This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V26", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
The lecturer said water plants were the aristocracy of the vegetable kingdom, if rank is to be measured by antiquity of origin. They were the earliest forms of plant life, and must have commenced their career so far back that all traces of the earliest representatives have been lost. Of this there can hardly be a doubt. In considering the antiquity of their lineage a century or a thousand years would be as nothing, for these plants long antedated all human history and human tradition.
The structure of a plant, as well as its habits, depends upon the place of its growth. In the first place, its seeds, if it produce any, must be capable of enduring prolonged immersion and transportation and often of germinating under water. In the second place, its breathing apparatus must be different from that of land plants, just as the gills and lungs of animals differ to fit them for the particular medium in which they are to act.
There are many water plants which are capable of prodigious multiplication without the agency of seeds. This appears to be a peculiarity which in some of them is very decided, and hints at the remote past when the sexual organs of plants were by no means so perfect as in our present higher species of vegetables. One may almost see a transition from the loose texture of aquatics to the compact tissues of land plants, as the mass of vegetation emerged from the water to live on the land. It is a striking fact that so many of our existing aquatics are endogens, which, on the whole, are lower in the scale than the exogens. Many water plants have two kinds of leaves, i. e., those which remain below the surface, and those which float upon the surface. The former are delicate and thread-like, presenting, in the aggregate, a larger surface to the air in the water, but less resistance to the 'Current; while the latter form an expanded surface, with myriads of breathing pores directed to the sunlight and air. The thread-like immersed leaves are most vivid reminders of those delicate, flowerless water plants whose whole life and growth are completed on production of a single filament.
In passing, one might also remark that the earliest growth which comes from the spore of the moss is often a distinct reminder of the same thread-like water plant, which is a round lower on the ladder of life than the complete moss. This fact calls to mind the parallel law in the development of the higher animals.
The lecturer then alluded to the Sacred Lotus, which is well known to have been an object of veneration among the ancient Egyptians and to have been cultivated by them in the Nile, to have been alluded to repeatedly by the earlier classical writers and even to have given a pattern for some of their architecture, but which has so completely disappeared from the region that we cannot even yet say with certainty what particular species was the object of so much attention. The very strong probability is that it was the Nelumbium spe-ciosum, which is now not rare in our best artificial lily ponds.
But the lingering uncertainly is one of the striking commentaries on the mutability of even ruling human ideas. Veneration of the Lotus was not confined to Egypt. It was as sacred in India and Japan, and was reverenced by Buddhist and Brahmin alike. To this day it is planted around the Japanese temples, and regarded as sacred. Its tubers and seeds are edible.
There is a Nelumbium (or Lotus) native to this country and known as the " Water Chinquapin," from its edible seeds. For a long time it was considered as identical with the sacred Lotus. Like its relative in Egypt, it appears to have, naturally, a precarious hold in our Northern United States. It still grows luxuriantly in Salem county, New Jersey, but has already disappeared before the inroad of commerce "in the neck," below this city.
Among our less conspicuous water plants, one might class the Floating Heart (Limnanthemum). The popular name indicates the character of the leaves. No more attractive parlor ornament than this can be found. Once in bloom, simply taking a mass of the plant up, and placing it in a dish of water, it will continue to thrive and flower for weeks. It grows abundantly in some of the quiet ponds of New Jersey.
The lecturer called attention to the statements recently made concerning the habits of the Blad-derwort in capturing the spawn and young fish, it being alleged to be the cause of more destruction to the fish than would have been thought possible. The acquisition of this habit by these plants would be an interesting speculative topic. Evidently the progenitors of the plant, existing before the fish, could have had no such diet.
The floating islands of Florida were alluded to, and extracts read from the volume of the late General McCall, "Letters from the Frontier," which gave a vivid description of the singular phenomenon. They were produced by the Water Lettuce (Pistia spathulata). These plants simply floated on the surface and the roots hanging from the under side became entangled with each other, thus uniting acres into a mass which was driven hither and thither by the wind. In time a coating of vegetable matter was produced by decay, and out of this grew still different plants.
Belonging to the Evening Primrose family was a genus known as Trapa. There were several species of it, though none belonged to our flora. The fruit of all the species was edible. It was a dark body, an inch square, with diverging horns from the upper side. It contained a large quantity of starchy matter. Here and there for a long time these nuts have constituted an important article of food. The use of one species dated back to 58 B.C. in Central Europe. It was once in general use from China and India to Equatorial Africa, and thence as far north as England, where it was known as water chestnut, or water caltrops. In Italy they are called Jesuit Chestnuts. At Kashmir another species fed for five months a population of 30,000 souls; and the yearly revenue received from these nuts at Lahore aggregated $60,000. The reason why they were so specifically alluded to was because there were many ponds in our own land where they would grow without further care than planting. And it is fairly a question of public policy whether it does not pay to introduce all plants which would swell the food resources of the nation.
[This is an abstract of one of the Michaux Lectures, prepared for the Public Ledger of Philadelphia. - Ed. G. M].