National Geographic : 1947 Jul
From Tropical Southeastern Asia MANY evidences point to the conclusion that man has lived in southeastern tropical Asia for a very long time. In the jungles of Cambodia, Burma, and elsewhere are ruins of ancient temples, indicating a once great civilization. Yet even before these tem ples were built, the peoples of southeastern Asia and adjacent island areas had been culti vating plants for thousands of years. Since it is a trial-and-error affair, it is im possible to estimate the length of time neces sary for a primitive people to find and domes ticate the plants necessary to support a civili zation. Yet when history first opens on these peoples, already they had found and developed such basic food plants as rice, sugar cane, various beans, the egg-plant, cucumber, taro, yam (the true yam, not the sweet potato), plantain, and coconut. And for fruits they had such things as the banana, pomelo (the an cestor of our grapefruit), and mango. On the opposite page are three highly ornamental plants, all of which seem to have been asso ciated with the peoples of southeastern Asia first as foods. EAST INDIAN LOTUS-(Nelumbium Ne lumbo): This majestic water-lily goes under many erroneous names in garden catalogues, one of the most frequent being "Egyptian Lotus." The real Egyptian Lotus is a different plant, with large floating leaves; botanically, this native African water-lily is a species of Nymphaea. Furthermore, even this plant is wrongly named, for the fruits supposed to have been eaten by the L6tophagoi, or Lotus-Eaters of Greek legend, did not come from the "Egyptian Lotus" but from a shrub appar ently of the Cirenaican coast on the south shore of the Mediterranean. What the origi nal true Lotus might have been is quite an other matter, which need not concern us here. But it does seem rather a pity that we strug gle along with all sorts of silly invented names for this plant (I have seen some really weird ones in catalogues in the last 15 years) when all the time we have had a perfectly good one concealed in its scientific name. For the botanical name Nelumbo was directly derived from its native name in Ceylon. It is doubtful whether the early primitive peoples of southeastern Asia were greatly in terested in the beauty of this flower. They first cultivated the plant as food, and the people there still make considerable culinary use of both the large tuberous rootstocks and the nutlike seeds. The appreciation of the plant for its beauty came only after the rise of the great Asiatic cultures and their interest in the growing of flowers. This plant now grows in Egypt, but seems to have been intro duced there from tropical Asia by the ancient Roman rulers as a food source for the people during famines. HIBISCUS (Hibiscus, several species): The red flower in the upper corner of our picture is Hibiscus Rosa-sinensis, or Rose-of-China, the buds of which are still used in curries and soups. Early travelers found this plant grow ing in the gardens of southern Cathay and other parts of southeastern Asia and prized it for its beauty. Much later the East African Fringed Hibiscus, H. schizopetalus (page 37), was taken to Asia, where these two species became hybridized. Today, in tropical and semitropical regions the offspring of these plants are grown in their original forms, as well as all imaginable hybrid combinations with fluted and crinkled petals. However, those of us who sigh for such colorful plants in our northern gardens need not be discouraged. We have three or four species native in eastern North America which, in their modern garden forms, put on a show possibly even surpassing that of their tropical relatives. Why these completely hardy and brilliantly colored American forms of Hibiscus (called Rosemallow in the trade) are not more often grown is a puzzle. Prob ably if they came from some distant land nurserymen would be unable to keep enough in stock to supply the demand. The other flower peeping into our picture is the Yellow Hibiscus, H. Manihot. This one can be grown from seed and handled as an annual in our gardens; with proper care cer tain selections will produce flowers six to nine inches in diameter. One of the short pods of this species is shown. In the Old World Trop ics there is another very closely related plant which has relatively small flowers and much longer pods. I think that these both once were the same species and that the peoples of southeastern Asia grew the ancestral form in their vegetable gardens. Then, in the dim past, variant strains were selected, one for the size of its flowers, the other for the size of its edible pods. This small-flowered, large-pod ded plant, now classified as Hibiscus escu lentus, is the popular garden vegetable which we grow under the name of Okra or Gumbo. Modern chickens trace back to the wild jungle fowl of this same region, and rice is also native there. Our gumbo-chicken-rice soup is not American in origin; it is a lineal descendant of one of the native dishes of these ancient peoples of southeastern Asia.