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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 32.djvu/53

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43
FOOD AND FIBER PLANTS OF THE INDIANS.

the country people. It is the well-known Amole, or soap-plant. It rises from a subterranean bulb, which is egg-shaped in form, two or three inches in diameter, and enveloped in a thick coating of black, matted, hair-like fibers. This bulb has the detergent properties of soap, cleaning the hands or clothing quite as well as and much more pleasantly than the coarser kinds of soap.

In Mexico and our Southwestern Territories there are several other soap-plants, of which the narrow-leaved yucca (Y. angustifolia) is the most famous, because of its wider distribution rather than its greater efficiency. Aside from baser uses it is generally employed by the Mexican women to wash their luxuriant and lustrous hair, of which the beauty is said to be largely due to this practice. The leaf pulp and the roots of the larger yucca (Y. baccata) have the same properties though to a less degree; but the most effective soap-plant of this region is the lechuguilla, of which the parenchyma of the leaves is thought by the inhabitants of the country where it grows to be better than the best soap for washing, and it is claimed that this portion of the leaf if dried and powdered may be made as useful an article of export as the fibers.

Still another and very different soap-plant is found in Texas and Mexico, the (soap-berry) Sapindus marginatus (Wild.). This is a tree twenty or thirty feet in height, which bears a multitude of whitish berries as large as small cherries, and which have a very mild and yet efficient detergent property.

Berries.—The Indians are great berry-eaters. During the summer the huckleberries, strawberries, blackberries, etc., contributed largely to the subsistence of the Indians who formerly lived in the Mississippi Valley and the Eastern States; and when the white population increased, and villages and towns came near enough to offer markets, the women depended largely upon their baskets of berries for the purchase of the muslin, calico, blankets, and trinkets that soon became necessary for their happiness.

In the Far West berries are a much more important element in the commissary of the Indians, probably because they are produced there in an abundance and variety unknown in any other part of the world. The service-berry (Amelanchier Canadensis) grows throughout nearly the entire wooded region west of the Mississippi, not as a tree, but as a shrub, which forms tufts or thickets that in some regions become storehouses of delicious food. The berry is black when ripe, ovoid in form, and often half an inch in length. It is very sweet, palatable, and nutritious, and no one need starve or suffer from hunger where it is plentiful. In places it covers mountain-slopes continuously for miles, and I have there seen thousands of acres thickly set with bushes six or eight feet high, fairly bending under the weight of fruit, which was drying up and decaying because there seemed neither insect, bird, animal, nor man to eat it.