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The Equatorial Forest-Belt and its Causes—General features of the Equatorial Forests—-Low-growth Forest-trees—Flowery trunks and their probable cause—Uses of Equatorial Forest-trees—The Climbing Plants of the Equatorial Forests—Palms—Uses of Palm-trees and their Products— Ferns—Ginger-worts and wild Bananas—Arums—Screw-pines—Orchids —Bamboos—Uses of the Bamboo — Mangroves—Sensitive-plants— Comparative scarcity of Flowers—Concluding Remarks on Tropical Vegetation.
IN the following sketch of the characteristics of vegetable life in the equatorial zone, it is not intended to enter into any scientific details or to treat the subject in the slightest degree from a botanical point of view; but merely to describe those general features of vegetation which are almost or quite peculiar to this region of the globe, and which are so general as to be characteristic of the greater part of it rather than of any particular country or continent within its limits. The Equatorial Forest-Belt and its Causes.—With but few and unimportant exceptions a great forest band from a thousand to fifteen hundred miles in width girdles the earth at the equator, clothing hill, plain, and mountain with an evergreen mantle. Lofty peaks and precipitous ridges are sometimes bare, but often the woody covering continues to a height of eight or ten
thousand feet, as in some of the volcanic mountains of Java and on portions of the Eastern Andes. Beyond the forests both to the north and south, we meet first with woody and then open country, soon changing into arid plains or even deserts which form an almost continuous band in the vicinity of the two tropics. On the line of the tropic of Cancer we have, in America the deserts and dry plains of New Mexico; in Africa the Sahara; and in Asia, the Arabian deserts, those of Beloochistan and Western India, and further east the dry plains of North China and Mongolia. On the tropic of Capricorn we have, in America the Grand Chaco desert and the Pampas; in Africa the Kalahari desert and the dry plains north of the Limpopo ; while the deserts and waterless plains of CentralAustralia complete the arid zone. These great contrasts of verdure and barrenness occurring in parallel bands all round the globe, must evidently depend on the general laws which determine the distribution of moisture over the earth, more or less modified by local causes. Without going into meteorological details, some of which have been given in the preceding chapter, the main facts may be explained by the mode in which the great aerial currents are distributed. The trade winds passing over the ocean from north-east to south-west with an oblique tendency towards the equator, become Saturated with vapour, and are ready to give out moisture whenever they are forced upwards or in any other way have their temperature lowered. The entire equatorial zone becomes thus charged with vapour-laden air which is the primary necessity of a luxuriant vegetation. The surplus air (produced by the meeting of the two trade winds) which is ever rising in the equatorial belt and giving up its store of vapour, flows off north and south as dry, cool air, and descends to the earth in the vicinity of the tropics. Here it sucks up whatever moisture it meets with and thus tends to keep this zone in an arid condition. The trades themselves are believed to be supplied by descending currents from the temperate zones, and these are at first equally dry and only become vapour-laden when they have passed over some extent of moist surface. At the solstices the sun passes vertically over the vicinity of the tropics for several weeks, and this further aggravates the aridity; and wherever the soil is sandy and there are no lofty mountain-chains to supply ample irrigation the result is a more or less perfect desert. Analogous causes, which a study of aerial currents will render intelligible, have produced other great forest-belts in the northern and southern parts of the temperate zones; but owing to the paucity of land in the southern hemisphere these are best seen in North America and Northern Euro-Asia, where they form the great northern forests of deciduous trees and of Coniferae. These being comparatively wellknown to us, will form the standard by a reference to which we shall endeavour to point out and render intelligible the distinctive characteristics of the equatorial forest vegetation. General Features of the Equatorial Forests.--It is not easy to fix upon the most distinctive features of these virgin forests, which nevertheless impress themselves upon the beholder as something quite unlike those of temperate lands, and as possessing a grandeur and sublimity altogether their own. Amid the countless modifications in detail which these forests present, we shall endeavour to point out the chief peculiarities as well as the more interesting phenomena which generally characterise them. The observer new to the scene would perhaps be first struck by the varied yet symmetrical trunks, which rise up with perfect straightness to a great height without a branch, and which, being placed at a considerable average distance apart, give an impression similar to that produced by the columns of some enormous building. Overhead, at a height, perhaps, of a hundred feet, is an almost unbroken canopy of foliage formed by the meeting together of these great trees and their interlacing branches; and this canopy is usually so dense that but an indistinct glimmer of the sky is to be seen, and even the intense tropical sunlight only penetrates to the ground subdued and broken up into scattered fragments. There is a weird gloom and a solemn silence, which combine to produce a sense of the vast—the primeval—almost of the infinite. It is a world in which man seems an intruder, and where he feels overwhelmed by the contemplation of the ever-acting forces, which, from the simple elements of the atmosphere, build up the great mass of vegetation which overshadows, and almost seems to oppress the earth. Characteristics of the Larger Forest-trees.—Passing from the general impression to the elements of which the scene is composed, the observer is struck by the great diversity of the details amid the general uniformity. Instead of endless repetitions of the same forms of trunk such as are to be seen in our pine, or oak, or beech woods, the eye wanders from one tree to another and rarely detects two of the same species. All are tall and upright columns, but they differ from each other more
than do the columns of Gothic, Greek, and Egyptian temples. Some are almost cylindrical, rising up out of the ground as if their bases were concealed by accumulations of the soil ; others get much thicker near the ground like our spreading oaks; others again, and these are very characteristic, send out towards the base flat and wing-like projections. These projections are thin slabs radiating from the main trunk, from which they stand out like the buttresses of a Gothic cathedral. They rise to various heights on the tree, from five or six, to twenty or thirty feet; they often divide as they approach the ground, and sometimes twist and curve along the surface for a considerable distance, forming elevated and greatly compressed roots. These buttresses are sometimes so large that the spaces between them if roofed over would form huts capable of containing several persons. Their use is evidently to give the tree an extended base, and so assist the subterranean roots in maintaining in an erect position so lofty a column crowned by a broad and massive head of branches and foliage. The buttressed trees belong to a variety of distinct groups. Thus, many of the Bombaceae or silk-cotton trees, several of the Leguminosae, and perhaps many trees belonging to other natural orders, possess these appendages. There is another form of tree, hardly less curious, in which the trunk, though generally straight and cylindrical, is deeply furrowed and indented, appearing as if made up of a number of small trees grown together at the centre. Sometimes the junction of what seem to be the component parts, is so imperfect, that gaps or holes are left by which you can see through the trunk in various places. At first one is disposed to think this is