Here to return to
IF any untraveled Northern botanist wishes to be puzzled, hopelessly confused, clean put out of his reckoning, let him come to Miami. His knowledge will drop away from him till not a rag is left. Let him arrive, as I did, after dark, and in the morning take the road southward to Cocoanut Grove. The distance is only five miles, and the walking excellent. I should like to go with him, and listen to his exclamations and comments.
The cocoanut palms before the hotel, as he leaves the piazza, he. has no need to inquire about; such things he has at least seen in pictures. And the parti-colored crotons, likewise, are nothing new; he has seen the like in hothouses, if nowhere else. And the scores of big, round hibiscus bushes, each with its score or two of regal scarlet blossoms, — these, or poverty-stricken imitations of them, he has admired before now in the Boston Public Garden and elsewhere. The acalypha shrubs, also, he will perhaps recognize upon a second look, though he has never before seen them growing as a hedge, carefully squared, three or four feet high, and as many feet thick. Yonder euphorbia bush, too (Poinsettia), with its flaring, flaming rosettes of scarlet floral leaves at the tips of the stems — this, like the crotons, he is more or less familiar with under glass. All these are cultivated plants, pleasant to look upon out of doors in midwinter, but of themselves not especially interesting, perhaps, to a botanist.
But now, at the foot of Thirteenth or Fourteenth Street, less than a quarter of a mile from the hotel, we come to some vacant lots. Here are a few dingy live-oaks (still with last year’s leaves on), and in their shadow, sprawling over the tangled undergrowth, a wilderness of gadding morning-glory vines. How lovely the flowers are — pink and blue! Unless it be the ubiquitous fish crow, theft is nothing else so common in this Miami country as the morning-glory; and the vines, acres on acres, hold in bloom, one kind and another, so I am given to understand, almost or quite the whole year round.
Now we leave the sidewalk and are in the pine woods. The trees — long-leaved pines — our botanist knows well enough, the train having brought him past a thousand miles of such, on his way hither; though, even so, he might be puzzled to tell to which of two related species (Palustris and Elliottii) they belong. From the rude bridge, as we cross the Miami River, he admires the myriad-footed, glossy-leaved mangrove thickets that line the banks, especially as he looks up the stream. Just beyond are ancient live-oaks, the huge spreading branches of which support a profusion of air-plants (poor relations of the pineapple), with here and there an orchid. I should like to show him an Epidendrum such as I secured ten days ago — an open spray of a dozen blooms, handsome enough to grace the finest of hothouse collections; but I have not been able to find a second specimen, with all my searching. However, a smaller, one-flowered species is common enough, and if he is sufficiently enterprising he will climb one of the trees for it, or — as I did — cut a stick by means of which, with more or less hard work, he can pry the bulbous root from its foothold.
“What is this yellow flower?” he asks, as we go on.
“I don’t know,” is my answer. “Some member of the pulse family.”
My companion knew as much as that already. “And this bush, with its strangely contorted pods?”
Here I am more at home, and proud to show it. The plant is Pithecolobium Unguis‑Cati, I tell him. Small wonder the pods are twisted.
With this we come to more live-oaks, on which are more air-plants and orchids, and just beyond is a confusion of thick-leaved trees and shrubs.
“What is this?” he asks; “and this? and this?”
I have no idea, I am obliged to answer. But the tall tree a little farther on is Ficus aurea, I hasten to remark, with a show of extreme erudition.
“A fig-tree?” he answers, in a tone of surprise; for, being a botanist, he knows, of course, that ficus is fig.
Yes, I assure him, it is a kind of fig (rubber tree, it is otherwise called), though the leaf is small and, as botanists say, “entire,” not in the least resembling the modest fig-leaf of convention. I know the tree’s name, as I know that of the shrub before mentioned, because I was told it yesterday. One’s knowledge (of names) increases rapidly under favorable circumstances, in a country like this.
Yonder very noticeable shrub, bearing large globular bunches of small bright-purplish berries (no eye could miss them), is the French mulberry, so called (Callicarpa Americana); and the larger and leafier bush near it, set along the branches with more loosely disposed orange-colored berries, is Trema micrantha, a plant which Chapman’s Flora credits to but one place in the United States, — “Shellmounds in Lastero Bay, South Florida,” — though hereabout it is one of the commonest of the common. Both it and the French mulberry are prime favorites with various kinds of birds. Mockingbirds and catbirds are feasting on the berries at this moment.
And yes, here is a tree that I knew would excite my companion’s curiosity. No stranger ever drove over this road (and the first drive of every newcomer to Miami is taken this way) without asking his driver about it: a large tree, all its leafy branches far above the ground, with a strangely conspicuous mahogany-colored bark, the outermost layers of which peel off in loose papery flakes, after the manner of the canoe birch. On my first jaunt into the hammock I heard more than one driver pronounce its eloquent name — gumbo-limbo. The two or three men of whom I made inquiries could tell me nothing more, till my host, who professed no botany, modestly suggested a reference to the dictionary. There, sure enough, I found the clue I was seeking. The tree is Bursera gummifera, or Jamaica birch, one of two Florida representatives of the tropical torch-wood family. It is among the chief of my South Florida admirations, especially for its color. It and the Seminoles should be of kindred stock. In the lobby of the hotel, the other evening, I heard one man rallying another (who had been fishing and playing golf bareheaded) upon the magnificent complexion he had put on. “Your face reminds me of the gumbo-limbo,” the joker said. The comparison was obvious. I had been thinking the same thing.
Our course takes us through a brief tract of pine land largely occupied by bayberry bushes, about which there are always many myrtle warblers (which is the same as to say bayberry warblers); and presently we are in a dense tropical forest. This is the place I have desired my companion to see; and here, after a few minutes of silent wonderment, his curiosity begins to play. “What is this? What is this? What is this?” His interrogations come in crowds; and to every one my answer is ready — “I don’t know.” I am in the case of the poor fellow whose sarcastic French instructor promised to teach him in one sentence how to answer correctly every question he might be asked. Like him I have only to respond, “Je ne sais pas.” Trees, shrubs, and vines are all far out of my range. During the fortnight that I have been here, to be sure, I have begun to distinguish differences among them, and even to recognize individuality; but as to what they are, and what their names are, I know absolutely nothing.
It is a strange sensation, so delightfully, tantalizingly strange that I can hardly keep away from the place. Day after day, in spite of the dust and (sometimes) the scorching heat, my steps turn in this direction. “Where have you been?” my new acquaintances say to me at the dinner table; and I answer, almost of course, “Down in the hammock.”
Here and there, wherever there is a favorable opening, I venture a few steps into the jungle; but sometimes I cannot stay. A feeling of something like superstitious terror comes over me, the wood is so dense and dark and strange. I am glad to get back into the dusty road. My supposititious companion will be braver than I, I dare say, but he will be with me in confessing how confusingly alike all the trees look, and how utterly unavailable all his previous knowledge proves to be. On this point I have talked with two botanists, and they have both assured me that, although they had lived much in upper Florida, they found themselves here in a world they knew nothing about. With me, who am not a botanist, or only the sheerest dabbler in the science, it is literally true that in this sub-tropical forest I cannot guess at so much as the family relationship of one plant in twenty.