Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/April 1882/Hyacinth-Bulbs


By Professor GRANT ALLEN.

IF we were not so familiar with the fact, we would think there were few queerer things in nature than the mode of growth followed by this sprouting hyacinth-bulb on my mantel-piece here. It is simply stuck in a glass stand filled with water, and there, with little aid from light or sunshine, it goes through its whole development like a piece of organic clock-work, as it is, running down slowly in its own appointed course. For a bulb does not grow as an ordinary plant grows, solely by means of carbon derived from the air under the influence of sun-light. What we call its growth we ought rather to call its unfolding. It contains within itself everything that is necessary for its own vital processes. Even if I were to cover it up entirely, or put it in a warm, dark room, it would sprout and unfold itself in exactly the same way as it does here in the diffused light of my study. The leaves, it is true, would be blanched and almost colorless, but the flowers would be just as brilliantly blue as these which are now scenting the whole room with their delicious fragrance. The question is, then, how can the hyacinth thus live and grow without the apparent aid of sunlight, on which all vegetation is ultimately based?

Of course, an ordinary plant, as everybody knows, derives all its energy or motive-power from the sun. The green leaf is the organ upon which the rays act. In its cells the waves of light propagated from the sun fall upon the carbonic acid which the leaves drink in from the air, and, by their disintegrating power, liberate the oxygen while setting free the carbon, to form the fuel and food-stuff of the plant. Side by side with this operation the plant performs another, by building up the carbon thus obtained into new combinations with the hydrogen obtained from its watery sap. From these two elements the chief constituents of the vegetable tissues are made up. Now, the fact that they have been freed from the oxygen with which they are generally combined gives them energy, as the physicists call it, and, when they recombine with oxygen, this energy is again given out as heat, or motion. In burning a piece of wood or a lump of coal, we are simply causing the oxygen to recombine with these energetic vegetable substances, and the result is, that we get once more the carbonic acid and water with which we started. But we all know that such burning yields not only heat, but also visible motion. This motion is clearly seen even in the draught of an ordinary chimney, and may be much more distinctly recognized in such a machine as the steam engine.

At first sight, all this seems to have very little connection with hyacinth-bulbs. Yet, if we look a little deeper into the question, we shall see that a bulb and an engine have really a great many points in common. Let us glance first at a somewhat simpler case, that of a seed, such as a pea or a grain of wheat. Here we have a little sack of starches and albumen laid up as nutriment for a sprouting plantlet. These rich food-stuffs were elaborated in the leaves of the parent pea, or in the tall haulms of the growing corn. They were carried by the sap into the ripening fruit, and there, through one of those bits of vital mechanism which we do not yet completely understand, they were selected and laid by in the young seed. When the pea or the grain of wheat begins to germinate, under the influence of warmth and moisture, a very slow combustion really takes place. Oxygen from the air combines gradually with the food-stuffs or fuels—call them which you will—contained in the seed. Thus heat is evolved, which in some cases can be easily measured with a thermometer, and felt by the naked hand—as, for example, in the malting of barley. At the same time motion is produced; and this motion, taking place in certain regular directions, results in what we call the growth of a young plant. In different seeds this growth takes different forms, but in all alike the central mechanical principle is the same: certain cells are raised visibly above the surface of the earth, and the motive power which so raised them is the energy set free by the combination of oxygen with their starches and albumens. Of course, here, too, carbonic acid and water are the final products of the slow combustion. The whole process is closely akin to the hatching of an egg into a living chicken. But, as soon as the young plant has used up all the material laid by for it by its mother, it is compelled to feed itself just as much as the chicken when it emerges from the shell. The plant does this by unfolding its leaves to the sunlight, and so begins to assimilate fresh compounds of hydrogen and carbon on its own account.

Now, it makes a great deal of difference to a sprouting seed whether it is well or ill provided with such stored-up food-stuffs. Some very small seeds have hardly any provisions to go on upon; and the seedlings of these, of course, must wither up and die if they do not catch the sunlight as soon as they have first unfolded their tiny leaflets; but other wiser plants have learned by experience to lay by plenty of starches, oils, or other useful materials in their seeds; and, wherever such a tendency has once faintly appeared, it has given such an advantage to the species where it occurred that it has been increased and developed from generation to generation through natural selection. Now, what such plants do for their offspring, the hyacinth and many others like it do for themselves. The lily family, at least in the temperate regions, seldom grows into a tree-like form; but many of them have acquired a habit which enables them to live on almost as well as trees from season to season, though their leaves die down completely with each recurring winter. If you cut open a hyacinth-bulb, or, what is simpler to experiment upon, an onion, you will find that it consists of several short abortive leaves, or thick fleshy scales. In these subterranean leaves the plant stores up the food-stuffs elaborated by its green portions during the summer; and there they lie the whole winter through, ready to send up a flowering stem early in the succeeding spring. The material in the old bulb is used in thus producing leaves and blossoms at the beginning of the second or third season; but fresh bulbs grow out anew from its side, and in these the plant once more stores up fresh material for the succeeding year's growth.

The hyacinths which we keep in glasses on our mantel-pieces represent such a reserve of three or four years' accumulation. They have purposely been prevented from flowering, in order to make them produce finer trusses of bloom when they are at length permitted to follow their own free-will. Thus the bulb contains material enough to send up leaves and blossoms from its own resources; and it will do so even if grown entirely in the dark. In that case the leaves will be pale yellow or faintly greenish, because the true green pigment, which is the active agent of digestion, can only be produced under the influence of light; whereas, the flowers will retain their proper color, because their pigment is always due to oxidation alone, and is but little dependent upon the rays of sunshine. Even if grown in an ordinary room, away from the window, the leaves seldom assume their proper deep tone of full green; they are mainly dependent on the food-stuffs laid by in the bulb, and do but little active work on their own account. After the hyacinth has flowered, the bulb is reduced to an empty and flaccid mass of watery brown scales.

Among all the lily kind, such devices for storing up useful material, either in bulbs or in the very similar organs known as corms, are extremely common. As a consequence, many of them produce unusually large and showy flowers. Even among our native English lilies we can boast of such beautiful blossoms as the fritillary, the wild hyacinth, the meadow-saffron, and the two pretty squills; while in our gardens the tiger-lilies, tulips, tuberoses, and many others belong to the same handsome bulbous group. Closely-allied families give us the bulb-bearing narcissus, daffodil, snow-drop, amaryllis, and Guernsey lily; the crocus, gladiolus, iris, and corn-flag; while the neighboring tribe of orchids, most of which have tubers, probably produce more ornamental flowers than any other family of plants in the whole world. Among a widely-different group we get other herbs which lay by rich stores of starch, or similar nutritious substances, in thickened under-ground branches, known as tubers; such, for example, are the potato and the Jerusalem artichoke. Sometimes the root itself is the store-house for the accumulated food-stuffs, as in the dahlia, the carrot, the radish, and the turnip. In all these cases, the plant obviously derives benefit from the habit which it has acquired of hiding away its reserve fund beneath the ground, where it is much less likely to be discovered and eaten by its animal foes. For it is obvious that these special reservoirs of energetic material, which the plant intends as food for its own flower or for its future offspring, are exactly those parts which animals will be likely unfairly to appropriate to their personal use. What feeds a plant will feed a squirrel, a mouse, a pig, or a man, just as well. Each requires just the same free elements, whose combination with oxygen may yield it heat and movement. Thus it happens that the parts of plants which we human beings mainly use as food-stuffs are just the organs where starch has been laid by for the plant's own domestic economy—seeds, as in the pea, bean, wheat, maize, barley, rice, or millet; tubers, as in the potato and Jerusalem artichoke; corns, as in the yam or tare; and roots, as in arrow-root, turnip, parsnip and carrot. In all these, and in many other cases, the habit first set up by Nature has been sedulously encouraged and increased by man's deliberate selection. What man thus consciously effects in a few generations, the survival of the fittest has unconsciously effected through many long previous ages of native development.—Knowledge.