Monday, August 06, 2007

Vegetables...

July, 1852
Godey's Lady's Book
Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Vol XLV Page 24



VEGETABLE PHYSIOLOGY

BY HARLAND COULTAS.



WHEN we examine the various plants around us, and notice their phenomena, we at once see that all are subject to certain fixed and immutable laws, which operate with as much constancy and regularity as the laws governing the motions of the ponderous worlds that roll in the depths of space.

Thus all plants have a definite period of life assigned them, more or less limited, during which time we see them, as it were by successive increments, slowly elaborated out of the earth and atmosphere, arrive at the full perfection of their growth and beauty, reproduce themselves, and then die. With the cessation of life plants become disorganized or chemically decomposed, decay, and disappear, the materials out of which their fabric was constructed being reunited unto other bodies by the influence of that mutual attraction which subsists not only between worlds, but amongst atomic particles of matter, however small.

The law of material attraction may be thus expressed: Matter may attract matter at all distances, from zero to infinity. This attraction takes place with a force varying directly in proportion to its quantity and inversely as the square of the distance. Now when matter collects into masses, as we see it has done in the case of the starry heavens and planetary bodies, the bodies thus mutually attracting each other separate sometimes to distances all but infinite, but according to fixed and determinate laws which may be calculated by the higher mathematics, the distance increasing in the ratio of their respective magnitudes. We call the name of this species of attraction gravity. But when matter retains its elementary condition and exists in the form of those invisible particles called atoms, two or more mutually attracting particles must be brought by the same law infinitely near to each other before they can exercise any mutual influence; and we give the name of chemical affinity to this kind of attraction.

To apply this philosophy to plants. They are the result principally of the atomic or chemical affinity, combined with other agents, and are a beautiful pile of matter borrowed from the atoms in the earth and air, and united together by the operation of natural laws for a little space of time. Fabricated by nature as material for the building up of higher organic forms, they perform their part in the ever-shifting scenery of life. Some of them become incorporated as food into animal bodies; others retain their state as plants, and are the instruments used by nature to extract fertilizing principles from every falling shower and passing breeze, which they impart to the soil on which they finally decay. The end of being accomplished, these beautiful and evanescent forms decay, they become disorganized, the pile of matter falls, and is restored by the influence of secret, invisible affinities to the air and earth from which it was borrowed for a little while.

The period of time during which these phenomena take place varies according to the peculiar organization of each species. Thus plants- whose organization is very simple, as ferns, mosses, and many of our flowering plants, come to perfection, reproduce themselves, and then die, and this all in a single season. In those, however, whose organization is higher, the duration of life is proportionably longer. But the forest tree, lifting its massive stem for centuries to the light of day, has an appointed period to its life as regular as the lowly moss that grows beneath its shade. The duration of these phenomena is alone different. The phenomena themselves are precisely analogous. The growth of the humble moss with its beautiful little reproductive mechanism is only a simpler expression of the same law which operates in the production of the forest tree. A few months, however, suffice to perfect the one, whilst many centuries are required by nature before she can build up the other. It would seem from this that the study of the simple plants ought to take precedence of those whose structure is more complex and intricate. It is these plants which first clothe the surface of the barren rock. They are the first settlers on those new lands which, after unnumbered ages, according to geologists, rise from their parent waves. Successive generations of these plants die, and form by their decay a humus for the growth and nutrition of higher plants.

We will take nature for our guide. We will follow the footsteps of her successive creations. We are satisfied that the plan and structure of her higher organizations may be successfully studied in detail in the humbler. Let us begin at the beginning. How can we possibly comprehend what is intricate when we stumble at what is simple? It is a philosophical as well as scriptural truth that "all flesh is as grass." We depend on plants for the materials of our own growth; the development of our own being is closely connected with that of the vegetable world; and, if we know nothing of wild flowers, how is it possible that we should know anything properly of ourselves? The highly organized body of man can never be thoroughly understood unless the whole series of forms of life beneath him engages his attention.