National Geographic : 1947 Jul
Plant Marvels of Madagascar BROWSING through certain "travel" books of a century or more ago, written from hearsay and legend with no personal knowledge of the countries concerned, the reader is likely to stumble upon weird fables such as: "Madagascar, home of the Poison gas-bush; a shrub which exhales so insidiously poisonous a vapor that birds, merely flying through its branches, fall dead." Or, "Mys terious Madagascar, land of the voracious strangler-tree; a tree whose prehensile branches quickly encircle the unwary pas sers-by, holding and crushing them until they die; then the tree slowly proceeds to devour the victims, leaving only bleached and whit ened bones." This yarn keeps bobbing up frequently and only recently I got numerous inquiries, asking if it really were true, for it had been alluded to in a well-known radio program. Naturally, plant explorers long ago ex ploded these wholly untrue myths. Even so, Madagascar does have many vegetable curiosi ties; perhaps nowhere is there a land more full of botanical surprises. Unfortunately, relatively few of them are amenable to gar den culture. FLAMBOYANT or ROYAL POINCIANA (Delonix regia): Being sensitive to frost, this magnificent flowering tree is mainly a plant of the Tropics; yet it is commonly found in gardens, parks, and along the streets in the southern parts of Florida and California. Fortunate, indeed, are those who can grow it in their gardens. Some years ago when I lived in Haiti there was an old Flamboyant beside the house, a gnarled relic of French colonial days. Seemingly overnight its contorted and mostly bare branches burst into what looked like scarlet-orange flame. One day as I stood there looking up in wonder at the sheer magnificence of the scene, a flock of small birds came tumbling out of the sky and settled for a while among the gorgeous flowers. It was early spring, and I recognized them as warblers hurrying north ward by way of the island steppingstones of the Caribbean from their winter homes in the South American jungles. After a pause to catch their breath, as well as a good meal of insects, the warblers flew on toward their nesting places in the cool forests of New Eng land and Canada. The old Flamboyant stayed behind, as it had for countless other spring times, nodding its head drowsily in the Hai tian sun, almost as if it were dreaming of its real home on the faraway, hot plains of Mada gascar. CROWN-OF-THORNS (Euphorbia Milii; E. splendens of florists): This species is grown as a pot-plant in our homes in winter, to be set outside in the summer months. In our southern gardens, where protection from frost is assured, it takes its place with other decora tive, sun-loving plants. The gray spiny stems with their few green leaves would be interest ing of themselves, but the pert scarlet or orange-crimson "flowers" are the real attrac tion. The word "flowers" must be used with caution in this group of plants, for, like all Euphorbias, the objects which look like petals are bracts, in reality highly modified and some times gaudily colored leaves surrounding the real flowers. We shall meet another Euphorbia with an even more showy display of these petal-like leaves when we come to the Mexican Poinsettia (pages 56, 57). The Crown-of-Thorns has long been asso ciated with an interesting legend, for, as its common name implies, it is supposed to have played a part in the humiliation of Christ just before His crucifixion. With its name and linking tradition we therefore find that artists not infrequently include this plant when depicting scenes of Biblical times. Although the plant is found today in gardens in the Holy Land, there are excellent reasons to suppose that it was not present there 1,900 years ago. Such botanically unwary artists also are fond of including pictures of cacti when paint ing the rough and thorny paths trod by the saints and prophets of old. The cacti are wholly American and, like the Crown-of Thorns from Madagascar, were introduced into gardens. Finding the climate suitable there, they since have escaped from cultiva tion and now are well established in parts of Palestine, appearing to be parts of the native flora. TRAVELERS-TREE (Ravenala madagasca riensis): Because of its curious appearance and remarkable two-ranked leaves, the Travel ers-Tree is grown in many of our frost-free gardens. It is a close relative of the Stre litzias, a species of which appears in one of the African pictures of this series (page 33). Unfortunately, the flowers of the Travelers Tree are not so showy as those of its relative. The common name of this plant is suggestive of its use, for, if one will bore a hole through a leaf-base near its juncture with the stem, up to a pint of reasonably good drinking water will come welling out. The Flamboyant, the Crown-of-Thorns, and now the Travelers-Tree -truly an exotic trio from faraway Mada gascar, land of botanical surprises!