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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 38.djvu/626

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

the natives b.ave from time immemorial cultivated a number of agaves, until now it is difficult for botanists to decide whether some of them are distinct species or only cultivated varieties.

One of the native species, known as Agave rigida, is a rather small plant, having leaves from two to four feet long, and-as many inches wide. These are armed on the edges with darkbrown spiny teeth, and are terminated by a stout, reddish-brown spine. This seems to be the plant called chelem by the natives of Yucatan, and is the one from which the cultivated varieties are supposed to have originated. These varieties, collectively known as henequen or jenequen, are separately distinguished as the "yaxci, furnishing the best quality, and the sacci, with the largest quantity of fiber; chucumci, larger than the last, produces coarse fiber; and babci has finer fiber, but in smaller quantity."

Of the varieties mentioned above, only two need be considered—the sacci and the yaxci. The former, known as Agave rigida, variety longifolia, is distinguished from the native plant by having much longer, spiny leaves, from four to six feet in length, and slightly different flowers. It is extensively cultivated in Yucatan, and, as already stated, yields the most fiber. The other variety, the yaxci, botanically dignified by the title Agave rigida, variety sisalana, or sometimes even elevated to the rank of a species, is one of the most valuable of the fiber-producing agaves.

The leaves are of a dull-green color, four to six feet long, as many inches wide, and terminated by a stout, dark spine. The margins are commonly described as smooth, as they are without teeth, but in all the plants examined by the writer the leaves were slightly rough on the edges, and in many of the young plants some of the leaves had well-developed teeth. A full-grown plant presents a rather striking appearance, bristling all over with the long, spiny-tipped leaves, thickly radiating from the short cylindrical trunk, which is crowned by a sharp, slender, cone-like bud. Indeed, a large plant makes one think of a gigantic sea-urchin. The leaves as they unfold from the bud slowly assume a horizontal position, but remain rigid and straight, never curving downward, as they do in the century plant.

As has been said above, when the plant arrives at maturity, and has a sufficient store of nourishment, it sends up its flowerstem, known to cultivators as the "mast" or "pole." This is from twenty to twenty-five feet high, and about six inches in diameter near the base. On the upper two thirds branches are developed, converting the pole into a huge panicle, covered with innumerable greenish-yellow flowers. A peculiarity of the sisal plant is that it seldom or never sets a seed. The flowers fall, carrying the ovary with them, then on the ends of the branches