Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 22.djvu/694

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world, from the poles to the equator; and they form the general sward or carpet of greenery over by far the larger portion of the terrestrial globe. Even in Britain alone, with our poor little insular flora, a mere fragment of that belonging to the petty European Continent, we number no less than forty-two genera of grasses, distributed into more than one hundred species. In fact, what may fairly be called degradation from one point of view may fairly be called adaptation from another. The organization of the grasses is certainly lower than that of the lilies, but it fits them better for that station of life to which it has pleased Nature to assign them.

The various kinds of grasses differ very little from one another in general plan; the flower in almost all is constructed strictly on the lines above mentioned; and the leaves in almost all are just the same soft, pensile blades, making them into the proper greensward for open, unwooded, wind-swept plains. But, like almost all other very dominant families, they have split up into an immense number of kinds, distinguished from one another by minute differences in the arrangement of the florets and the spikelets; and these kinds have again subdivided into more and more minutely different genera and species. One great group, with panicles of a loose character, and very degraded spikelets, has given origin to many southern grasses, from some of which the cultivated millets are derived. Another great group, with usually more spiky inflorescence, has given origin to most of our northern grasses, from some of which the common cereals are derived. This second group has again split up into several others, of which the important one for our present purpose is that of the Hordeineæ, or barley-worts. From one of the numerous genera into which the primitive Hordeineæ have once more split up, our cultivated barleys take their rise; from another, which here demands further attention, we get our cultivated wheats.

The nearest form to true wheat now found wild in the British Isles is the creeping couch-grass, a perennial closely agreeing in all essential particulars of structure with our cultivated annual wheats. But in the South European region we find in abundance a large series of common wild annual grasses, forming the genus Ægilops of technical botany, and exactly resembling true wheat in every point except the size of the grain. One species of this genus, Ægilops ovata, a small, hard, wiry annual, is now pretty generally recognized among botanists as the parent of our cultivated corn. There was a good reason, indeed, why primitive man, when he first began to select and rudely till a few seeds for his own use, should have specially affected the grass tribe. No other family of plants has seeds richer in starches and glutens, as indeed might naturally be expected from the extreme diminution in the number of seeds to each flower. On the other hand, the flowers on each plant are peculiarly numerous; so that we get the combined advantages of many seeds, and rich seeds, so seldom to be found else-