, when properly dressed and polished, is said to have been more soft and beautiful than parchment. Some of the specimens still existing exhibit their original freshness, and the paintings on them retain their brilliancy of colours.”—(Prescott, Hist. Conquest of Mexico, b. i., ch. 4.)
[Footnote] Again, he says: “The miracle of nature was the great Mexican aloe, or maguey. As already noticed, its bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured; its juice was fermented into an intoxicating beverage (pulque), of which the natives to this day are excessively fond. Its leaves further supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings. Thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords, were drawn from its tough and twisted fibres. Pins and needles were made of the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food. The Agave, in short, was meat, drink, clothing, and writing materials for the Aztec. Surely never did nature enclose in so compact a form so many of the elements of human comfort and civilisation.”—(Loc. cit., ch. 5.)
syphilitic, and is even brought to Europe mixed with sarsa-parilla. It is also stated by Long, in his “History of Jamaica,” that the expressed juice of the leaves evaporated is useful as a substitute for soap; and Lindley says, “Agave saponaria is powerful detergent: its roots are employed in Mexico as a substitute for soap.” It was early introduced into Jamaica, Antigua, Dominica, and Cuba, and also into the countries bordering on the Mediterranean, where it is become very common.
I have known its thick fleshy juicy leaves to be successfully used for rheumatism, particularly lumbago: their rind taken off, and the large fresh wet slab rubbed on the parts affected. It seemed to possess a similar power on the skin to that of hartshorn or turpentine liniments. In one instance the fresh leaf was used (as above) with beneficial effects in lumbago here in my own house, by my manservant.
I remember, several years ago, the flowering of a plant in the Botanic Gardens at Kew caused some excitement, from the gardeners' fable respecting it—that “it flowered only once in a hundred years;” and from it being the first that had flowered in England; and, as it was under glass, a proportionately high turret had to be built up for its tall flowering-stem, which grew rapidly, and caused the turret to be several times enlarged to keep pace with it.
The plant, however, flourished well in the open air in the West of England, where I have seen several. I remember two old and very large plants in my maternal grandfather's gardens in Penzance (A.D. 1814–1819), but they had not flowered when I last saw them, and were shortly after dug up and destroyed, the ground being required for other purposes.
It was an interesting and unique sight to observe on a calm summer's evening, in my garden in the Bay of Islands, the large moths (Protoparce distans) in great numbers flying around the flowers of the Agave americana, extracting their honey with their long probosces, as, the flowers being situated high up on their tall pole-like flowering-stem, the operations of the moths were seen to advantage against the clear sky; the plant itself also being an exotic, and its large flowers never before known to them, made it the more interesting. Moreover, what further served to increase the pleasure of observing this winged army of big moths diligently at work was their peculiar manner of carrying it on, never, like bees, and other smaller Lepidoptera, lighting on a flower, but while on the wing rapidly uncoiling their slender probosces, and thrusting them deep into the Agave flowers, their wings at the same time quickly vibrating and causing a low humming
noise that was not unpleasant. * I have watched them steadily for half an hour, and longer, and have never found one of them to light on the flower, or the plant itself, to rest.
2. The Prickly Pear = Opuntia ficus-indica, or Indian Fig.
This fleshy plant of the Cactus family, which produces the fruit known in the south of Europe as the Indian fig, has no connections with the fig-tree, nor has the fruit with the fig. Its origin is not Indian, but American; everything is erroneous and absurd in this common name. (Just as in the case with the former plant, Agave, which is no true aloe, neither does it belong to the same order with the aloes.) However, since Linneus took his botanical name from it = Cactus ficus-indica, afterwards connected with the genus Opuntia, it was necessary to retain the specific name to avoid changes which are a source of confusion, and to recall the popular denomination.
This plant is well known in Napier, as well as in other places in New Zealand, it having been early introduced (long before this country became a British colony). It does not, however, perfect its fruit here with us, although it does plentifully at the north (Bay of Islands, &c.), the climate there being warmer, and more suited to it.† My chief reason, however, for bringing it forward in this paper is to show the extraordinary uses made of it, and of other closely-allied species ‡ in their native homes in South America; and that
[Footnote] * I had also often observed them dexterously performing the same kind of feat with the flowers of the common honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum, L.), only in this latter case the tube of the honeysuckle is much more slender. At such times, too, I should be quietly seated on a low chair, with the woodbine spreading thickly around me, while of my presence the moths seemed to take no notice, in their eagerness to collect their food.
[Footnote] † I may here give a little anecdote concerning the edible use of its fruit here in New Zealand. It was in the winter season of 1842 when the Antarctic Expedition (“Erebus” and “Terror”), under Sir James Ross, was at anchor (wintering) in the Bay of Islands. One fine day Dr. (now Sir J. D.) Hooker was on shore at Paihia, the Church Mission station, where Dr. Andrew Sinclair, R.N. (afterwards Colonial Secretary), was then residing, and I joined them. We soon concluded to go across to Waitangi (where the treaty had been signed), about a mile and a half distant, in my boat. On arriving there we strolled into the garden of the owner and late occupier (Mr. Busby), and there on its raised boundary were several large plants of the prickly pear, growing profusely and bearing much ripe fruit. Dr. Sinclair, who had been in South America, was delighted at the sight (fruit being scarce at that season in the Bay), and soon commenced gathering and eating the “figs,” to our (or, at least, to my) great astonishment, as I had never seen them eaten before. I scarcely need add that we two speedily joined him.
[Footnote] ‡ Upwards of forty species have been described, though with some botanists several of them are deemed to be merely varieties.
too as valuable forage-plants for both sheep and large cattle. And this use (as I take it) will be the more interesting to our sheep-and cattle-breeders here in Hawke's Bay and elsewhere when it is remembered by them what a prodigious outcry was raised some twenty-five years ago when the large and common thistle (Cnicus sp.); then lately introduced, was becoming exceedingly plentiful, causing some of our early settlers to view its rapidly overrunning the country with dismay, fearing the certain starvation of their flocks and herds. Our Provincial Council (of which I was a member) was literally besieged with urgent applications to pass immediate stringent laws for the suppression of “vicious thistles”; but, fortunately for Hawke's Bay, the majority in the said Provincial Council, after much debating, determined not to do so. And afterwards, in not a few instances, in times of drought, those very doomed and maligned thistles saved their flocks. All Provincial Councils in the colony, however, did not act so prudently, and therefore much of bitterness and grief and lawsuits, and consequent “costs,” followed. In many places where the thistles once completely covered the ground there is not one now to be seen.
This plant (the Opuntia) existed both wild and cultivated in Mexico before the arrival of the Spaniards (A.D. 1518). Fernandez described nine varieties of it, which shows the antiquity of its cultivation. The famous cochineal insect feeds on one of them especially, and it has been transported with the plant to the Canary Islands and elsewhere. It was one of the first plants which the Spaniards introduced to the Old World, both in Europe and Asia; and the plant soon became naturalised in the South of Europe and in Africa. In Spain it bore its American name of tuna; while the Moors, who took it into Barbary when they were expelled from the peninsula, called it “fig of the Christians.” The custom of using the plant for living fences,* and the nourishing property of the fruits, which contain a large proportion of sugar, have determined its extension round the Mediterannean. The fruit is very similar in its properties to that of currants, in some being refreshing and agreeable to the taste, in others mucilaginous and insipid. Many are valued as palliatives of intermittent and bilious fevers, in consequence of their refreshing sub-acid juice. The fruit of O. tuna is of the richest carmine, and forms a valuable pigment, employed at Naples as a water-colour.
[Footnote] * Of Opuntia tuna it is recorded: “This kind of Indian fig makes strong living fences. When the Island of St. Christopher (West Indies) was to be divided between the English and the French three rows of the tuna were planted by common consent between the boundaries.”—(Sloane.)
In this country, as in England, we scarcely know the Indian fig except as succulent ugly sprawling shrubs without leaves; but some species have leaves of an ordinary description, and when old the columnar species form wood of considerable strength. Humboldt speaks of a forest of such plants, not mere herbaceous species, but tall trees, with stems yielding wood suitable for domestic purposes. And Darwin states that in Central Chili “the cactuses, or, rather, Opuntias, were very numerous. I measured one,” he says, “of a spherical figure, which, including the spines, was 6ft. 4in. in circumference. The height of the common branching kind is from 12ft. to 15ft., and the girth with spines of the branches between 3ft. and 4ft.” (“Naturalist's Voyage”). Further on in his admirable book he says, “A species of large tree Cactus was one of the principal kinds of food of the great land-tortoise in the Gallapagos.” His account of both—the huge reptile, and the plant, its food—is exceedingly interesting.
There is no reason for supposing that the modern Opuntia is described by Theophrastus, as the German botanist Sprengel asserted. The account given by the former writer, as far as we know, rather suits some tree like Ficus religiosa. Hot dry exposed places are the favourite homes of the Indian figs, for which they are naturally adapted in consequence of the imperfect evaporating pores of their skin, a circumstance which, as De Candolle has shown, accounts for the excessively succulent state of their tissue.
In some recent valuable publications by the Department of Agriculture of the United States Government, “On the Grasses and the Forage-plants for Cultivation in the South,” I find several practical statements both important and curious respecting this plant and its allied species and their uses for forage, in letters and communications from extensive and practical cattle-breeders in several of the Southern States—viz., Texas, Mobile, New Mexico, and California—and, as they are also very extraordinary, I shall quote a few of them verbatim. These, however, are prefaced by some humane and able remarks from the Department of Agriculture, U.S., which I also extract:—
“A number of species of Cactus, mainly of the genus Opuntia, and commonly called nopal, or prickly pear, are used as food for cattle and sheep in the dry regions of Texas, and westward, where the ordinary forage-plants fail. In the natural state cattle do not often touch it, unless driven by hunger, except while the new growth is young and tender. Sheep eat it without preparation more readily than cattle, and for them the plants are sometimes merely cut down so as to be within reach. More often the herder passes along and clips off a portion of each flat joint, so that the sheep can
enter, their noses without coming in contact with the spines. For cattle it is customary to singe off the spines over a brisk blaze.
“Considering the extent to which these plants are eaten by stock, even in their natural state, it is remarkable that so few evil effects have been observed. A large majority of those who have mentioned their use state that no injurious results have come to their notice.
“A sufficient number of instances of injury are reported, however, to show that compelling stock to eat them unprepared is cruel, if not unprofitable, and to render it probable that the suffering and loss on this account have not been full observed. A number of instances are reported of cattle having died from the accumulation of the spines in the mouth and stomach. The jaws and neck sometimes become swollen and inflamed from the presence of the spines. The tongue has been known to become so filled with them as to be rendered unfit for food. How this amount of injury can occur and not affect the growth of the animal it is difficult to see. The injury to sheep is mostly confined to the nose and lips, and is not considered very serious, ‘as the needles soon fester and come out.’
“The succulent nature of the plant in the growing-season sometimes has too great a laxative effect, but if other fodder is fed with it this tendency is rather beneficial than otherwise. Notwithstanding these difficulties, however, the Cactus, when properly prepared, is a valuable fodder-plant, and is destined to come into more general use in the warm, arid parts of the country.”—(Bulletin, No. 3, p. 50.)
J. A. Avent, Bexar County, Southern Texas:—
“I have been feeding prickly pear for thirty years. It is an excellent food for cattle if fed with fodder or hay of any kind. When not too full of sap it may be fed alone. There is nothing that cattle like better than prickly pear when accustomed to it. The old stumps, with a little corn, will fatten cattle very fast. We burn off the thorns in feeding it, but most stock-raisers do not. The apples ripen about the 1st July, and are eaten by almost everything. Hogs get fat enough upon them to render into lard when the crop is good, and it seldom fails.”
A. J. Spencer, Uvalde, Texas:—
“It is eaten by cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs. They eat it mainly as found in the range, though sometimes the thorns are scorched off. It is considered one of the best native forage-plants. It is a partial substitute for water for all stock that eat it. The only injury I have known to result from eating it has been to sheep, and then only when eaten while frozen.”
Professor George W. Curtis, College Station, Texas:—
“It is used quite extensively for cattle and sheep. The prickles are singed off, or the whole plant is boiled and fed mixed with bran.
“Has your attention been called to the use of the prickly pear as a lubricant?—Certain of the western railroads have used it with excellent results. It is gathered in Texas, shipped to Saint Louis, ground up coarsely, and pine tar added to keep the albuminoids from decomposition (I do not know whether anything else is added or not), after which it is barrelled and returned. The total cost is 2 ½ cents per pound, and it is said to do the work of 5 or 6 cents worth of grease and rags formerly used. It is especially useful in preventing and cooling hot boxes. If this comes into general use it will open a new field of production.”
Dr. A. E. Carothers, Cotulla, La Salle:—
“I have fed 400 beeves, and am now feeding 800 more on this food. From the analysis furnished by Mr. Richardson, of your [Government] department, I found that the Cactus was deficient in albuminoids, and, from the well-known richness of the cotton-seed oil-cakes in those elements, I selected it to supply the deficiency, which it did very well.… I feed per head about 601b. of the Cactus and an average of about 61b. of the meal per day for ninety days. A train-load of 330 head of these cattle sold last week in Chicago at 4 ½ cents. The meat is singularly juicy and tender, the fat well distributed among the muscles. I have sold it at 1 cent per pound gross over grass-cattle in San Antonio.”
Edward Beaumont, Jemes, New Mexico:—
“The Cactus is not used here to any great extent, but it makes good food for horned cattle, especially cows. The thorns are scorched off over a blaze of brush or straw. When cattle get used to eating it they come running as soon as they see a smoke.”
O. F. Wright, Temescal, San Bernadine County, California:—
“Many kinds of Cactus grow here. The flat kind, or prickly pear, is abundant in places. Cattle, goats, and sheep eat it sometimes without any preparation when very hungry; but it looks as though needles and pins would be a pleasanter and safer diet. I have never known, however, any bad results to come from eating it. After boiling to soften the thorns it makes good food for milch cows, and is much relished. The trouble of boiling prevents its extensive use.”
I may also mention another introduced plant (a common British weed here in Napier) as being extensively used and
valued as a forage-plant in some of those Southern States, and this relation will also, I think, surprise many of our settlers.
3. Erodium cicutarium = Alfilaria (in America), Hemlock-leaved Heron's-bill (commonly called a Geranium).
This plant is one of the commonest of our British introduced weeds, being found everywhere, even in the streets and roads of Napier, and, being perennial and a quick grower, lining the kerbs and the bases of houses. No doubt it is well known.
It shows itself of very different sizes. Sometimes its leaves are only 2in. or so long, and sometimes 8in.-9in., but all alike; at first radiate and symmetrical from its root-stock, flat on the ground, it often presents a very neat and striking appearance.
In my own grass-paddocks and pathways it has long been very common; and at first, while I could not but admire its graceful form, I feared it would prove to be another unwelcome imported weed; but I have found horses to feed well on it, intermixed with grasses and clovers. So that from observation I have concluded that not only this but other foreign plants (commonly called “weeds” by us) are really of more service to stock generally than we are aware of, when growing together with grasses and clovers; and, indeed, are naturally better adapted to keep them in health than when fed on rye-grass and clovers alone. Notwithstanding, I was surprised to find this plant (Erodium cicutarium) so highly valued as a forage-plant in the Southern States of America. As before, I give a few quotations respecting it:—
“It occurs abundantly, and is of much value for pasture, over a large extent of territory in Northern California and adjoining regions. A few have begun its artificial propagation, and it is undoubtedly worthy of introduction into other regions in the south and west having prolonged droughts.—(Loc. cit., p. 34.)
Professor E. W. Hilgard, in the report of the Department of Agriculture of California, says,—
“Two species of crane's-bill (Erodium cicutarium and mos-chatum) are even more common here than in Southern Europe, and the first-named is esteemed as one of the most important natural pasture-plants, being about the only green thing available to stock throughout the dry season, and eagerly cropped by them at all times. Its Spanish name of Alfilerilla (signifying a pin, and now frequently translated into ‘pin-weed’) shows that it is an old citizen, even if possibly a naturalised one.”
O. F. Thornton, Phœnix, Maricopa County, Arizona:—
“It is not cultivated, but is rapidly spreading on the dry ranges—i.e., valleys and mountain-sides—and is one of the very best wild grasses, either green or dry.”
J. C. Tiffany, San Marcial, Socorro County, New Mexico:—
“There is very little in this county; what there is has been brought in the wool of sheep from California. It grows well in uplands or low, and is spreading rapidly. It is excellent feed—one of the very best. I am trying to get a large quantity of the seed to sow on my ranges. Can you inform me how it may be obtained? I would scatter it in localities over 20,000 acres if I could get the seed at a reasonable cost.”
And now let us hear a few words from the opposite side—again exemplifying the wide difference between practical knowledge and theoretical fireside speculation:—
Dr. A. Gattinger, Nashville, Tenn.:—
“It is not known here, but I have seen it in Germany. It is a vile weed, and ought not to be introduced into cultivation. I cannot understand how such a thing can be seriously spoken of when so many really good native plants are totally ignored.”—(Loc. cit., p. 36.)
In conclusion, I would observe that I had several objects in view in writing this paper; particularly,—
1. To bring to notice the remarkable abnormal early flowering of the young offshoots of Agave.
2. To show the many great and beneficial uses made of that plant, and of another equally strange-looking one, by ancient as well as by modern races of men.
3. To call particular attention to the interesting and well-established fact of the ancient Mexicans having long cultivated several varieties of those two wild endemic plants (Agave and Opuntia), together with others, as banana and vanilla, as an additional reason for believing in the great antiquity of that nation; and so, pari passu, for reasonably concluding the same of the Maori people, from their having cultivated for ages many varieties of their flax (Phormium) and “sweet potatoes”—kumara (Ipomæa chrysorhiza).
4. To acquaint our sheep- and cattle-breeders (several being members of our society) how badly off for grass those of their calling are in those Southern States of America, and what very strange plants are consequently largely and successfully used by them for forage.
5. To place on record my (old) belief that not a few of those plants which we have long considered as mere weeds, and worthless, may yet become of great value for beneficial uses.