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A Desert Fruit
by [?]

Desert plants naturally carry this tendency to its highest point of development. Nowhere else is the struggle for life so fierce; nowhere else is the enemy so goaded by hunger and thirst to desperate measures. It is a place for internecine warfare Hence, all desert plants are quite absurdly prickly. The starving herbivores will attack and devour under such circumstances even thorny weeds, which tear or sting their tender tongues and palates, but which supply them at least with a little food and moisture: so the plants are compelled in turn to take almost extravagant precautions. Sometimes the leaves end in a stout dagger-like point, as with the agave, or so-called American aloe; sometimes they are reduced to mere prickles or bundles of needle-like spikes; sometimes they are suppressed altogether, and the work of defence is undertaken in their stead by irritating hairs intermixed with caltrops of spines pointing outward from a common centre in every direction. When one remembers how delicately sensitive are the tender noses of most browsing herbivores, one can realize what an excellent mode of defence these irritating hairs must naturally constitute. I have seen cows in Jamaica almost maddened by their stings, and even savage bulls will think twice in their rage before they attempt to make their way through the serried spears of a dense cactus hedge. To put it briefly, plants have survived under very arid or sandy conditions precisely in proportion as they displayed this tendency towards the production of thorns, spines, bristles, and prickles.

It is a marked characteristic of the cactus tribe to be very tenacious of life, and when hacked to pieces, to spring afresh in full vigour from every scrap or fragment. True vegetable hydras, when you cut down one, ten spring in its place: every separate morsel of the thick and succulent stem has the power of growing anew into a separate cactus. Surprising as this peculiarity seems at first sight, it is only a special desert modification of a faculty possessed in a less degree by almost all plants and by many animals. If you cut off the end of a rose branch and stick it in the ground under suitable conditions, it grows into a rose tree. If you take cuttings of scarlet geraniums or common verbenas, and pot them in moist soil, they bud out apace into new plants like their parents. Certain special types can even be propagated from fragments of the leaf; for example, there is a particularly vivacious begonia off which you may snap a corner of one blade, and hang it up by a string from a peg or the ceiling, when, hi, presto! little begonia plants begin to bud out incontinently on every side from its edges. A certain German professor went even further than that; he chopped up a liverwort very fine into vegetable mincemeat, which he then spread thin over a saucerful of moist sand, and lo! in a few days the whole surface of the mess was covered with a perfect forest of sprouting little liverworts. Roughly speaking, one may say that every fragment of every organism has in it the power to rebuild in its entirety another organism like the one of which it once formed a component element.

Similarly with animals. Cut off a lizard’s tail, and straightway a new tail grows in its place with surprising promptitude. Cut off a lobster’s claw, and in a very few weeks that lobster is walking about airily on his native rocks, with two claws as usual. True, in these cases the tail and the claw don’t bud out in turn into a new lizard or a new lobster. But that is a penalty the higher organisms have to pay for their extreme complexity. They have lost that plasticity, that freedom of growth, which characterizes the simpler and more primitive forms of life; in their case the power of producing fresh organisms entire from a single fragment, once diffused equally over the whole body, is now confined to certain specialized cells which, in their developed form, we know as seeds or eggs. Yet, even among animals, at a low stage of development, this original power of reproducing the whole from a single part remains inherent in the organism; for you may chop up a fresh-water hydra into a hundred little bits, and every bit will be capable of growing afresh into a complete hydra.