This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V23", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
The whole history of the vegetable kingdom from its inception to the appearance of man seems to have been one of preparation. It was a course of gradual development from the lowest and most simple forms of vegetable organisms, up through a regular ascending scale, to the most perfect and complex forms of the present time. At just what stage of geological history vegetable life was introduced, is not very definitely determined. It is now thought that this introduction must be placed back in the times of the Laurentian rocks that have until quite recently been considered nonfossiliferous. This opinion is based on the fact that these rocks are composed, in part, of extensive beds of limestone, which contain large quantities of carbon. This carbon, it is reasonable to suppose, was originally taken from the atmosphere, and "fixed" or consolidated by the action of plant life. It is at the beginning of the Lower Silurian rocks that we find the first undoubted appearance of vegetable remains These are all Thallogens, flowerless plants lacking proper stems and leaves. To this class belong all the algae or sea weeds. Towards the close of the Silurian age appears a higher order of plants -the Acrogens - having both stems and leaves, but having no true flowers.
These include ferns, club-mosses and other spore bearing plants. In the next, or Devonian age, there existed enormous ferns, lycopodiums, tree-rushes growing over twenty feet high, and lepidodendron. Here also we have to note the first appearance of a still higher class of plants, the Gymnogens, or cone-bearing trees. That there had existed, previous to their appearance, plants that bore some general resemblance to our pines is doubtless true, but that these conifers were derived from more ancient forms by "descent with modification," does not seem to rest on any basis of proof. The fact, too, that from this period we find the two great divisions of plants - Acrogens and Gymnogens - running a parallel course, when, in fact, the one should precede and the other follow, as ancestor and descendant, makes it a little awkward for evolution. It was, however, in the next, or Carboniferous age, that these plants had their most wonderful development. Extensive forests of dense growth covered wide districts of low, perhaps marshy country. The world, neither before nor since, has ever borne such a luxuriant vegetation as during the formation of our coal deposits.
Tree ferns, twenty feet in height; Lepidodendra, of our club-moss type, from fifty to seventy feet; Sigil-larids, sixty or more feet, and conifers that must have lifted their heads a hundred feet above the soil, with innumerable plants of more humble character, composed these grand forests. During this age also appear monocotyledonous plants - a few palm-like trees (Palmacites), a few datelike fruits (Triganocarpum), and a few grass-like herbs (Poacites). Some idea of the extent and richness of the flora of this age may be gathered when we remember that it required from eight to twelve feet of vegetable matter to make one of coal, and our coal deposits range from an inch or less to more than forty feet in depth, and there are known to be over 260,000 square miles of coal fields in the world. In the next age - the Reptilian age - in addition to ferns and conifers already noticed, we find a family of plants -the Cycads - that seems to stand between these two, being allied to both the ferns and conifers, and resembling stunted palms.
In the later or cretaceous period of this age we first meet with trees that are familiar to us at the present time, among which are the true palms, the oak, willow, beech, sassafras, etc.
The age of Mammals contained great numbers of those just mentioned, and the maple, hickory, mulberry, elm, sycamore, etc, flourished in abundance. During this age the ferns and conifers that had held so conspicuous a position in former ages are found taking an inferior position, while the dicotyledonous division comes to the front as the most important class. We are now approaching the age of man, but before proceeding to speak of those families of plants that seem to have been ushered in almost contemporaneously with man, I wish to call especial attention to one fact concerning the plants that flourished during the former ages. I have spoken of the rank, profuse character of the vegetation that prevailed especially during the age of coal, but it seems that amid all the verdure of these dense forests and herb-covered plains no animal browsed, no flocks or herds were there to graze, indeed scarce an insect was there to bore or cut amid all this luxurious foliage. Though rank and dense, it was sombre and gloomy, and unfit to minister to the wants of ruminant animals. Indeed, it was not till the age of mammals was reached that a flora existed that was calculated to support herbiverous animals.
And some of the most important families of plants, at least so far as animals, and especially man is concerned, do not seem to have appeared till near the time that man took up his abode on earth. According to the best information at hand, the family Roseae did not appear till a short time, geologically speaking, before the advent of man. To this family belong the rose apple, pear, quince, peach, plum, cherry, apricot, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, and other plants of importance to the human family. In the absence of this family, and with nothing else to take its place, we should be left in a destitute condition for fruits that contribute so much to the sustenance and pleasure of life in the temperate regions of the earth. Another family (Gramineae), the true grass family, was introduced so nearly coeval with man that I believe no evidence exists that it had preceded the age in which he appeared. I need but mention that to this family belong all the true grasses and the cereal grains without which we can hardly conceive of the existence of our domestic animals, much less of man, especially in a state of civilization or refinement.
There is still another family, though less important than those that have just been mentioned, but which still contributes much to the happiness of the race. I refer to the mint (Labiate) family, that furnishes so large a share of the perfumes and essences so much used at the toilet, in confections and in medicine. These three families of plants, that seem so essential to the existence of man and the animals on which his well-being depends, all seem to have been ushered in almost simultaneously with man himself.
At no time previous to the age in which he actually appeared was the earth a fit habitation for such a being. The vegetation, though abundant, was not adapted to the wants of such a being. Had he made his advent during the carboniferous or reptilian, or even in the mammalian age, he would have found nothing in the way of vegetables upon which to subsist except a few liliaceous roots and some nuts and dry seeds, that could never have lifted him above the condition of a low, groveling savage. It is an interesting question whether the appearance of man so nearly simultaneously with that class of vegetation on which his well-being so largely depends was a mere coincidence or whether it was the result of some directing intelligence. If the doctrine of evolution is to be accepted, then we are to believe that, starting with the lowest forms of organic beings, development took place in two directions, forming two great branches -the animal and vegetable - and that through all the changes - the starts and stops and retrograde movements - under the operation of mere blind force, without any directing intelligence these two branches should run such an even parallel course that at the very time that the animal branch has culminated in its highest effort and crowning glory, man, the corresponding branch, has just reached its culmination in the perfection of those high specialized types of vegetable organisms upon which his well-being absolutely depends.
Surely a "law" operating simply as a blind force that can produce such wise and beneficent ends is almost worthy of being worshipped. But, after all, does not this hypothesis, for it is nothing else, require a greater demand on one's credulity - a greater strain on his faith, than to believe that at the beginning of man's career an All-wise, beneficent Being "Planted a garden in which was every tree that was pleasant to the eye and good for food," and then placed man in it to dress and to keep it?