Here to return to
WHEN I called upon my friend the entomologist, a few evenings ago, she informed me that she had passed a very exciting day. While out on her usual insect-collecting expedition, along the bay shore, she had come suddenly upon an unknown plant growing among the mangrove bushes. A glance at the blossom showed that it must belong to the mallow family, and on getting back to the hotel and consulting the manual, she determined it at once as Pavonia racemosa, — “Miami and Key Biscayne.” Every collector knows the pleasure of discovering a plant or other specimen, the known habitat of which is entitled to this kind of exact specification.
“Very good,” said I, when she had finished the story, “I shall go down to-morrow and look at Pavonia racemosa for myself.”
The next afternoon, therefore, saw me at the place; but it appeared that I had not sufficiently attended to my friend’s instructions. At all events, I could find nothing that looked like a Malva. In a country so richly and strangely furnished as this, however, a visitor cannot turn his eyes in any direction without putting them upon something he never saw before; and so it happened that while I hunted vainly for one thing I found another and better; or if it was not better in itself, it was more unexpected and interesting. This was a shrub, or small tree, bearing large, glossy, coriaceous leaves, clustered near the ends of the branches, from which depended long, smooth, pear-shaped or gourd-shaped buds. More careful search revealed a few faded flowers and a large pendent green fruit. And then, ten minutes afterward, as I was starting away, my eyes fell upon a clump of the rare Pavonia.
With that, of course, there was no room for difficulty. I had only to compare the specimen with the printed description, and check the name. But as for the strange shrub, of which I had bud, blossom, fruit, and leaf (what more could a man desire?), with that I was fairly beaten. Even a methodical, schoolboyish use of the “key” was without result. The signs brought me, or seemed to bring me, to the Bignonia family, and there came to nothing.
Happily a professor of botany in one of our great universities had arrived in town within the last twenty-four hours, and after supper I invited him to my room to help me with the puzzle. He set about the work just as I had done, only after a more workmanlike fashion, and him also the key led to the Bignoniaceæ, but no farther. As the common saying is, the trail had “run up a tree.” In short, with all the facts before us, — leaves, buds, blossom, fruit, — we were stumped. “It is some representative of the Bignonia family not included in Chapman’s Flora,” was the professor’s final verdict.
The next forenoon we had agreed to spend together in the big hammock, through which I had been sauntering by myself for the past five weeks. We should pass the Agricultural Experiment Station on the way, and I determined to carry the troublesome specimen along and submit it to the professor in charge. So said, so done; but as we stopped at the post office, there stood the man himself at the door. “What is this?” I asked, scarcely waiting to bid him good-morning. “Crescentia,” he answered promptly, “a plant of the Bignonia family.” So the other professor had been exactly right.
And now for the more dramatic part of the story. The day before — at noon of the day on which I found the plant in question — I received a letter from a Boston friend, himself a university professor of botany, to whom I had written, begging him to quit his desk, like a reasonable man, and join me in this botanical paradise. He replied that he could not come, and furthermore, that he wasn’t so very sorry. New England winter is to him a constant refreshment and exhilaration, it appears. Happy New Englander! “To-day is simply perfect,” he wrote, “and you can’t beat it in Miami.” As to that point I reserve my opinion. “How changed the place must be from what it was when I was there in the ‘80’s,” he continued. “No railroad then within hundreds of miles, and none of your modern improvements. It is a great place for plants. I shan’t forget how delighted I was to find Crescentia cucurbitina in flower. I had searched the whole range of Keys for it in vain.”
This very plant, of the existence of which I had never before heard, I had found, without knowing it, within two hours after receiving my friend’s letter.1
Winter botanizing by newcomers, in a country so foreign as this, where much the greater part of the shrubs and trees are West Indian, with no better help than Chapman’s Flora, is carried on under almost discouraging difficulties. “If we only had the blossoms!” the professor is continually exclaiming. And his pupil responds, “Yes, if we only had!” As it is, we content ourselves with finding out a few things daily, guessing at characters and relationships (no very bad practice, by the way), running down all sorts of clues, real or imaginary, like detectives on the hunt for a murderer, and even asking questions freely of chance passers-by, especially of the numerous class known by the white people hereabout as “Bahama niggers.” They, rather than their pale-faced superiors, seem to be observant of natural things. It is likely, too, that they or their forbears may have brought some traditionary knowledge of such matters from the islands where the plants are more at home. At all events, it is pleasant to notice how ready even the black children are, not only to answer questions, but to ask them as well, about any flowers that one happens to be carrying.
The other day I came suddenly upon a bush, the like of which I had seen and wondered over a hundred times since my arrival in Miami, remarking especially the highly peculiar, almost perpendicular carriage of its innumerable thick, brightly varnished leaves, a device, as the professor had suggested, for protecting them against the vertical rays of the sun. I had never seen either fruit or blossom, but here, on this particular plant, my eye fell upon a few scattered purplish drupes. Now, then, here was something to go upon. Now, possibly, with a sprinkling more of good luck, I might find the name of the bush. I was a mile or two from town, on the road to Alapattah Prairie, where there are many truck farms. A white man came along, one of the “truckers,” driving homeward from the city.
“Do you know what this is?” I inquired, showing him the specimen.
“No, sir,” he answered.
Soon I met another man, and proposed to him the same question, with the same result. A third attempt was no more successful. Then I overtook two colored men talking beside a quarry.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but can you tell me the name of this plant?”
“Yes, sir, it is cocoa plum,” answered one of them; and the other said, “Yes, cocoa plum.”
And so it was; for on referring to the manual I found the bush fully described under that name.
Another experiment in this kind of putting myself to school, it is fair to add, was less in the Bahama colored man’s favor. A tourist whom I happened upon resting beside the hammock road held in his hand two or three twigs, from each of which depended a large, stony, pear-shaped fruit, and seeing me curious about the novelty, he kindly offered me one. This, also, I forthwith carried into the city, stopping passengers by the way — like a natural-historical Socrates — to ask them about it. No one, white or black, could tell me anything till in a fruit shop I questioned a white boy. “It’s a seven-year apple,” he said. “Some foolish local name,” I thought. At all events it could do me no good, since it was not to be found in Chapman’s index. But that evening, on my showing the specimen to the entomologist, and telling her what the boy had said, she replied, “Certainly, that is right. The plant is Genipa, or seven-year apple.” And under the word “Genipa” I found it so spoken of in the Standard Dictionary. There the fruit is said to be edible, which seems to disprove the conjecture of another lady to whom I had shown it, that it derives its name from the fact that it would take an eater seven years to digest it. Apples, like men, are not fairly to be judged in the green state.
I have said that this guessing at characters and relationships is not a bad discipline. And no more is it the worst of fun. Of this I had only two days ago a strikingly happy proof. Everywhere in the hammock there grows a tall tree, noticeable for the peculiar color of its bark and its channeled and often fantastically contorted trunk. The leafy branches are always far overhead (a necessity in so crowded a place), and I had seen the purplish, globular drupes only as they had dropped one by one to the ground. At every opportunity I had made inquiries about the tree, but had received no light, nor, after much searching, had either the professor or myself been able to hit upon so much as a plausible conjecture as to its identity. Well, two days ago, as I say, we were walking together on the outskirts of the city, when we came to a tree of this kind growing in the open, the fruit-bearing branches of which hung within reach. We pulled one of them down, and I exclaimed at once, “Why, this should be related to the sea-grape!” — a most curious West Indian tree (Coccoloba uvifera, a member of the buckwheat family!) which grows freely along the shore of Biscayne Bay. “See the fruit,” said I, “for all the world like a bunch of grapes.” With that we began a detailed examination, and, to make a long story short, the tree proved to be another species of Coccoloba — C. Floridana.
That was pretty good guessing, based as it was on nothing better than an “external character,” as the professor rather slightingly called it. For five weeks my curiosity had been exercised over the puzzle, and in five seconds I had found the needed clue. Who will say that this was not better and more interesting, and withal more instructive, than to have been told the tree’s name on the first day I saw it?___________________
1 And after all this talk about the plant I must in candor add that it turned out to be by no means rare along the bay shore. I think I am not wrong in remembering to have heard it called the calabash tree.