(C) AFRICAN PLANTS. AFRICA - BOTANY.
Although Africa belongs almost entirely to the torrid and warm zones, its vegetable productions are essentially different in different parts. Thus, in the extreme north, groves of oranges and olives, plains covered with wheat and barley, think woods of evergreen oaks, cork-trees, and sea-pines, intermixed with cypresses, myrtles, arbutus, and fragrant tree-heaths, form the principal features of the landscape. On this northern coast the date-palm is first found; but its fruit does not arrive at perfection, and it is chiefly valued as an ornamental object in gardens. Various kinds of grain are cultivated. Beyond this region of the coast and the Atlas chain, with the borders of the Sahara, commences a new scene. It is in this region, extending to the borders of Soudan, that the date-tree forms the characteristic feature. Being peculiarly adapted to excessive dryness and high temperature, it flourishes where few other plants can maintain an existence. Were it not for the fruit of the invaluable date-tree, the inhabitants of the desert would almost entirely depend on the products of other regions for their subsistence. With the southern boundary of the Sahara, the date-tree disappears, the baobab or monkey bread-tree takes it place, and, under the influence of the tropical rains, a new, rich, and highly-developed flora presents itself. These trees, together with huge cotton-trees, oil-palms, and others of the same majestic tribe, determine the aspect of the landscape. The laburnum expands its branches of golden flower, and replaces the senna of the northern regions, and the swamps are often covered with immense quantities of the papyrus plant. Instead of waving fields of corn, the cassava, yam, pigeon-pea, and the ground-nut, form the farinaceous plants. The papaw, the tamarind, the Senegal custard-apple, and others, replace the vine and the fig. In southern Africa, again, the tropical forms disappear, and in the inland desert-like plains, the fleshy, leafless, contorted, singular tribes of kapsias, of mesembryanthemums, euphorbias, crassulas, aloes, and other succulent plants, make their appearance. Endless species of heaths are there found in great beauty, and the hills and rocks are scattered over with a remarkable tribe of plants called Cycadaceoe. Plants of the protea tribe also add to the extraordinary variety in the vegetable physiognomy of that region.
Of the characteristic African plants, the date-tree is one of the most important, as it is likewise among the nearly one thousand different species of palms. It furnishes, as it were, the bread of the desert, beyond which it occurs only in Western Asia, wherever a similar dry and hot climate prevails. This tree requires a sandy soil, and springs must not be absent. The dates furnish food not only for man, but for the camel and the horse. For the latter purpose the stones are used in many parts, and are said to be more nourishing than the fruit itself. The Arabs make a great variety of dishes of which dates from the chief part. Of the sap of the tree palm-wine is prepared, and the young leaves are eatern like cabbage.
In Southern Africa are the extensive miniature woods of heaths, as characteristic as the groves of date-palms in the north. No less than five hundred species have already been discovered. These plants, of which some reach the height of 12 to 15 feet (Erica urceolaris), are covered throughout the greater part of the year with innumerable flowers of beautiful colours, the red being prevalent.
The papyrus is an aquatic plant, having a stem from 3 to 6 feet high. It inhabits both stagnant waters and running streams, and is common in the countries of the Nile, particularly Egypt and Abyssinia. It soft, smooth flower stem afforded the most ancient material from which paper was prepared, and for this reason it is one of the noticeable African plants. It has, however, also been used for other purposes; its flowering stems and leaves are twisted into ropes; and the roots, which are sweet, are used as food.
See also PAPYRUS.
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Africa - Table of Contents