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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 44.djvu/502

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488
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

more recently the shorter distance and better fruit have given the advantage to the nearer islands; and now, while New Orleans still draws from the older source, Cuba and Jamaica supply the North almost exclusively; and of these two, Jamaica is the more fertile, yields better fruit, is the more healthful in climate, the more beautiful for scenery, the more agreeable for residence or travel. A visit to the "gem of the Antilles, then," may show us something of the growth and treatment of this fruit which has come to vie with our own apples as a staple article in our dietary.

Like the palms and the grains, the banana plant is one of the "endogenous" plants of the older botanists. Its nearest relatives familiar in our climate are the Cannas, of late much grown, which give to our summer lawns an air so distinguished and so tropical. While broad-leaved, like the Cannas, the banana plant has the treelike aspect of the palms, with a stout, erect, and rounded bole capped by the splendid cluster of spreading leaves. Yet, unlike the palms, it is not truly a tree; for, while the palms, like all trees, have solid, woody trunks, albeit constructed on a plan radically different from that of the woody plants of our own fields, the apparent trunk of the "banana tree" is made up only of the soft, sheathing bases of the leaves. These arise from the true stem, a rounded, fleshy mass at the surface of the ground, from which also the roots descend. The huge leaf-bases, several feet in length, tightly inclose each other and form a compact body as thick as a man's thigh, narrowing upward into short leafstalks, which bear the large though graceful oblong blades. Within this cylinder of leaf-bases is the growing-point, or bud, from which new leaves continue to be pushed forth until the plant is full grown. Each leaf emerges in its turn from the center of the crown of leaves, a beautiful, erect roll, pushing straight upward into the air. Gradually unrolling as it finds room, the blade at last flattens out and bends to one side, and another leaf is added to the crown. Few leaves are more attractive than these young banana leaves in their first freshness of delicate green, of perfect form and grace, and of spotless purity. But with increasing age the color deepens, and the first wind and rain tear the exquisite blade in numberless places between its parallel veins; so that an old leaf becomes finally but two rows of ribbons and tatters, dull or dry, fringing a battered leaf-stalk.

After the last leaf has pushed forth and the foliage crown is complete, there appears from its middle the bud for which all the previous activity of the plant has been but the preparation. It emerges as a lanceolate mass borne on a rapidly lengthening stalk. The compact bud may be seen to be composed of close-set purple bracts of fleshy, leaflike texture, tightly overlapping. After a time the outer bract is raised from the underlying ones