Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 22.djvu/689

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
671
THE PEDIGREE OF WHEAT.

of flowers are combined in each head. From an ancestral form not unlike this, but still more like the wood-rushes, we must get both our sedges and our grasses. And though the sedges themselves do not stand in the direct line of descent to wheat and the other cereals, they are yet so valuable as an illustration from their points of analogy and of difference that we must turn aside for a moment to examine the gradual course of their evolution.

The simplest and most primitive sedges now surviving, though very degenerate in type, yet retain some distinct traces of their derivation from earlier rush-like and lily-like ancestors. In the earliest existing type, known as scirpus, the calyx and petals, which were brightly colored in the lilies, and which were reduced to six brown scales in the rushes, have undergone a further degradation to the form of six small, dry bristles, which now merely remain as rudimentary relics of a once useful and beautiful structure. In some species of scirpus, too, the number of these bristles is reduced from six to four or three. There is still one whorl of three stamens, however; but the second whorl has disappeared; while the pistil now contains only one seed instead of three; though it still retains some trace of the original three cells in the fact that there are three sensitive surfaces, united together at their base into one stalk or style. Each such diminution in the number of seeds is always accompanied by an increase in the effectiveness of those which remain; the difference is just analogous to that between the myriad ill-provided eggs of the cod, whose young fry are for the most part snapped up as soon as hatched, and the two or three eggs of birds, which watch their brood with such tender care, or the single young of cows, horses, and elephants, which guard their calves or foals almost up to the age of full maturity. What the bird or the animal effects by constant feeding with worms or milk, the plant effects by storing its seed with assorted food-stuffs for the sprouting embryo.

In the more advanced or more degenerate sedges we get still further differentiation for the special function of wind-fertilization. Take as an example of these most developed types, on this line of development, the common English group of carices. In these the flowers have absolutely lost all trace of a perianth (that is to say, of the calyx and petals), for they do not possess even the six diminutive bristles which form the last relics of those organs in their allies, the scirpus group. Each flower is either male or female—that is to say, it consists of stamens or ovaries alone. The male flowers are represented by a single scale or bract, inclosing three stamens; and in some species even the stamens are reduced to a pair, so that all trace of the original trinary arrangement is absolutely lost. The female flowers are represented by a single ovary, inclosed in a sort of loose bag, which may perhaps be the final rudiment of a tubular, bell-shaped corolla like that of the hyacinth. This ovary contains a single seed, but its shape is often