Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Equatorial Vegetation (S289: 1878)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An essay specially written for the collection Tropical Nature and Other Essays (S719) in 1878. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

[[p. (27)]] The Equatorial Forest-Belt and its Causes--General features of the Equatorial Forests--Low-growth Forest-trees--Flowery trunks and their probable cause--Uses of Equatorial Forest-trees--The Climbing Plants of the Equatorial Forests--Palms--Uses of Palm-trees and their Products--Ferns--Ginger-worts and wild Bananas--Arums--Screw-pines--Orchids--Bamboos--Uses of the Bamboo--Mangroves--Sensitive-plants--Comparative scarcity of Flowers--Concluding Remarks on Tropical Vegetation.

    In the following sketch of the characteristics of vegetable life in the equatorial zone, it is not intended to enter into any scientific details or to treat the subject in the slightest degree from a botanical point of view; but merely to describe those general features of vegetation which are almost or quite peculiar to this region of the globe, and which are so general as to be characteristic of the greater part of it rather than of any particular country or continent within its limits.

    The Equatorial Forest-Belt and its Causes.--With but few and unimportant exceptions a great forest band from a thousand to fifteen hundred miles in width girdles the earth at the equator, clothing hill, plain, and mountain with an evergreen mantle. Lofty peaks and precipitous ridges are sometimes bare, but often the woody covering continues to a height of eight or ten [[p. 28]] thousand feet, as in some of the volcanic mountains of Java and on portions of the Eastern Andes. Beyond the forests both to the north and south, we meet first with woody and then open country, soon changing into arid plains or even deserts which form an almost continuous band in the vicinity of the two tropics. On the line of the tropic of Cancer we have, in America the deserts and dry plains of New Mexico; in Africa the Sahara; and in Asia, the Arabian deserts, those of Beloochistan and Western India, and further east the dry plains of North China and Mongolia. On the tropic of Capricorn we have, in America the Grand Chaco desert and the Pampas; in Africa the Kalahari desert and the dry plains north of the Limpopo; while the deserts and waterless plains of Central Australia complete the arid zone. These great contrasts of verdure and barrenness occurring in parallel bands all round the globe, must evidently depend on the general laws which determine the distribution of moisture over the earth, more or less modified by local causes. Without going into meteorological details, some of which have been given in the preceding chapter, the main facts may be explained by the mode in which the great aerial currents are distributed. The trade winds passing over the ocean from north-east to south-west with an oblique tendency towards the equator, become saturated with vapour, and are ready to give out moisture whenever they are forced upwards or in any other way have their temperature lowered. The entire equatorial zone becomes thus charged with vapour-laden air which is the primary necessity of a luxuriant vegetation. The surplus air (produced by the meeting of the two trade winds) which is ever rising in the equatorial [[p. 29]] belt and giving up its store of vapour, flows off north and south as dry, cool air, and descends to the earth in the vicinity of the tropics. Here it sucks up whatever moisture it meets with and thus tends to keep this zone in an arid condition. The trades themselves are believed to be supplied by descending currents from the temperate zones, and these are at first equally dry and only become vapour-laden when they have passed over some extent of moist surface. At the solstices the sun passes vertically over the vicinity of the tropics for several weeks, and this further aggravates the aridity; and wherever the soil is sandy and there are no lofty mountain-chains to supply ample irrigation the result is a more or less perfect desert. Analogous causes, which a study of aerial currents will render intelligible, have produced other great forest-belts in the northern and southern parts of the temperate zones; but owing to the paucity of land in the southern hemisphere these are best seen in North America and Northern Euro-Asia, where they form the great northern forests of deciduous trees and of Coniferæ. These being comparatively well-known to us, will form the standard by a reference to which we shall endeavour to point out and render intelligible the distinctive characteristics of the equatorial forest vegetation.

    General Features of the Equatorial Forests.--It is not easy to fix upon the most distinctive features of these virgin forests, which nevertheless impress themselves upon the beholder as something quite unlike those of temperate lands, and as possessing a grandeur and sublimity altogether their own. Amid the countless modifications in detail which these forests present, we shall endeavour [[p. 30]] to point out the chief peculiarities as well as the more interesting phenomena which generally characterise them.

    The observer new to the scene would perhaps be first struck by the varied yet symmetrical trunks, which rise up with perfect straightness to a great height without a branch, and which, being placed at a considerable average distance apart, give an impression similar to that produced by the columns of some enormous building. Overhead, at a height, perhaps, of a hundred feet, is an almost unbroken canopy of foliage formed by the meeting together of these great trees and their interlacing branches; and this canopy is usually so dense that but an indistinct glimmer of the sky is to be seen, and even the intense tropical sunlight only penetrates to the ground subdued and broken up into scattered fragments. There is a weird gloom and a solemn silence, which combine to produce a sense of the vast--the primeval--almost of the infinite. It is a world in which man seems an intruder, and where he feels overwhelmed by the contemplation of the ever-acting forces, which, from the simple elements of the atmosphere, build up the great mass of vegetation which overshadows, and almost seems to oppress the earth.

    Characteristics of the Larger Forest-trees.--Passing from the general impression to the elements of which the scene is composed, the observer is struck by the great diversity of the details amid the general uniformity. Instead of endless repetitions of the same forms of trunk such as are to be seen in our pine, or oak, or beech woods, the eye wanders from one tree to another and rarely detects two of the same species. All are tall and upright columns, but they differ from each other more [[p. 31]] than do the columns of Gothic, Greek, and Egyptian temples. Some are almost cylindrical, rising up out of the ground as if their bases were concealed by accumulations of the soil; others get much thicker near the ground like our spreading oaks; others again, and these are very characteristic, sending out towards the base flat and wing-like projections. These projections are thin slabs radiating from the main trunk, from which they stand out like the buttresses of a Gothic cathedral. They rise to various heights on the tree, from five or six, to twenty or thirty feet; they often divide as they approach the ground, and sometimes twist and curve along the surface for a considerable distance, forming elevated and greatly compressed roots. These buttresses are sometimes so large that the spaces between them if roofed over would form huts capable of containing several persons. Their use is evidently to give the tree an extended base, and so assist the subterranean roots in maintaining in an erect position so lofty a column crowned by a broad and massive head of branches and foliage. The buttressed trees belong to a variety of distinct groups. Thus, many of the Bombaceæ or silk-cotton trees, several of the Leguminosæ, and perhaps many trees belonging to other natural orders, possess these appendages.

    There is another form of tree, hardly less curious, in which the trunk, though generally straight and cylindrical, is deeply furrowed and indented, appearing as if made up of a number of small trees grown together at the centre. Sometimes the junction of what seem to be the component parts, is so imperfect, that gaps or holes are left by which you can see through the trunk in various places. At first one is disposed to think this is [[p. 32]] caused by accident or decay, but repeated examination shows it be due to the natural growth of the tree. The accompanying outline sections of one of these trees that was cut down, exhibits its character. It was a noble

forest-tree, more than 200 feet high, but rather slender in proportion, and it was by no means an extreme example of its class. This peculiar form is probably produced by the downward growth of aerial roots, like some New Zealand trees whose growth has been traced, and of whose different stages drawings may be seen at the Library of the Linnean Society. These commence their existence as parasitical climbers which take root in the fork of some forest-tree and send down aerial roots which clasp round the stem that upholds them. As these roots increase in size and grow together laterally they cause the death of their foster-parent. The climber then grows rapidly, sending out large branches above and spreading roots below, and as the supporting tree decays away the aerial roots grow together and form a [[p. 33]] new trunk, more or less furrowed and buttressed, but exhibiting no other marks of its exceptional origin. Aerial-rooted forest-trees--like that figured in my Malay Archipelago (vol. i. p. 131)--and the equally remarkable fig-trees of various species, whose trunks are formed by a miniature forest of aerial roots, sometimes separate, sometimes matted together, are characteristic of the Eastern tropics, but appear to be rare or altogether unknown in America, and can therefore hardly be included among the general characteristics of the equatorial zone.

    Besides the varieties of form, however, the tree-trunks of these forests present many peculiarities of colour and texture. The majority are rather smooth-barked, and many are of peculiar whitish, green, yellowish, or brown colours, or occasionally nearly black. Some are perfectly smooth, others deeply cracked and furrowed, while in a considerable number the bark splits off in flakes or hangs down in long fibrous ribands. Spined or prickly trunks (except of palms) are rare in the damp equatorial forests. Turning our gaze upwards from the stems to the foliage, we find two types of leaf not common in the temperate zone, although the great mass of the trees offer nothing very remarkable in this respect. First, we have many trees with large, thick, and glossy leaves, like those of the cherry-laurel or the magnolia, but even larger, smoother, and more symmetrical. The leaves of the Asiatic caoutchouc-tree (Ficus elastica), so often cultivated in houses, is a type of this class, which has a very fine effect among the more ordinary-looking foliage. Contrasted with this is the fine pinnate foliage of some of the largest forest-trees which, seen far aloft against [[p. 34]] the sky, looks as delicate as that of the sensitive mimosa.

    Forest-trees of Low Growth.--The great trees we have hitherto been describing form, however, but a portion of the forest. Beneath their lofty canopy there often exists a second forest of moderate-sized trees, whose crowns, perhaps forty or fifty feet high, do not touch the lowermost branches of those above them. These are of course shade-loving trees, and their presence effectually prevents the growth of any young trees of the larger kinds, until, overcome by age and storms, some monarch of the forest falls down, and, carrying destruction in its fall, opens up a considerable space, into which sun and air can penetrate. Then comes a race for existence among the seedlings of the surrounding trees, in which a few ultimately prevail and fill up the space vacated by their predecessor. Yet beneath this second set of medium-sized forest-trees there is often a third undergrowth of small trees, from six to ten feet high, of dwarf palms, of tree-ferns, and of gigantic herbaceous ferns. Coming to the surface of the ground itself we find much variety. Sometimes it is completely bare, a mass of decaying leaves and twigs and fallen fruits. More frequently it is covered with a dense carpet of selaginella or other lycopodiaceæ, and these sometimes give place to a variety of herbaceous plants, sometimes with pretty, but rarely with very conspicuous flowers.

    Flowering Trunks and their Probable Cause.--Among the minor but not unimportant peculiarities that characterise these lofty forests, is the curious way in which many of the smaller trees have their flowers situated on the main trunk or larger branches instead [[p. 35]] of on the upper part of the tree. The cacao-tree is a well-known example of this peculiarity, which is not uncommon in tropical forests; and some of the smaller trunks are occasionally almost hidden by the quantity of fruit produced on them. One of the most beautiful examples of this mode of flowering is a small tree of the genus Polyalthea, belonging to the family of the custard-apples, not uncommon in the forests of North-western Borneo. Its slender trunk, about fifteen or twenty feet high, was completely covered with star-shaped flowers, three inches across and of a rich orange-red colour, making the trees look as if they had been artificially decorated with brilliant garlands. The recent discoveries as to the important part played by insects in the fertilization of flowers offers a very probable explanation of this peculiarity. Bees and butterflies are the greatest flower-haunters. The former love the sun and frequent open grounds or the flowery tops of the lofty forest-trees fully exposed to the sun and air. The forest shades are frequented by thousands of butterflies, but these mostly keep near the ground, where they have a free passage among the tree-trunks and visit the flowering shrubs and herbaceous plants. To attract these it is necessary that flowers should be low down and conspicuous. If they grew in the usual way on the tops of these smaller trees overshadowed by the dense canopy above them they would be out of sight of both groups of insects, but being placed openly on the stems, and in the greatest profusion, they cannot fail to attract the attention of the wandering butterflies.

    Uses of Equatorial Forest-trees.--Amid this immense variety of trees, the natives have found out such as are [[p. 36]] best adapted to certain purposes. The wood of some is light and soft, and is used for floats or for carving out rude images, stools, and ornaments for boats and houses. The flat slabs of the buttresses are often used to make paddles. Some of the trees with furrowed stems are exceedingly strong and durable, serving as posts for houses or as piles on which the water-villages are built. Canoes, formed from a trunk hollowed out and spread open under the action of heat, require one kind of wood, those built up with planks another; and, as the species of trees in these forests are so much more numerous than the wants of a semi-civilized population, there are probably a large number of kinds of timber which will some day be found to be well adapted to the special requirements of the arts and sciences. The products of the trees of the equatorial forests, notwithstanding our imperfect knowledge of them, are already more useful to civilized man than to the indigenous inhabitants. To mention only a few of those whose names are tolerably familiar to us, we have such valuable woods as mahogany, teak, ebony, lignum-vitæ, purple-heart, iron-wood, sandal-wood, and satin-wood; such useful gums as india-rubber, gutta-percha, tragacanth, copal, lac, and dammar; such dyes as are yielded by log-wood, brazil-wood, and sappan-wood; such drugs as the balsams of Capivi and Tolu, camphor, benzoin, catechu or terra-japonica, cajuput oil, gamboge, quinine, Angostura bark, quassia, and the urari and upas poisons; of spices we have cloves, cinnamon, and nutmegs; and of fruits, brazil-nuts, tamarinds, guavas, and the valuable cacao; while residents in our tropical colonies enjoy the bread-fruit, avocado-pear, custard-apple, durian, mango, mangosteen, [[p. 37]] soursop, papaw, and many others. This list of useful products from the exogenous trees alone of the equatorial forests, excluding those from the palms, shrubs, herbs, and creepers, might have been multiplied many times over by the introduction of articles whose names would be known only to those interested in special arts or sciences; but imperfect as it is, it will serve to afford a notion of the value of this vast treasure-house which is as yet but very partially explored.

    The Climbing Plants of the Equatorial Forests. Next to the trees themselves the most conspicuous and remarkable feature of the tropical forests is the profusion of woody creepers and climbers that everywhere meet the eye. They twist around the slenderer stems, they drop down pendent from the branches, they stretch tightly from tree to tree, they hang looped in huge festoons from bough to bough, they twist in great serpentine coils or lie in entangled masses on the ground. Some are slender, smooth, and root-like; others are rugged or knotted; often they are twined together into veritable cables; some are flat like ribands, others are curiously waved and indented. Where they spring from or how they grow is at first a complete puzzle. They pass overhead from tree to tree, they stretch in tight cordage like the rigging of a ship from the top of one tree to the base of another, and the upper regions of the forest often seem full of them without our being able to detect any earth-growing stem from which they arise. The conclusion is at length forced upon us that these woody climbers must possess the two qualities of very long life and almost indefinite longitudinal growth, for by these suppositions alone can we explain their characteristic features. The growth of [[p. 38]] climbers, even more than all other plants, is upward towards the light. In the shade of the forest they rarely or never flower, and seldom even produce foliage; but when they have reached the summit of the tree that supports them, they expand under the genial influence of light and air, and often cover their foster-parent with blossoms not its own. Here, as a rule, the climber's growth would cease; but the time comes when the supporting tree rots and falls, and the creeper comes with it in torn and tangled masses to the ground. But though its foster-parent is dead it has itself received no permanent injury, but shoots out again till it finds a fresh support, mounts another tree, and again puts forth its leaves and flowers. In time the old tree rots entirely away and the creeper remains tangled on the ground. Sometimes branches only fall and carry a portion of the creeper tightly stretched to an adjoining tree; at other times the whole tree is arrested by a neighbour to which the creeper soon transfers itself in order to reach the upper light. When by the fall of a branch the creepers are left hanging in the air, they may be blown about by the wind and catch hold of trees growing up beneath them, and thus become festooned from one tree to another. When these accidents and changes have been again and again repeated the climber may have travelled very far from its parent stem, and may have mounted to the tree tops and descended again to the earth several times over. Only in this way does it seem possible to explain the wonderfully complex manner in which these climbing plants wander up and down the forest as if guided by the strangest caprices, or how they become so crossed and tangled together in the wildest confusion.

    [[p. 39]] The variety in the length, thickness, strength and toughness of these climbers, enables the natives of tropical countries to put them to various uses. Almost every kind of cordage is supplied by them. Some will stand in water without rotting, and are used for cables, for lines to which are attached fish-traps, and to bind and strengthen the wooden anchors used generally in the East. Boats and even large sailing vessels are built, whose planks are entirely fastened together by this kind of cordage skilfully applied to internal ribs. For the better kinds of houses, smooth and uniform varieties are chosen, so that the beams and rafters can be bound together with neatness, strength and uniformity, as is especially observable among the indigenes of the Amazonian forests. When baskets of great strength are required special kinds of creepers are used; and to serve almost every purpose for which we should need a rope or a chain, the tropical savage adopts some one of the numerous forest-ropes which long experience has shown to have qualities best adapted for it. Some are smooth and supple; some are tough and will bear twisting or tying; some will last longest in salt water, others in fresh; one is uninjured by the heat and smoke of fires, while another is bitter or otherwise prejudicial to insect enemies.

    Besides these various kinds of trees and climbers which form the great mass of the equatorial forests and determine their general aspect, there are a number of forms of plants which are always more or less present, though in some parts scarce and in others in great profusion, and which largely aid in giving a special character [[p. 40]] to tropical as distinguished from temperate vegetation. Such are the various groups of palms, ferns, ginger-worts, and wild plantains, arums, orchids, and bamboos; and under these heads we shall give a short account of the part they take in giving a distinctive aspect to the equatorial forests.

    Palms.--Although these are found throughout the tropics and a few species even extend into the warmer parts of the temperate regions, they are yet so much more abundant and varied within the limits of the region we are discussing that they may be considered as among the most characteristic forms of vegetation of the equatorial zone. They are, however, by no means generally present, and we may pass through miles of forest without even seeing a palm. In other parts they abound; either forming a lower growth in the lofty forest, or in swamps and on hill-sides sometimes rising up above the other trees. On river-banks they are especially conspicuous and elegant, bending gracefully over the stream, their fine foliage waving in the breeze, and their stems often draped with hanging creepers.

    The chief feature of the palm tribe consists in the cylindrical trunk crowned by a mass of large and somewhat rigid leaves. They vary in height from a few feet to that of the loftiest forest-trees. Some are stemless, consisting only of a spreading crown of large pinnate leaves; but the great majority have a trunk slender in proportion to its height. Some of the smaller species have stems no thicker than a lead pencil, and four or five feet high; while the great Mauritia of the Amazon has a trunk full two feet in diameter, and more than 100 feet high. Some species probably reach a height [[p. 41]] of 200 feet, for Humboldt states that in South America he measured a palm, which was 192 English feet high. The leaves of palms are often of immense size. Those of the Manicaria saccifera of Para are thirty feet long and four or five feet wide, and are not pinnate but entire and very rigid. Some of the pinnate leaves are much larger, those of the Raphia tædigera and Maximiliana regia being both sometimes more than fifty feet long. The fan-shaped leaves of other species are ten or twelve feet in diameter. The trunks of palms are sometimes smooth and more or less regularly ringed, but they are frequently armed with dense prickles which are sometimes eight inches long. In some species, the leaves fall to the ground as they decay leaving a clean scar, but in most cases they are persistent, rotting slowly away, and leaving a mass of fibrous stumps attached to the upper part of the stem. This rotting mass forms an excellent soil for ferns, orchids, and other semi-parasitical plants, which form an attractive feature on what would otherwise be an unsightly object. The sheathing margins of the leaves often break up into a fibrous material, sometimes resembling a coarse cloth, and in other cases more like horsehair. The flowers are not individually large, but form large spikes or racemes, and the fruits are often beautifully scaled and hang in huge bunches which are sometimes more than a load for a strong man. The climbing palms are very remarkable, their tough, slender, prickly stems mounting up by means of the hooked midribs of the leaves to the tops of the loftiest forest-trees, above which they send up an elegant spike of foliage and flowers. The most important are the American Desmoncus and the Eastern Calamus, the [[p. 42]] latter being the well-known rattan or cane of which chair-seats are made, from the Malay name "rotang." The rattan-palms are the largest and most remarkable of the climbing group. They are very abundant in the drier equatorial forests, and more than sixty species are known from the Malay Archipelago. The stems (when cleaned from the sheathing leaves and prickles) vary in size from the thickness of a quill to that of the wrist; and where abundant they render the forest almost impassable. They lie about the ground coiled and twisted and looped in the most fantastic manner. They hang in festoons from trees and branches, they rise suddenly through mid air up to the top of the forest, or coil loosely over shrubs and in thickets like endless serpents. They must attain an immense age, and apparently have almost unlimited powers of growth, for some are said to have been found which were 600 or even 1000 feet long, and if so, they are probably the longest of all vegetable growths. The mode in which such great lengths and tangled convolutions have been attained has already been explained in the general account of woody climbers. From the immense strength of these canes and the facility with which they can be split, they are universally used for cordage in the countries where they grow in preference to any other climbers, and immense quantities are annually exported to all parts of the world.

    Uses of Palm-trees and their Products--To the natives of the equatorial zone the uses of palms are both great and various. The fruits of several species--more especially the cocoa-nut of the East and the peach-nut (Guilielma speciosa) of America--furnish [[p. 43]] abundance of wholesome food, and the whole of the trunk of the sago-palm is converted into an edible starch our sago. Many other palm-fruits yield a thin pulp, too small in quantity to be directly eaten, but which when rubbed off and mixed with a proper quantity of water forms an exceedingly nutritious and agreeable article of food. The most celebrated of these is the assai of the Amazon, made from the fruit of Euterpe oleracea, and which, as a refreshing, nourishing, and slightly stimulating beverage for a tropical country, takes the place of our chocolate and coffee. A number of other palms yield a similar product, and many that are not eaten by man are greedily devoured by a variety of animals, so that the amount of food produced by this tribe of plants is much larger than is generally supposed.

    The sap which pours out of the cut flower-stalk of several species of palm when slightly fermented forms palm-wine or toddy, a very agreeable drink; and when mixed with various bitter herbs or roots which check fermentation, a fair imitation of beer is produced. If the same fluid is at once boiled and evaporated it produces a quantity of excellent sugar. The Arenga saccharifera, or sugar-palm of the Malay countries, is perhaps the most productive of sugar. A single tree will continue to pour out several quarts of sap daily for weeks together, and where the trees are abundant this forms the chief drink and most esteemed luxury of the natives. A Dutch chemist, Mr. De Vry, who has studied the subject in Java, believes that great advantages would accrue from the cultivation of this tree in place of the sugar-cane. According to his experiments it would produce an equal quantity of sugar of good [[p. 44]] quality with far less labour and expense, because no manure and no cultivation would be required, and the land will never be impoverished as it so rapidly becomes by the growth of sugar-cane. The reason of this difference is, that the whole produce of a cane-field is taken off the ground, the crushed canes being burnt; and the soil thus becomes exhausted of the various salts and minerals which form part of the woody fibre and foliage. These must be restored by the application of manure, and this, together with the planting, weeding, and necessary cultivation, is very expensive. With the sugar-palm, however, nothing whatever is taken away but the juice itself; the foliage falls on the ground and rots, giving back to it what it had taken; and the water and sugar in the juice being almost wholly derived from the carbonic acid and aqueous vapour of the atmosphere, there is no impoverishment; and a plantation of these palms may be kept up on the same ground for an indefinite period. Another most important consideration is, that these trees will grow on poor rocky soil and on the steep slopes of ravines and hill-sides where any ordinary cultivation is impossible, and a great extent of fertile land would thus be set free for other purposes. Yet further, the labour required for such sugar plantations as these would be of a light and intermittent kind, exactly suited to a semi-civilized people to whom severe and long-continued labour is never congenial. This combination of advantages appears to be so great, that it seems possible that the sugar of the world may in the future be produced from what would otherwise be almost waste ground; and it is to be hoped that the experiment will soon be tried in some of our [[p. 45]] tropical colonies, more especially as an Indian palm, Phoenix sylvestris, also produces abundance of sugar, and might be tried in its native country.

    Other articles of food produced from palms are, cooking-oil from the cocoa-nut and baccaba palm, salt from the fruit of a South American palm (Leopoldinia major), while the terminal bud or "cabbage" of many species is an excellent and nutritious vegetable; so that palms supply bread, oil, sugar, salt, fruit, and vegetables. Oils for various other purposes are made from several distinct palms, while wax is secreted from the leaves of some South American species; the resin called dragon's-blood is the product of one of the rattan palms; while the fruit of the Areca palm is the "betel-nut" so universally chewed by the Malays as a gentle stimulant, and which is their substitute for the opium of the Chinese, the tobacco of Europeans, and the coca-leaf of South America.

    For thatching, the leaves of palms are invaluable, and are universally used wherever they are abundant; and the petioles or leaf-stalks, often fifteen or twenty feet long, are used as rafters, or when fastened together with pegs form doors, shutters, partitions, or even the walls of entire houses. They are wonderfully light and strong, being formed of a dense pith covered with a hard rind or bark, and when split up and pegged together serve to make many kinds of boxes, which, when covered with the broad leaves of a species of screw-pine and painted or stained of various colours, are very strong and serviceable as well as very ornamental. Ropes and cables are woven from the black fibrous matter that fringes the leaves of the sugar-palm and some other [[p. 46]] species, while fine string of excellent quality used even for bow-strings, fishing-lines, and hammocks, is made of fibres obtained from the unopened leaves of some American species. The fibrous sheath at the base of the leaves of the cocoa-nut palm is so compact and cloth-like, that it is used for a variety of purposes, as for strainers, for wrappers, and to make very good hats. The great woody spathes of the larger palms serve as natural baskets, as cradles, or even as cooking-vessels in which water may be safely boiled. The trunks form excellent posts and fencing, and when split make good flooring. Some species are used for bows, others for blow-pipes; the smaller species are sometimes used as needles or to make fish-hooks, and the larger as arrows. To describe in detail all the uses to which palm-trees and their products are applied in various parts of the world might occupy a volume; but the preceding sketch will serve to give an idea of how important a part is filled by this noble family of plants, whether we regard them as a portion of the beautiful vegetation of the tropics, or in relation to the manners and customs, the lives and the well-being of the indigenous inhabitants.

    Ferns.--The type of plants which, next to palms, most attracts attention in the equatorial zone, is perhaps that of the ferns, which here display themselves in vast profusion and variety. They grow abundantly on rocks and on decaying trees; they clothe the sides of ravines and the margins of streams; they climb up the trees and over bushes; they form tufts and hanging festoons among the highest branches. Some are as small as mosses, others have huge fronds eight or ten feet long, while in mountainous districts the most elegant of the group, the [[p. 47]] tree-ferns, bear their graceful crowns on slender stems twenty to thirty, or even fifty feet high. It is this immense variety rather than any special features that characterises the fern-vegetation of the tropics. We have here almost every conceivable modification of size, form of fronds, position of spores, and habit of growth, in plants that still remain unmistakably ferns. Many climb over shrubs and bushes in a most elegant manner; others cling closely to the bark of trees like ivy. The great birds'-nest fern (Platycerium) attaches its shell-like fronds high up on the trunks of lofty trees. Many small terrestrial species have digitate, or ovate, or ivy-shaped, or even whorled fronds, resembling at first sight those of some herbaceous flowering-plants. Their numbers may be judged from the fact that in the vicinity of Tarrapoto, in Peru, Dr. Spruce gathered 250 species of ferns, while the single volcanic mountains of Pangerango in Java (10,000 feet high) is said to have produced 300 species.

    Ginger-worts and wild Bananas.--These plants, forming the families Zingiberaceæ and Musaceæ of botanists, are very conspicuous ornaments of the equatorial forests, on account of their large size, fine foliage, and handsome flowers. The bananas and plantains are well known as among the most luxuriant and beautiful productions of the tropics. Many species occur wild in the forests; all have majestic foliage and handsome flowers, while some produce edible fruit. Of the ginger-worts (Zingiberaceæ and Marantaceæ), the well known cannas of our tropical gardens may be taken as representatives, but the equatorial species are very numerous and varied, often forming dense thickets in damp places, and adorning the [[p. 48]] forest shades with their elegant and curious or showy flowers. The maranths produce "arrow-root," while the ginger-worts are highly aromatic, producing ginger, cardamums, grains of paradise, turmeric and several medicinal drugs. The Musaceæ produce the most valuable of tropical fruits and foods. The banana is the variety which is always eaten as a fruit, having a delicate aromatic flavour; the plantain is a larger variety which is best cooked. Roasted in the green state it is an excellent vegetable resembling roasted chestnuts; when ripe it is sometimes pulped and boiled with water, making a very agreeable sweet soup; or it is roasted, or cut into slices and fried, in either form being a delicious tropical substitute for fruit pudding. These plants are annuals, producing one immense bunch of fruit. This bunch is sometimes four or five feet long containing near 200 plantains, and often weighs about a hundredweight. They grow very close together, and Humboldt calculated that an acre of plantains would supply more food than could be obtained from the same extent of ground by any other known plant. Well may it be said that the plantain is the glory of the tropics, and well was the species named by Linnæus-Musa paradisiaca!

    Arums.--Another very characteristic and remarkable group of tropical plants are the epiphytal and climbing arums. These are known by their large, arrow-shaped, dark green and glossy leaves, often curiously lobed or incised, and sometimes reticulated with large open spaces, as if pieces had been regularly eaten out of them by some voracious insects. Sometimes they form clusters of foliage on living or dead trees to which they cling by their aerial roots. Others climb up the smooth [[p. 49]] bark of large trees, sending out roots as they ascend which clasp around the trunk. Some mount straight up, others wind round the supporting trunks, and their large, handsome, and often highly-remarkable leaves, which spread out profusely all along the stem, render them one of the most striking forms of vegetation which adorn the damper and more luxuriant parts of the tropical forests of both hemispheres.

    Screw-pines.--These singular plants, constituting the family Pandanaceæ of botanists, are very abundant in many parts of the Eastern tropics, while they are comparatively scarce in America. They somewhat resemble Yuccas, but have larger leaves which grow in a close spiral screw on the stem. Some are large and palm-like, and it is a curious sight to stand under these and look up at the huge vegetable screw formed by the bases of the long drooping leaves. Some have slender-branched trunks, which send out aerial roots; others are stemless, consisting of an immense spiral cluster of stiff leaves ten or twelve feet long and only two or three inches wide. They abound most in sandy islands, while the larger species grow in swampy forests. Their large-clustered fruits, something like pineapples, are often of a red colour; and their long stiff leaves are of great use for covering boxes and for many other domestic uses.

    Orchids.--These interesting plants, so well known from the ardour with which they are cultivated on account of their beautiful and singular flowers, are pre-eminently tropical, and are probably more abundant in the mountains of the equatorial zone than in any other region. Here they are almost omnipresent in some of their countless forms. They grow on the stems, in the [[p. 50]] forks or on the branches of trees; they abound on fallen trunks; they spread over rocks, or hang down the face of precipices; while some, like our northern species, grow on the ground among grass and herbage. Some trees whose bark is especially well adapted for their support are crowded with them, and these form natural orchid-gardens. Some orchids are particularly fond of the decaying leaf-stalks of palms or of tree-ferns. Some grow best over water, others must be elevated on lofty trees and well exposed to sun and air. The wonderful variety in the form, structure, and colour of the flowers of orchids is well known; but even our finest collections give an inadequate idea of the numbers of these plants that exist in the tropics, because a large proportion of them have quite inconspicuous flowers and are not worth cultivation. More than thirty years ago the number of known orchids was estimated by Dr. Lindley at 3,000 species, and it is not improbable that they may be now nearly doubled. But whatever may be the numbers of the collected and described orchids, those that still remain to be discovered must be enormous. Unlike ferns, the species have a very limited range, and it would require the systematic work of a good botanical collector during several years to exhaust any productive district--say such an island as Java--of its orchids. It is not therefore at all improbable that this remarkable group may ultimately prove to be the most numerous in species of all the families of flowering plants.

    Although there is a peculiarity of habit that enables one soon to detect an orchidaceous plant even when not in flower, yet they vary greatly in size and aspect. Some of the small creeping species are hardly larger [[p. 51]] than mosses, while the large Grammatophyllums of Borneo, which grow in the forks of trees, form a mass of leafy stems ten feet long, and some of the terrestrial species--as the American Sobralias--grow erect to an equal height. The fleshy aerial roots of most species give them a very peculiar aspect, as they often grow to a great length in the open air, spread over the surface of rocks, or attach themselves loosely to the bark of trees, extracting nourishment from the rain and from the aqueous vapour of the atmosphere. Yet notwithstanding the abundance and variety of orchids in the equatorial forests they seldom produce much effect by their flowers. This is due partly to the very large proportion of the species having quite inconspicuous flowers; and partly to the fact that the flowering season for each kind lasts but a few weeks, while different species flower almost every month in the year. It is also due to the manner of growth of orchids, generally in single plants or clumps which are seldom large or conspicuous as compared with the great mass of vegetation around them. It is only at long intervals that the traveller meets with anything which recalls the splendour of our orchid-houses and flower-shows. The slender-stalked golden Oncidiums of the flooded forests of the Upper Amazon; the grand Cattleyas of the drier forests; the Cælogynes of the swamps, and the remarkable Vanda lowii of the hill forests of Borneo, are the chief examples of orchid-beauty that have impressed themselves on the memory of the present writer during twelve years' wandering in tropical forests. The last-named plant is unique among orchids, its comparatively small cluster of leaves sending out numerous flower-stems, which hang down [[p. 52]] like cords to a length of eight feet, and are covered with numbers of large star-like crimson-spotted flowers.

    Bamboos.--The gigantic grasses called bamboos can hardly be classed as typical plants of the tropical zone, because they appear to be absent from the entire African continent and are comparatively scarce in South America. They also extend beyond the geographical tropics in China and Japan as well as in Northern India. It is however within the tropics and towards the equator that they attain their full size and beauty, and it is here that the species are most numerous and offer that variety of form, size, and quality, which renders them so admirable a boon to man. A fine clump of large bamboos is perhaps the most graceful of all vegetable forms, resembling the light and airy plumes of the bird-of-paradise copied on a gigantic scale in living foliage. Such clumps are often eighty or a hundred feet high, the glossy stems, perhaps six inches thick at the base, springing up at first straight as an arrow, tapering gradually to a slender point, and bending over in elegant curves with the weight of the slender branches and grassy leaves. The various species differ greatly in size and proportions; in the comparative length of the joints; in the thickness and strength of the stem-walls; in their straightness, smoothness, hardness, and durability. Some are spiny, others are unarmed; some have simple stems, others are thickly set with branches; while some species even grow in such an irregular, zig-zag, branched manner as to form veritable climbing bamboos. They generally prefer dry and upland stations, though some grow near the banks of rivers, and a few in the thick forests and, in South America, in flooded tracts. They often form dense [[p. 53]] thickets where the forests have been cleared away; and, owing to their great utility, they are cultivated or preserved near native houses and villages, and in such situations often give a finishing charm to the landscape.

    Uses of the Bamboo.--Perhaps more than any other single type of vegetation, the bamboo seems specially adapted for the use of half-civilized man in a wild tropical country; and the purposes to which it is applied are almost endless. It is a natural column or cylinder, very straight, uniform in thickness, of a compact and solid texture, and with a smooth flinty naturally-polished external skin. It is divided into ringed joints at regular intervals which correspond to septa or partitions within, so that each joint forms a perfectly closed and air-tight vessel. Owing to its hollowness, the hardness of the external skin, and the existence of the joints and partitions, it is wonderfully strong in proportion to its weight. It can be found of many distinct sizes and proportions; light or heavy, long or short-jointed, and varying from the size of a reed to that of a tall and slender palm-tree. It can be split with great facility and accuracy; and, owing to its being hollow, it can be easily cut across or notched with a sharp knife or hatchet. It is excessively strong and highly elastic, and whether green or dry is almost entirely free from any peculiar taste or smell. The way in which these various qualities of the bamboo render it so valuable, will be best shown by giving a brief account of some of the uses to which it is applied in the Malay Archipelago.

    Several effective weapons are easily made from bamboo. By cutting off the end very obliquely just beyond a joint, a very sharp cutting point is produced [[p. 54]] suitable for a spear, dagger, or arrow-head, and capable of penetrating an animal's body as readily as iron. Such spears are constantly used by many of the Malay tribes. In the eastern half of the Archipelago, where bows and arrows are used, these weapons are often formed entirely of bamboo. The harder and thicker sorts, split and formed with tapering ends, make a very strong and elastic bow, while a narrow strip of the outer skin of the same is used for the string, and the slender reed-like kinds make excellent arrows. One of the few agricultural tools used by the Papuans--a spud or hoe for planting or weeding--is made of a stout bamboo cut somewhat like the spear.

    For various domestic purposes the uses of bamboo are endless. Ladders are rapidly made from two bamboo poles of the required length, by cutting small notches just above each ring, forming holes to receive the rungs or steps formed of a slenderer bamboo. For climbing lofty trees to get beeswax, a temporary ladder reaching to any height is ingeniously formed of bamboo. One of the hardest and thickest sorts is chosen, and from this a number of pegs about a foot long are made. These are sharpened at one end and then driven into the tree in a vertical line about three feet apart. A tall and slender bamboo is then placed upright on the ground and securely tied with rattan or other cords to the heads of these pegs, which thus, with the tree itself, form a ladder. A man mounts these steps and builds up the ladder as he goes, driving in fresh pegs and splicing on fresh bamboos till he reaches the lower branches of the tree, which is sometimes eighty or a hundred feet from the ground. As the weight of the climber is thrown on several of the [[p. 55]] pegs, which are bound together and supported by the upright bamboo, this ladder is much safer than it looks at first sight, and it is made with wonderful rapidity. When a path goes up a steep hill over smooth ground, bamboo steps are often laid down to prevent slipping while carrying heavy loads. These are made with uniform lengths of stout bamboo in which opposite notches are cut at each end just within a joint. These notches allow strong bamboo pegs to be driven through into the ground, thus keeping the steps securely in place. The masts and yards of native vessels are almost always formed of bamboo, as it combines lightness, strength, and elasticity in an unequalled degree. Two or three large bamboos also form the best outriggers to canoes on account of their great buoyancy. They also serve to form rafts; and in the city of Palembang in Sumatra there is a complete street of floating houses supported on rafts formed of huge bundles of bamboos. Bridges across streams or to carry footpaths along the face of precipices are constructed by the Dyaks of Borneo wholly of bamboos, and some of these are very ingeniously hung from overhanging trees by diagonal rods of bamboo, so as to form true suspension bridges. The flooring of Malay houses is almost always of bamboo, but is constructed in a variety of ways. Generally large bamboos are used, split lengthways twice and the pieces tied down with rattan. This forms a grated floor, slightly elastic, and very pleasant to the barefooted natives. A superior floor is sometimes formed of slabs, which are made from very stout bamboos cut into lengths of about three or four feet and split down one side. The joints are then deeply and closely notched all [[p. 56]] round with a sharp chopping-knife, so that the piece can be unrolled as it were and pressed flat, when it forms a hard board with a natural surface which, with a little wear, becomes beautifully smooth and polished. Blinds, screens, and mats, are formed of bamboos in a variety of ways,--sometimes of thin kinds crushed flat and plaited, but more frequently of narrow strips connected together with cords of bamboo-bark or rattan. Strips of bamboo supported on cross-pieces form an excellent bed, which from its elasticity supplies the purpose of a mattress as well, and only requires a mat laid over it to insure a comfortable night's repose. Every kind of basket, too, is made of bamboo, from the coarsest heavy kinds to such as are fine and ornamental. In such countries as Lombock and Macassar, where the land is much cultivated and timber scarce, entire houses are built of bamboo,--posts, walls, floors, and roofs all being constructed of this one material; and perhaps in no other way can so elegant and well-finished a house be built so quickly and so cheaply. Almost every kind of furniture is also made of the same material, excellent bamboo chairs, sofas, and bedsteads being made in the Moluccas, which, for appearance combined with cheapness, are probably unsurpassed in the world. A chair costs sixpence, and a sofa two shillings.

    Among simpler uses, bamboos are admirably adapted for water-vessels. Some of the lighter sorts are cut into lengths of about five feet, a small hole being knocked through the septa of the joints. This prevents the water from running out too quickly, and facilitates its being poured out in a regulated stream to the last drop. Three or four of these water-vessels are tied [[p. 57]] together and carried on the back, and they stand very conveniently in a corner of the hut. Water pipes and aqueducts are also readily made from bamboo tubes supported at intervals on two smaller pieces tied crosswise. In this way a stream of water is often conveyed from some distance to the middle of a village. Measures for rice or palm-wine, drinking-vessels, and water-dippers, are to be found almost ready-made in a joint of bamboo; and when fitted with a cap or lid they form tobacco or tinder-boxes. Perches for parrots with food and water vessels are easily made out of a single piece of bamboo, while with a little more labour elegant bird-cages are constructed. In Timor a musical instrument is formed from a single joint of a large bamboo, by carefully raising seven strips of the hard skin to form strings, which remain attached at both ends and are elevated by small pegs wedged underneath, the strings being prevented from splitting off by a strongly-plaited ring of a similar material bound round each end. An opening cut on one side allows the bamboo to vibrate in musical notes when the harp-like strings are sharply pulled with the fingers. In Java strips of bamboo supported on stretched strings and struck with a small stick produce the higher notes in the "gamelung" or native band, which consists mainly of sets of gongs and metallic plates of various sizes. Almost all the common Chinese paper is made from the foliage and stems of some species of bamboo, while the young shoots, as they first spring out of the ground, are an excellent vegetable, quite equal to artichokes. Single joints of bamboo make excellent cooking-vessels while on a journey. Rice can be boiled in them to perfection, as well as fish and [[p. 58]] vegetables. They serve too for jars in which to preserve sugar, salt, fruit, molasses, and cooked provisions; and for the smoker, excellent pipes and hookahs can be formed in a few minutes out of properly chosen joints of bamboo.

    These are only a sample of the endless purposes to which the bamboo is applied in the countries of which it is a native, its chief characteristic being that in a few minutes it can be put to uses which, if ordinary wood were used, would require hours or even days of labour. There is also a regularity and a finish about it which is found in hardly any other woody plant; and its smooth and symmetrically ringed surface gives an appearance of fitness and beauty to its varied applications. On the whole, we may perhaps consider it as the greatest boon which nature gives to the natives of the Eastern tropics.

    Mangroves.--Among the forms of plants which are sure to attract attention in the tropics are the mangroves, which grow between tide-marks on coasts and estuaries. These are low trees with widely-spreading branches and a network of aerial roots a few feet above the ground; but their most remarkable peculiarity is, that their fruits germinate on the tree, sending out roots and branches before falling into the muddy soil--a completely formed plant. In some cases the root reaches the ground before the seed above falls off. These trees greatly aid the formation of new land, as the mass of aerial roots which arch out from the stem to a considerable distance collects mud and floating refuse, and so raises and consolidates the shore; while the young plants often dropping from the farthest extremity of the branches, rapidly extend [[p. 59]] the domain of vegetation to the farthest possible limits. The branches, too, send down slender roots like those of the banyan, and become independent trees. Thus a complete woody labyrinth is formed; and the network of tough roots and stems resists the action of the tides, and enables the mud brought down by great tropical rivers to be converted into solid land far more rapidly than it could be without this aid.

    Sensitive-plants.--Among the more humble forms of vegetation that attract the traveller's notice none are more interesting than the sensitive species of Mimosa. These are all natives of South America, but one species, Mimosa pudica, has spread to Africa and Asia, so that sensitive-plants now abound as wayside weeds in many parts both of the eastern and western tropics, sometimes completely carpeting the ground with their delicate foliage. Where a large surface of ground is thus covered the effect of walking over it is most peculiar. At each step the plants for some distance round suddenly droop, as if struck with paralysis, and a broad track of prostrate herbage, several feet wide, is distinctly marked out by the different colour of the closed leaflets. The explanation of this phenomenon, given by botanists, is not very satisfactory;1 while the purpose or use of the peculiarity is still more mysterious, seeing that out of about two hundred species belonging to this same genus Mimosa, only some three or four are sensitive, and in the whole vegetable kingdom there are no other plants which possess more than the rudiments of a similar property. [[p. 60]] It is true that, as they are all low-growing herbs or shrubs with delicate foliage, they might possibly be liable to destruction by herbivorous animals, and might escape by their singular power of suddenly collapsing before the jaws opened to devour them. The fact that one species has been naturalized as a weed over so wide an area in the tropics, seems to show that it possesses some advantage over the generality of tropical weeds. It is however curious that, as most of the species are somewhat prickly, so easy and common a mode of protection as the development of stronger spines should here have failed; and that its place should be supplied by so singular a power as that of simulating death, in a manner which suggests the possession of both sensation and voluntary motion.

    Comparative Scarcity of Flowers.--It is a very general opinion among inhabitants of our temperate climes, that amid the luxuriant vegetation of the tropics there must be a grand display of floral beauty; and this idea is supported by the number of large and showy flowers cultivated in our hot-houses. The fact is, however, that in proportion as the general vegetation becomes more luxuriant, flowers form a less and less prominent feature; and this rule applies not only to the tropics but to the temperate and frigid zones. It is amid the scanty vegetation of the higher mountains and towards the limits of perpetual snow, that the alpine flowers are most brilliant and conspicuous. Our own meadows and pastures and hill-sides produce more gay flowers than our woods and forests; and, in the tropics, it is in the parts where vegetation is less dense and luxuriant that flowers most abound. In the damp and [[p. 61]] uniform climate of the equatorial zone the mass of vegetation is greater and more varied than in any other part of the globe, but in the great virgin forests themselves flowers are rarely seen. After describing the forests of the Lower Amazon, Mr. Bates asks: "But where were the flowers? To our great disappointment we saw none, or only such as were insignificant in appearance. Orchids are rare in the dense forests of the lowlands, and I believe it is now tolerably well ascertained that the majority of the forest-trees in equatorial Brazil have small and inconspicuous flowers."2 My friend Dr. Richard Spruce assured me that by far the greater part of the plants gathered by him in equatorial America had inconspicuous green or white flowers. My own observations in the Aru Islands for six months, and in Borneo for more than a year, while living almost wholly in the forests, are quite in accordance with this view. Conspicuous masses of showy flowers are so rare, that weeks and months may be passed without observing a single flowering plant worthy of special admiration. Occasionally some tree or shrub will be seen covered with magnificent yellow, or crimson, or purple flowers, but it is usually an oasis of colour in a desert of verdure, and therefore hardly affects the general aspect of the vegetation. The equatorial forest is too gloomy for flowers, or generally even for much foliage, except of ferns and other shade-loving plants; and were it not that the forests are broken up by rivers and streams, by mountain ranges, by precipitous rocks and by deep ravines, there would be far fewer flowers than there are. Some of the great forest-trees have showy blossoms, [[p. 62]] and when these are seen from an elevated point looking over an expanse of tree-tops the effect is very grand; but nothing is more erroneous than the statement sometimes made that tropical forest-trees generally have showy flowers, for it is doubtful whether the proportion is at all greater in tropical than in temperate zones. On such natural exposures as steep mountain sides, the banks of rivers, or ledges of precipices, and on the margins of such artificial openings as roads and forest clearings, whatever floral beauty is to be found in the more luxuriant parts of the tropics is exhibited. But even in such favourable situations it is not the abundance and beauty of the flowers but the luxuriance and the freshness of the foliage, and the grace and infinite variety of the forms of vegetation, that will most attract the attention and extort the admiration of the traveller. Occasionally indeed you will come upon shrubs gay with blossoms or trees festooned with flowering creepers; but, on the other hand, you may travel for a hundred miles and see nothing but the varied greens of the forest foliage and the deep gloom of its tangled recesses. In Mr. Belt's Naturalist in Nicaragua, he thus describes the great virgin forests of that country which, being in a mountainous region and on the margin of the equatorial zone, are among the most favourable examples. "On each side of the road great trees towered up, carrying their crowns out of sight amongst a canopy of foliage, and with lianas hanging from nearly every bough, and passing from tree to tree, entangling the giants in a great network of coiling cables. Sometimes a tree appears covered with beautiful flowers which do not belong to it, but to one of the lianas [[p. 63]] that twines through its branches and sends down great rope-like stems to the ground. Climbing ferns and vanilla cling to the trunks, and a thousand epiphytes perch themselves on the branches. Amongst these are large arums that send down long aerial roots, tough and strong, and universally used instead of cordage by the natives. Amongst the undergrowth several small species of palms, varying in height from two to fifteen feet, are common; and now and then magnificent tree ferns sending off their feathery crowns twenty feet from the ground delight the sight by their graceful elegance. Great broad-leaved heliconias, leathery melastomæ, and succulent-stemmed, lop-sided leaved and flesh-coloured begonias are abundant, and typical of tropical American forests; but not less so are the cecropia trees, with their white stems and large palmated leaves standing up like great candelabra. Sometimes the ground is carpeted with large flowers, yellow, pink, or white, that have fallen from some invisible tree-top above; or the air is filled with a delicious perfume, the source of which one seeks around in vain, for the flowers that cause it are far overhead out of sight, lost in the great overshadowing crown of verdure."

    Although, as has been shown elsewhere, it may be doubted whether light directly produces floral colour, there can be no doubt that it is essential to the growth of vegetation and to the full development of foliage and of flowers. In the forests all trees, and shrubs, and creepers struggle upwards to the light, there to expand their blossoms and ripen their fruit. Hence, perhaps, the abundance of climbers which make use of their more sturdy companions to reach this necessary of vegetable [[p. 64]] life. Yet even on the upper surface of the forest, fully exposed to the light and heat of the tropical sun, there is no special development of coloured flowers. When from some elevated point you can gaze down upon an unbroken expanse of woody vegetation, it often happens that not a single patch of bright colour can be discerned. At other times, and especially at the beginning of the dry season, you may behold scattered at wide intervals over the mottled-green surface a few masses of yellow, white, pink, or more rarely of blue colour, indicating the position of handsome flowering trees.

    The well-established relation between coloured flowers and the need of insects to fertilize them, may perhaps be connected with the comparative scarcity of the former in the equatorial forests. The various forms of life are linked together in such mutual dependence that no one can inordinately increase without bringing about a corresponding increase or diminution of other forms. The insects which are best adapted to fertilize flowers cannot probably increase much beyond definite limits, because in doing so they would lead to a corresponding increase of insectivorous birds and other animals which would keep them down. The chief fertilizers--bees and butterflies--have enemies at every stage of their growth, from the egg to the perfect insect, and their numbers are, therefore, limited by causes quite independent of the supply of vegetable food. It may, therefore, be the case that the numbers of suitable insects are totally inadequate to the fertilization of the countless millions of forest-trees over such vast areas as the equatorial zone presents, and that, in consequence, a large proportion of [[p. 65]] the species have become adapted either for self-fertilization or for cross-fertilization by the agency of the wind. Were there not some such limitation as this, we should expect that the continued struggle for existence among the plants of the tropical forests would have led to the acquisition, by a much larger proportion of them, of so valuable a character as bright-coloured flowers, this being almost a necessary preliminary to a participation in the benefits which have been proved to arise from cross-fertilization by insect agency.

    Concluding Remarks on Tropical Vegetation.--In concluding this general sketch of the aspect of tropical vegetation we will attempt briefly to summarize its main features. The primeval forests of the equatorial zone are grand and overwhelming by their vastness, and by the display of a force of development and vigour of growth rarely or never witnessed in temperate climates. Among their best distinguishing features are the variety of forms and species which everywhere meet and grow side by side, and the extent to which parasites, epiphytes, and creepers fill up every available station with peculiar modes of life. If the traveller notices a particular species and wishes to find more like it, he may often turn his eyes in vain in every direction. Trees of varied forms, dimensions, and colours are around him, but he rarely sees any one of them repeated. Time after time he goes towards a tree which looks like the one he seeks, but a closer examination proves it to be distinct. He may at length, perhaps, meet with a second specimen half a mile off, or may fail altogether, till on another occasion he stumbles on one by accident.

    The absence of the gregarious or social habit, so [[p. 66]] general in the forests of extra-tropical countries, is probably dependent on the extreme equability and permanence of the climate. Atmospheric conditions are much more important to the growth of plants than any others. Their severest struggle for existence is against climate. As we approach towards regions of polar cold or desert aridity the variety of groups and species regularly diminishes; more and more are unable to sustain the extreme climatal conditions, till at last we find only a few specially organized forms which are able to maintain their existence. In the extreme north, pine or birch trees; in the desert, a few palms and prickly shrubs or aromatic herbs alone survive. In the equable equatorial zone there is no such struggle against climate. Every form of vegetation has become alike adapted to its genial heat and ample moisture, which has probably changed little even throughout geological periods; and the never-ceasing struggle for existence between the various species in the same area has resulted in a nice balance of organic forces, which gives the advantage, now to one, now to another, species, and prevents any one type of vegetation from monopolising territory to the exclusion of the rest. The same general causes have led to the filling up of every place in nature with some specially adapted form. Thus we find a forest of smaller trees adapted to grow in the shade of greater trees. Thus we find every tree supporting numerous other forms of vegetation, and some so crowded with epiphytes of various kinds that their forks and horizontal branches are veritable gardens. Creeping ferns and arums run up the smoothest trunks; an immense variety of climbers hang in tangled masses from the branches and mount over [[p. 67]] the highest tree-tops. Orchids, bromelias, arums, and ferns grow from every boss and crevice, and cover the fallen and decaying trunks with a graceful drapery. Even these parasites have their own parasitical growth, their leaves often supporting an abundance of minute creeping mosses and hepaticæ. But the uniformity of climate which has led to this rich luxuriance and endless variety of vegetation is also the cause of a monotony that in time becomes oppressive. To quote the words of Mr. Belt: "Unknown are the autumn tints, the bright browns and yellows of English woods; much less the crimsons, purples, and yellows of Canada, where the dying foliage rivals, nay, excels, the expiring dolphin in splendour. Unknown the cold sleep of winter; unknown the lovely awakening of vegetation at the first gentle touch of spring. A ceaseless round of ever-active life weaves the fairest scenery of the tropics into one monotonous whole, of which the component parts exhibit in detail untold variety and beauty."3

    To the student of nature the vegetation of the tropics will ever be of surpassing interest, whether for the variety of forms and structures which it presents, for the boundless energy with which the life of plants is therein manifested, or for the help which it gives us in our search after the laws which have determined the production of such infinitely varied organisms. When, for the first time, the traveller wanders in these primeval forests, he can scarcely fail to experience sensations of awe, akin to those excited by the trackless ocean or the alpine snowfields. There is a vastness, a solemnity, a gloom, a sense of solitude and of human insignificance [[p. 68]] which for a time overwhelm him; and it is only when the novelty of these feelings have passed away that he is able to turn his attention to the separate constituents that combine to produce these emotions, and examine the varied and beautiful forms of life which, in inexhaustible profusion, are spread around him.

Notes Appearing in the Original Work

1. See Nature, vol. xvi. p. 349, where the German botanist Pfeffer's theory is given. [[on p. 59]]
2. The Naturalist on the River Amazons, 2nd edit. p. 38. [[on p. 61]]
3. The Naturalist in Nicaragua, p. 58. [[on p. 67]]

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Return to Home