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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/April 1896/Tropical Fruit Trees


ALTHOUGH the fruits of the tropics seldom ripen in temperate climates, the trees are often cultivated merely for the beauty of their foliage; so that it may prove of interest to become further acquainted with their general appearance and uses in their far-off native habitats.

The beautiful date palm is indigenous to Africa and Asia, though flourishing in all hot countries. There are said to be nearly a thousand species, the most vigorous specimens reaching the height of eighty feet and living for two hundred years. Each tree yields from one hundred and sixty to two hundred pounds of fruit in a single season, some of the clusters weighing nearly forty pounds. It is propagated by suckers from the root, whence its name of "Phoenix," and bears its first crop when about eight years of age.

No less than three hundred and sixty uses are claimed for this invaluable tree. The trunk furnishes timber for furniture and house-building as well as fuel, cooking utensils, and bows and arrows; the roots are utilized for fencing and roofing, and the fiber is woven into mats, fishnets, ropes, baskets, and articles of clothing. Among the natives of the Orient the nutritious fruit is the principal food for nearly the entire year, and, pounded into solid cakes, is carried by Arabs journeying over the scorching desert, the stones being used as fodder for the camels. Roasted and ground, the kernels make a fair substitute for coffee, and are also valued on account of their oil.

These trees are sometimes known as the "palms of victory," as the large, frondlike leaves are supposed to be identical with those that were strewn before the Saviour on his entry into Jerusalem, and that were borne with songs of rejoicing before ancient conquerors returning from their triumphs on the battlefield; while on Palm Sunday and at the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles they are highly prized as church decorations. In some varieties the flower-spathes yield a large quantity of sweet sap, which upon evaporation becomes "date sugar," this being fermented into an intoxicant called "arrack." The terminal bud or "cabbage" is considered a great delicacy, and is boiled and eaten like a vegetable.

Another well-known fruit tree of the tropics is the graceful Musa, or banana, a relative of the plantain. The rapidly growing suckers are productive at any season of the year, in a period of from nine to eighteen months, according to the altitude, the tree dying after ripening several bunches, some of which weigh nearly eighty pounds. Many of the large, handsome leaves—usually torn to fringes by the trade winds—measure ten feet in length by two

PSM V48 D834 Banana tree.jpg
Banana Tree.

feet in breadth, their uppermost crests waving twenty feet above the ground.

From the fibrous petioles or leaf stalks is manufactured a fine, white flax, which is woven into delicate muslins, or, when in a half-finished state, is used for tinder or wadding; while one variety in the Philippine Islands furnishes the well-known Manilla hemp.

Green bananas are sometimes dried and ground into meal or flour, which is baked or fried in cakes. So common is this fruit in the tropics that a huge cluster may be purchased for the trifling sum of twenty-five cents, and a generous bunch always hangs in the hallway or on the veranda of the hospitable planter's home.

Tradition claims that plantains flourished in the Garden of Eden, together with the "tree of life" and "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." They are larger and more succulent than bananas, and are used for almost the same purposes. Like the

PSM V48 D835 Breadfruit tree.jpg
Breadfruit Tree.

date-palm and the cocoanut tree, the "cabbage" of this plant is a favorite article of diet.

The breadfruit, or Artocarpus, is a native of the Indian Archipelago and the islands of the Pacific. It attains an elevation of about fifty feet, and grows wild in the forests. The leaves are large, glossy, and deeply pinnated, like the fronds of a fern, and the fruit resembles a muskmelon—the edible interior being of the

PSM V48 D836 Mango tree from the hawaiian islands.jpg
Lower Part of Mango Tree. Hawaiian Islands.

consistence of newly baked bread, and tasting like batter-pudding or boiled milk and potatoes. It is sometimes fried in slices, and served with meat as a side dish, or eaten with milk and sugar; but the usual mode of preparation is to bake the unripe quartered portions in rude ovens of heated stones, arranged in layers with earth and leaves, on the same principle as scalloped oysters. As there are many varieties, ripening at different seasons of the year, the supply is practically inexhaustible. Some kinds yield valuable timber, and from the inner bark of other species the natives manufacture clothing.

The "Jack-fruit"—a South Sea representative—is long and gourdlike, and weighs from twenty to sixty pounds. Although most of the crop is borne on the boughs, in the usual manner, some of the fruit grows directly on the bare trunk, a foot or two from the ground, presenting a very singular appearance. It ripens numerous seeds, which are considered very nutritious, and are eaten like chestnuts.

An Indian tree of great beauty and interest is the tamarind, with its thick, lofty trunk, wide-spreading branches, and clusters of purplish or yellowish flowers. So fine and light is the foliage that the Koran doomed lost souls in hell to have their thirst quenched only once in a thousand years with as much water as could be held in a single leaflet. The long, narrow pods contain citric and tartaric acid, sugar, and potash, and are imported in large quantities from the East and West Indies, to be utilized in various economies.

The fruit of the curious papaya, sometimes called the papaw, suggests a pumpkin in taste and general appearance, and a score or more are attached in a mass to the naked stem, immediately beneath the crest of leaves. As they contain a large PSM V48 D837 Ohias or mountain apples.jpgOhias, or Mountain Apples. amount of pepsin, they are widely used medicinally; and tough meat, wrapped for a couple of hours in one of the leaves, becomes exceedingly tender, and in time almost rotten.

There are numerous kinds of guavas, the best being the red and the white species, which are famous for their jelly-making possibilities. The fruit is about the size of a small apple, and is obtainable at nearly every season of the year.

The mango came originally from Hindostan, and is a magnificent shade tree, forty feet high, with leaves something like those of a peach tree, and quantities of juicy yellow plummets, suspended from the branches by very long, slender stems. Some wild varieties have an unpleasant taste of turpentine, but the better-flavored sorts are manufactured, when in an unripe state, into preserves and pickles for exportation.

The shining emerald leaves and the pretty scarlet flowers of the pomegranate (Punica granatum) are familiar to nearly every one who owns a garden or frequents a city park. The fruit of this plant was mentioned by Moses as one of the attractions of the Promised Land; and he was commanded to make golden pomegranates and their blossoms alternately on the hem of the ephod; while four hundred specimens of these curious globes

PSM V48 D838 Ohelo or hawaiian huckleberry.jpg
Ohelo, or Hawaiian Huckleberry.

were wreathed around the capitals of the two brass pillars of King Solomon's temple.

Various parts of this shrub were used by the ancients for medicine, and the bitter juice furnished a light but indelible blue stain.

The ohia, or Malay apple, is a common timber tree of the Hawaiian Islands, though not peculiar to that locality. On the Island of Maui is a mammoth orchard of wild ohias, extending from the sea to the mountains, and measuring twenty miles in length by from five to ten miles in width. The trees are from forty to fifty feet in height, some of the largest yielding nearly

PSM V48 D839 Avocado or alligator pear.jpg
Avocado, or Alligator Pear.

fifty pounds of fruit, the total crop being said to be sufficient to fill a fleet of one hundred steamers. The beautiful crimson or white apples, however, are unfit for transportation, as they last but a short time in a good condition.

Near the Volcano House on the island of Hawaii are great thickets of the ohelo, or Hawaiian huckleberry {Vaccinium reticulatum), which, the natives consider sacred to Pele, the goddess who is supposed to preside over the famous crater of Kilauea; and which, together with white pigs and chickens, are thrown by them into the boiling red lake during an eruption, to appease the wrath of the aggressive dame, and thus cause the rivers of lava to cease flowing on their destructive course.

These berries grow in clusters on low bushes right on the very brink of the brimstone beds, and are so numerous that a bushel may be easily gathered in half an hour. In appearance they somewhat resemble a cranberry, and the flavor is pleasantly suggestive of grapes.

Space forbids more than passing mention of many other fruit trees of the tropics—such as the avocado, or alligator pear, tasting like our ordinary salad; the curious pineapple, with its cactuslike leaves; the mandarin orange, glowing brightly against its deep-green foliage; the cherimoya, or custard apple; the lime, the lemon, and the Japanese loquat—though they are all of great beauty and extended usefulness.