Inquiry Concerning Indigenous and Uncultivated Plants

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Lewis Masquerier

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Mr. L. Masquerier.—I would inquire of the Club what notice has been taken of the following indigenous plants of our country:

Has any experiments been made upon the rosin weed, or compass plant (Siphinra) that grows so abundantly on the prairies of the west, as to whether its copious resinous juice can be a useful auxilliary to that of the pine tree, and be to it as the sugar cane is to the maple tree?

Is the water or Indian rice of Minnesota cultivated, and why may it not become as abundant a crop in the lake region of the north as the common rice plant is in the salt meadows of the south?

Is there any attempt made to improve, by cultivation, the prairie grass which seems to be a species of rice, hut growing upon dry soil. It produces a very lean grain, but cultivation might improve it as other grains and the potato have been. It grows twice as large and tall from between the turned over sods where the prairie is first broken, as it does on that which is untouched. This grass constitutes what may be called the tall grass region of Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. But upon the upper half of the Platte, Kansas and Arkansas rivers, far superior grasses for grazing set in, called the Buffalo, Bunch, and Gramma grasses. They turn to hay in dry weather and thus feed the Buffalo and other granivorous animals both summer and winter.

Is there any attempts to introduce them here? They might, where there is a longer continuance of moisture, grow a larger grain and, perhaps, become cereals, as well as grazing grasses.

There is a twining plant called the pea vine, bearing a finely flavored pea, growing in all the woods bordering the prairies, but I have heard of no attempt in its cultivation. The stock are very fond of grazing upon the whole plant. It grows on a stiff stem, several feet high, and then branches into several twiners that will take hold of adjoining ones, and thus be held from falling to the ground, favoring the convenience of its cultivation.

But, in 1849, I saw a plant, growing in the prairie, ten miles south of Booneville, Cooper county, Missouri, which has not, so far as I can learn, been noticed in any botanical work. It does not resemble the grass family, but must be classed in some of the orders of the exogenous herbs. It rises on a stem one or two feet high, and ramifies gradually, terminating in many little straight twigs. In the forks of each pair of twigs, a single round grain grows about double the size of a grain of wheat, having a taste somewhat like wheat, but is more brittle. Its leaves are roundish, about the size of a white locust leaf. It seems to grow mostly in the rather moist than in the dryer part of the prairie. Cattle seem to prefer it to the grain of the prairie grass. This might, perhaps, be a cereal, worth, if cultivated more than the buckwheat crop, which, according to the census reports, may now amount to $12,000,000 per year.

I have written, for several years past, to several friends there, to send me some of the seed and a specimen plant, but they say the prairies are now so eaten out by cattle, and turned into fields, that they cannot find it. But, I think, it might be found further out, between the Pacific railroad and Osage river. I wished to have presented the seed to some of the Farmer's Club to experiment upon; and I now make this statement with the hope that some cultivator, having time and means, will hunt it out, and prevent it becoming extinct.

But as clothing is second only in importance to food, fibre-yielding plants should demand our discovery and cultivation as well as the cereal. Why is there nothing done with the wild flax that Fremont observes, in his journal, growing on the Kansas river? While we have forty or fifty leading plants, that furnish food, we have only the two, flax and hemp, that furnish lint with cotton for clothing. The economy of society is fortified by having a variety of plants growing in different seasons, that may supply the place of those that may fail through drouth. There are whole orders of plants remarkable for the toughness of their fibres. There are the asclepiadacete for instance, containing, according to Lindley, one hundred and forty-one genera, and nine hundred and ten species, some yielding the strongest fibres known, and yet we are not using one of them. I have observed growing around New York, at least three species, all having an equally strong centicle fibre or lint, and yet no use is made of them. Mr. Schaeffer, in the Agricultural report of the Patent office, considers the lint of the milk-weed equal to flax or hemp, or at least good for paper pulp. Is there any one who can experiment upon it further, by sowing it thicker, and see what cultivation will do for it? It being perceived it could be cultivated easily and cheaply, and should the oil and gum of the seed answer as well as that of flax, why would it not be a good auxilliary? It is rumored that a farmer in Wisconsin improved the strength of the fibre of the pod by cultivation.

  • Lewis Masquerier, “Inquiry Concerning Indigenous and Uncultivated Plants,” in Annual report of the American Institute of the City of New York (1861-62): 328-330.