On any summer day, especially when the sun is shining brightly, we may see bees and butterflies flitting from flower to flower, busy as the proverbial bee. We already know enough about nature’s ways of doing things to be certain that these, and hundreds of other kinds of insects, do not come for nothing, and that the flower must have something to offer. Bees, especially, are thrifty creatures whose business demands exacting and prolonged toil.
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In the East Indies and in Africa there is a pitcher plant—in fact, scores of varieties of them—which grows up on the branches of trees. In this case the pitcher may be as long as some of our American kinds, often twelve to eighteen inches, and many of them are attached to a slender leafstalk two to three feet long, by which they hang suspended. Insects, literally by the thousands, are caught in these gaudy traps, for many of the pitchers are beautifully colored, and near the opening they secrete a sweetish liquid that lures their prey. They are, in fact, such curious and handsome plants that they are commonly grown in greenhouse collections.
Taking first the families that all have a superior ovary, we must, for lack of space, exclude most of them from here. A few of the most important, or typical, after the Ericaceæ, are:
- Primulaceæ—Primrose family. All herbs in which the stamens are as many as the lobes of the corolla and inserted on them. The flowers are quite regular. They all have some form of a capsule for fruit, which in most generally split lengthwise. Familiar examples include the garden primrose (not the wild evening primrose), yellow loosestrife, the star flower, pimpernel, shooting star, and the beautiful cyclamens. A few members of the family are slightly luminous in the dark, apparently an attraction to night-flying insects. About 28 genera and over 400 species, mostly from the northern hemisphere, a few in temperate South America and South Africa.
- Gentianaceæ—Gentian family. Over 700 species in 70 genera, all bitter herbs, with opposite leaves, quite without teeth and beautiful, sometimes fringed, always regular flowers. In this and related families the stamens are of the same number as the lobes of the corolla, and always alternate with them. Gentian and sea or marsh pinks are our best-known native representatives, while some related plants are medicinal.
There are many other families in this part of the scheme of plant classification that have minor differences among themselves, but agree pretty generally in the number and position of their stamens, their superior ovary, and, on the whole, in the regular flower. Irregular and regular flowers may be recognized at once by cutting them lengthwise through the middle. In regular flowers there would be as much on one side as on the other of the dividing line, and in irregular ones quite obviously more on one side than the other. The character of all the genera in a family having irregular flowers begins to occur here with greater and sometimes exclusive frequency. In the mint family, or Lamiaceæ, nearly all of its 160 genera and over 3,000 species have two-lipped or irregular flowers. The garden salvia well illustrates the type.
Practically all that has been said in the first chapter relates to what plants are, their organs, or what we may call the architecture or plan of their framework. But what they do with this elaborate structure is as important as what we do with a house that may contain every modern improvement but is never a home until these things have been put to use. One of the chief concerns of any architect is to see to it that the house has as much sunshine by day and as attractive illumination by night as possible. Nature, that greatest of all architects, also sees to it that plants get the utmost necessary sunlight, but for a much more important reason than the mere attractiveness of sunshine, be that ever so beautiful. For light, the life-giver of all green things, is so absolutely essential to plants that experiments to grow them in the dark have always failed, and many gardeners now use electric light in greenhouses in order to prolong the short daylight of winter. It is the lack of light that makes celery blanch.
Plants grown in the house inevitably turn toward the windows, even plants growing against a wall turn their leaves away from it—nowhere can one find living green things that do not find the light as surely and persistently as men try to get their food or their mates. Many examples of this could be given and must have been noticed by everyone.