Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/212

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

on marked fleshy hummocks, and the short stout end spine is not continued down the border as it is in some species. Perhaps even commoner than the typical form are one with bright yellow stripes down the sides of the leaves, and another with rather faint yellow lines distributed over the surface; and a still finer but much less common variety has a broad stripe of yellow down the center of the leaf. Among the cultivated variegated century plants one yellow-margined form, with the green parts of a darker shade and the end spine long and slender, has been distinguished for half a century under the name A. picta; but, as with the variegated forms of A. Americana, nothing is known as to its source or the first date of its appearance. Like the unvariegated form, these yellow-margined plants are now becoming established along the Italian Riviera.

When the American aloe, as it has often been called, was a novelty in Europe, its flowering was one of the wonders of the world. Not only did its size and form and the great age reached by some plants before flowering excite interest, but odd rumors seem to have gone abroad concerning its behavior. One of these gives indirect evidence of the long persistence of a colloquial expression familiar to most of us to-day, for Philip Miller, nearly two hundred years ago, gravely assured the British public that the flowers of this plant do not really open with a report like that of firing a gun, the then prevalent impression that they do so probably coming from a misinterpretation of somebody's statement that the flowering of a century plant 'made a great noise,' The phenomenon has now become so common as to attract no attention about the Mediterranean region, on the Channel Islands, and in the warmer parts of our own country, where the plants grow out of doors and flower when they are ten or fifteen years old; but it is still a matter of much interest in the colder countries where they require the protection of glass houses and develop slowly enough to suggest, if not quite to justify, their popular name.

The century plant shares with or even surpasses the true bamboo in its reputation of offering most of the necessities of human life. Food, drink, clothing, building material, forage, military barricades, razor-strops with soap and brush, medicine, pins, needles, paper, glue and a red coloring matter are said to be afforded by it.

It is true that most of the indicated uses may be made of it, but as a matter of fact the real century plant is very little used except for ornament or as a hedge plant, though its leaf fiber is firm, fine and white and used to a limited extent for the better class of cordage or for a stiff thread peculiarly adapted to some of the ornamental lacework of the Azores and Mediterranean countries. Nearly all its reputed uses actually refer to different if sometimes superficially similar plants which have been mistaken for it, and the literature of 'Agave Americana' is chaotic enough to tax the patience of even a botanist.