Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 22.djvu/680

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

By Professor GRANT ALLEN.

WHEAT ranks by origin as a degenerate and degraded lily. Such in brief is the proposition which this paper sets out to prove, and which the whole course of evolutionary botany tends every day more and more fully to confirm. By thus from the very outset placing clearly before our eyes the goal of our argument, we shall be able the better to understand as we go whither each item of the cumulative evidence is really tending. We must endeavor to start with the simplest forms of the great group of plants to which the cereals and the other grasses belong, and we must try to see by what steps this primitive type gave birth, first to the brilliantly colored lilies, next to the degraded rushes and sedges, and then to the still more degenerate grasses, from one or other of whose richer grains man has finally developed his wheat, his rice, his millet, and his barley. We shall thus trace throughout the whole pedigree of wheat from the time when its ancestors first diverged from the common stock of the lilies and the water-plantains, to the time when savage man found it growing wild among the untilled plains of prehistoric Asia, and took it under his special protection in the little garden-plots around his wattled hut, whence it has gradually altered under his constant selection into the golden grain that now covers half the lowland tilth of Europe and America. There is no page in botanical history more full of genuine romance than this; and there is no page in which the evidence is clearer or more convincing for those who will take the easy trouble to read it aright.

The fixed point from which we start is the primitive and undifferentiated ancestral flowering plant. Into the previous history of the line from which the cereals are ultimately descended, I do not propose here to enter. It must suffice for our present purpose to say dogmatically that the flowering plants as a whole derive their origin from a still earlier flowerless stock, akin in many points to the ferns and the club-mosses, but differing from them in the relatively important part borne in its economy by the mechanism for cross-fertilization. The earliest flowering plant of the great monocotyledonous division (the only one with which we shall here have anything to do) started apparently by possessing a very simple and inconspicuous blossom, with a central row of three ovaries, surrounded by two or more rows of three stamens each, without any colored petals or other ornamental adjuncts of any sort. I need hardly explain even to the unbotanical reader at the present day that the ovaries contain the embryo seeds, and that they only swell into fertile fruits after they have been duly impregnated by pollen from the stamens, preferably those of another