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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 32.djvu/47

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37
FOOD AND FIBER PLANTS OF THE INDIANS.

Fruit of the Cactus.—The prickly pears which grow on so many species of cactus, differ very much among themselves, but quite a large number are edible. The fruit of the giant cactus (Cereus giganteus) is in size, consistence, and flavor, somewhat like a fig. The plant sometimes grows to fifty feet in height, and flowers near the summit, and since it can not be climbed on account of the spines by which the trunk is thickly set, it is a matter of no little difficulty to get at the fruit when it ripens. The Indians beat it off with stones, if any chance to be near, and sometimes shoot it off with arrows.

The fruit of many other species of Cereus is eaten and is doubtless nutritious, but the flavor is usually insipid, and, however, attractive it may be, in the "eyes" which are scattered over the surface lurk many minute, sharp, and brittle needles, which will penetrate the tongue and lips, and cause great suffering to any one who bites it rashly. The natives are always careful to wipe or brush off these spines before the fruit is either handled or eaten.

The Opuntias (palmate cactus) include a great number of species differing considerably in size and habit. As among the other kinds of cactus, the fruit is usually brilliantly colored, has a smooth and spiny skin, and pulpy interior thickly set with seeds. Though generally somewhat tasteless, and sometimes having a disagreeable flavor, the fruit of certain species is esteemed by the Mexicans and Indians, and one species at least may be said to be cultivated for its fruit. This is the Tuna, the gigantic Opuntia of Chihuahua and Sonora. Around the old missions may be seen many of these plants, some of which are so large that the fruit is gathered by the help of ladders! Among all the prickly pears, however, the fruit of the strawberry cactus (Cereus stramineus) is the most delicious. It is ovoid in form, as large as the largest strawberry, of similar color and even finer flavor. It grows sparingly in New Mexico and Chihuahua, and the fruit is eagerly sought by men, birds, and insects; so that, being a shy bearer, the supply is decidedly behind the demand.

Dr. V. Harvard, United States Army, who has given us much interesting information in regard to the botany of the region bordering the Rio Grande, mentions several other species of cactus, of which the fruits are edible, viz., Cereus dasyacanthus, (Eng.), fruit sub-globose one inch in diameter, green or greenish-purple, when fully ripe delicious to eat, much like a gooseberry; and Echinocactus longehamatus, fruit one to two inches long, red, and as delicious as that of the strawberry cactus. Of these I have collected the plants, but have never seen the mature fruit.

Nuphar polysepala (Western water-lily). In Oregon our yellow water-lily (Nuphar advena) is represented by a species which resembles it in flower, leaf, and habit, but differs from it in having a larger number of sepals. The seed-pod is also larger, often having the size and form of an egg, and being filled with seeds which are not unlike