by Samuel White Baker
Wild Fruits - Ingredients for a "Soupe Maigre" - Orchidaceous Plants - Wild Nutmegs - Native Oils - Cinnamon - Primeval Forests - Valuable Woods - The Mahawelli River - Variety of Palms - Cocoa-nut Toddy - Arrack - Cocoa-nut Oil - Cocoa-nut-planting - The Talipot Palm - The Areca Palm - Betel Chewing - Sago Nuts - Varicty of Bees - Waste of Beeswax - Edible Fungi - Narcotic Puff-ball - Intoxicating Drugs - Poisoned Cakes - The "Sack Tree" - No Gum Trees of Value in Ceylon.
Among the inexperienced there is a prevalent idea connected with tropical forests and jungles that they teem with wild fruits, which Nature is supposed to produce spontaneously. Nothing can be more erroneous than such an opinion; even edible berries are scantily supplied by the wild shrubs and trees, and these, in lieu of others of superior quality, are sometimes dignified by the name of fruit.
The guava and the katumbillé are certainly very numerous throughout the Ouva district; the latter being a dark red, rough-skinned kind of plum, the size of a greengage, but free from stone. It grows upon a thorny bush about fifteen feet high; but the fruit is too acid to please most palates; the extreme thirst produced by a day's shooting in a burning sun makes it refreshing when plucked from the tree; but it does not aspire to the honor of a place at a table, where it can only appear in the form of red currant jelly, for which it is an undeniable substitute.
Excellent blackberries and a very large and full-flavored black raspberry grow at Newera Ellia; likewise the Cape gooseberry, which is of the genus "solanum." The latter is a round yellow berry, the size of a cherry; this is enclosed in a loose bladder, which forms an outer covering. The flavor is highly aromatic, but, like most Ceylon wild fruits, it is too acid.
The sweetest and the best of the jungle productions is the "morra." This is a berry about the size of a small nutmeg, which grows in clusters upon a large tree of rich dark foliage. The exterior of the berry is brown and slightly rough; the skin, or rather the case, is brittle and of the consistence of an egg-shell; this, when broken and peeled off, exposes a semi-transparent pulp, like a skinned grape in appearance and in flavor. It is extremely juicy but, unfortunately, a large black stone occupies the centre and at least one-half of the bulk of the entire fruit.
The jambo apple is a beautiful fruit in appearance being the facsimile of a snow-white pear formed of wax, with a pink blush upon one side. Its exterior beauty is all that it can boast of, as the fruit itself is vapid and tasteless. In fact, all wild fruits are, for the most part, great exaggerations. I have seen in a work on Ceylon the miserable little acid berry of the rattan, which is no larger than a currant, described as a fruit; hawthorn berries might, with equal justice, be classed among the fruits of Great Britain.
I will not attempt to describe these paltry productions in detail; there is necessarily a great variety throughout the island, but their insignificance does not entitle them to a description which would raise them far above their real merit.
It is nevertheless most useful to a sportsman in Ceylon to possess a sufficient stock of botanical information for his personal convenience. A man may be lost in the jungles or hard up for provisions in some out-of-the-way place, where, if he has only a saucepan, he can generally procure something eatable in the way of herbs. It is not to be supposed, however, that he would succeed in making a good dinner; the reader may at any time procure something similar in England by restricting himself to nettle-tops - an economical but not a fattening vegetable. Anything, however simple, is better than an empty stomach, and when the latter is positively empty it is wonderful how the appetite welcomes the most miserable fare.
At Newera Ellia the jungles would always produce a supply for a soupe maigré. There is an esculent nillho which grows in the forest in the bottoms of the swampy ravines. This is a most succulent plant, which grows to the height or length of about seven feet, as its great weight keeps it close to the ground. It is so brittle that it snaps like a cucumber when struck by a stick, and it bears a delicate, dark-blue blossom. When stewed, it is as tender as the vegetable marrow, but its flavor approaches more closely to that of the cucumber. Wild ginger also abounds in the forests. This is a coarse variety of the "amomum zintgiber." The leaves, which spring from the ground, attain a height of seven or eight feet; a large, crimson, fleshy blossom also springs from the ground in the centre of the surrounding leaf-stems. The root is coarse, large, but wanting in fine flavor, although the young tubers are exceedingly tender and delicate. This is the favorite food of elephants on the Ceylon mountains; but it is a curious fact that they invariably reject the leaves, which any one would suppose would be their choicest morsel, as they are both succulent and plentiful. The elephants simply use them as a handle for tearing up the roots, which they bite off and devour, throwing the leaves on one side.
The wild parsnip is also indigenous to the plains on the mountains. As usual with most wild plants of this class, it has little or no root, but runs to leaf. The seeds are very highly flavored, and are gathered by the natives for their curries.
There is, likewise, a beautiful orchidaceous plant, which is very common throughout the patinas on the mountains, and which produces the very finest quality of arrowroot. So much is this valued in the Nepaul country in India, that I have been assured by a person well acquainted with that locality, that this quality of arrowroot is usually sold for its weight in rupees. In vain have I explained this to the Cingalese; they will not attempt its preparation because their fathers did not eat it; and yet these same men will walk forty miles to cut a bundle of sticks of the galla gaha tree for driving buffaloes! -their fathers did this, and therefore they do it. Thus this beautiful plant is only appreciated by those whose instinct leads them to its discovery. The wild hogs plough up the patinas and revel in this delicate food. The plant itself is almost lost in the rank herbage of the patinas, but its beautiful pink, hyacinth-shaped blossom attracts immediate attention. Few plants combine beauty of appearance, scent and utility, but this is the perfection of each quality -nothing can surpass the delicacy and richness of its perfume. It has two small bulbs about an inch below the surface of the earth, and these, when broken, exhibit a highly granulated texture, semi-transparent like half-boiled sago. From these bulbs the arrowroot is produced by pounding them in water and drying the precipitated farina in the sun.
There are several beautiful varieties of orchidaceous plants upon the mountains; among others, several species of the dendrobium. Its rich yellow flowers hang in clusters from a withered tree, the only sign of life upon a giant trunk decayed, like a wreath upon a grave. The scent of this flower is well known as most delicious; one plant will perfume a large room.
There is one variety of this tribe in the neighborhood of Newera Ellia, which is certainly unknown in English collections. It blossoms in April; the flowers are a bright lilac, and I could lay my band upon it at any time, as I have never seen it but in one spot, where it flourishes in profusion. This is about fourteen miles from Newera Ellia, and I have never yet collected a specimen, as I have invariably been out hunting whenever I have met with it.
The black pepper is also indigenous throughout Ceylon. At Newera Ellia the leaves of this vine are highly pungent, although at this elevation it does not produce fruit. A very short distance toward a lower elevation effects a marked change, as within seven miles it fruits in great perfection.
At a similar altitude, the wild nutmeg is very common throughout the forests. This fruit is a perfect anomaly. The tree is entirely different to that of the cultivated species. The latter is small, seldom exceeding the size of an apple-tree, and bearing a light green myrtle-shaped leaf, which is not larger than that of a peach. The wild species, on the contrary, is a large forest tree, with leaves equal in size to those of the horse chestnut; nevertheless, it produces a perfect nutmeg. There is the outer rind of fleshy texture, like an unripe peach; enclosed within is the nutlike shell, enveloped in the crimson network of mace, and within the shell is the nutmeg itself. All this is perfect enough, but, alas, the grand desideratum is wanting - it has no flavor or aroma whatever.
It is a gross imposition on the part of Nature; a most stingy trick upon the public, and a regular do. The mace has no taste whatever, and the nutmeg has simply a highly acrid and pungent taste, without any spicy flavor, but merely abounding in a rank and disagreeable oil. The latter is so plentiful that I am astonished it has not been experimented upon, especially by the natives, who are great adepts in expressing oils from many substances.
Those most common in Ceylon are the cocoa-nut and gingerly oils. The former is one of the grand staple commodities of the island; the latter is the produce of a small grain, grown exclusively by the natives.
But, in addition to these, there are various other oils manufactured by the Cingalese. These are the cinnamon oil, castor oil, margosse oil, mee oil, kenar oil, meeheeria oil; and both clove and lemon-grass oil are prepared by Europeans.
The first, which is the cinnamon oil, is more properly a kind of vegetable wax, being of the consistence of stearine. This is prepared from the berries of the cinnamon shrubs which are boiled in water until the catty substance or so-called oil, floats upon the surface; this is then skimmed off and, when a sufficient quantity is collected, it is boiled down until all watery particles are evaporated, and the melted fat is turned out into a shallow vessel to cool. It has a pleasant, though , perhaps, a rather faint aromatic smell, and is very delicious as an adjunct in the culinary art. In addition to this it possesses gentle aperient properties, which render it particularly wholesome.
Castor oil is also obtained by the natives by boiling, and it is accordingly excessively rank after long keeping. The castor-oil plant is a perfect weed throughout Ceylon, being one of the few useful shrubs that will flourish in such poor soil without cultivation.
Margosse oil is extracted from the fruit of a tree of that name. It has an extremely fetid and disagreeable smell, which will effectually prevent the contact of flies or any other insect. On this account it is a valuable preventive to the attacks of flies upon open wounds, in addition to which it possesses powerful healing properties.
Mee oil is obtained from the fruit of the mee tree. This fruit is about the size of an apricot, and is extremely rich in its produce; but the oil is of a coarse description, and is simply used by the natives for their rude lamps. Kenar oil and meeheeria oil are equally coarse, and are quite unfit for any but native purposes.
Lemon-grass oil, which is known in commerce as citronella oil, is a delightful extract from the rank lemon grass, which covers most of' the hillsides in the more open districts of Ceylon. An infusion of the grass is subsequently distilled; the oil is then discovered on the surface. This is remarkably pure, with a most pungent aroma. If rubbed upon the skin, it will prevent the attacks of insects while its perfume remains; but the oil is so volatile that the scent quickly evaporates and the spell is broken.
Clove oil is extracted from the leaves of the cinnamon tree, and not from cloves, as its name would imply. The process is very similar to that employed in the manufacture of citronella oil.
Cinnamon is indigenous throughout the jungles of Ceylon. Even at the high elevation of Newera Ellia, it is one of the most common woods, and it grows to the dimensions of a forest tree, the trunk being usually about three feet in circumference. At Newera Ellia it loses much of its fine flavor, although it is still highly aromatic.
This tree flourishes in a white quartz sandy soil, and in its cultivated state is never allowed to exceed the dimensions of a bush, being pruned down close to the ground every year. This system of close cutting induces the growth of a large number of shoots, in the same manner that withes are produced in England.
Every twelve months these shoots attain the length of six or seven feet, and the thickness of a man's finger. In the interim, the only cultivation required is repeated cleaning. The whole plantation is cut down at the proper period, and the sticks are then stripped of their bark by the peelers. These men are called "chalias," and their labor is confined to this particular branch. The season being over, they pass the remaining portion of the year in idleness, their earnings during one crop being sufficient to supply their trifling wants until the ensuing harvest.
Their practice in this employment naturally renders them particularly expert, and in far less time than is occupied in the description they run a sharp knife longitudinally along a stick, and at once divest it of the bark. On the following day the strips of bark are scraped so as entirely to remove the outer cuticle. One strip is then laid within the other, which, upon becoming dry, contract, and form a series of enclosed pipes. It is subsequently packed in bales, and carefully sewed up in double sacks for exportation.
The essential oil of cinnamon is usually made from the refuse of the crop; but the quantity produced, in proportion to the weight of cinnamon, is exceedingly small, being about five ounces of oil to half a hundred-weight of the spice.
Although the cinnamon appears to require no more than a common quartz sand for its production, it is always cultivated with the greatest success where the subsoil is light, dry and of a loamy quality.
The appearance of the surface soil is frequently very deceitful. It is not uncommon to see a forest of magnificent trees growing in soil of apparently pure sand, which will not even produce the underwood with which Ceylon forests are generally choked. In such an instance the appearance of the trees is unusually grand as their whole length and dimensions are exposed to view, and their uniting crowns throw a sombre shade over the barren ground beneath. It is not to be supposed that these mighty specimens of vegetation are supported by the poor sandy soil upon the surface; their tap-roots strike down into some richer stratum, from which their nourishment is derived.
These forests are not common in Ceylon; their rarity accordingly enhances their beauty. The largest English oak would be a mere pigmy among the giants of these wilds, whose stature is so wonderful that the eye never becomes tired of admiration. Often have I halted on my journey to ride around and admire the prodigious height and girth of these trees. Their beautiful proportions render them the more striking; there are no gnarled and knotty stems, such as we are accustomed to admire in the ancient oaks and beeches of England, but every trunk rises like a mast from the earth, perfectly free from branches for ninety or a hundred feet, straight as an arrow, each tree forming a dark pillar to support its share of the rich canopy above, which constitutes a roof perfectly impervious to the sun. It is difficult to guess the actual height of these forest trees; but I have frequently noticed that it is impossible to shoot a bird on the higher branches with No. 5 shot.
It is much to be regretted that the want of the means of transport renders the timber of these forests perfectly valueless. From age to age these magnificent trees remain in their undisturbed solitudes, gradually increasing in their apparently endless growth, and towering above the dark vistas of everlasting silence. No on can imagine the utter stillness which pervades these gloomy shades. There is a mysterious effect produced by the total absence of animal life. In the depths of these forests I have stood and listened for some sound until my cars tingled with overstrained attention; not a chirp of a bird, not the hum of an insect, but the mouth of Nature is sealed. Not a breath of air has rustled a leaf, not even a falling fruit has broken the spell of silence; the undying verdure, the freshness of each tree, even in its mysterious age, create an idea of eternal vegetation, and the silvery yet dim light adds to the charm of the fairylike solitude which gradually steals over the senses.
I have ridden for fifteen or twenty miles through one of these forests without hearing a sound, except that of my horse's hoof occasionally striking against a root. Neither beast nor bird is to be seen except upon the verge. The former has no food upon such barren ground; and the latter can find no berries, as the earth is sunless and free from vegetation. Not even monkeys are to be seen, although the trees must produce fruit and seed. Everything appears to have deserted the country, and to have yielded it as the sole territory of Nature on a stupendous scale. The creepers lie serpent-like along the ground to the thickness of a man's waist, and, rearing their twisted forms on high, they climb the loftiest trees, hanging in festoons from stern to stem like the cables of a line-of-battle-ship, and extending from tree to tree for many hundred yards; now felling to the earth and striking a fresh root; then, with increased energy, remounting the largest trunks, and forming a labyrinth of twisted ropes along the ceiling of the forest. From these creepers hang the sabre-beans. Everything seems on a supernatural scale - the bean-pod four feet or more in length, by three inches in breadth; the beans two inches in diameter.
Here may be seen the most valuable woods of Ceylon. The ebony grows in great perfection and large quantity. This tree is at once distinguished from the surrounding stems by its smaller diameter and its sooty trunk. The bark is crisp, jet black, and has the appearance of being charred. Beneath the bark the wood is perfectly white until the heart is reached, which is the fine black ebony of commerce. Here also, equally immovable, the calamander is growing, neglected and unknown. This is the most esteemed of all Ceylon woods, and it is so rare that it realizes a fancy price. It is something similar to the finest walnut, the color being a rich hazel brown, mottled and striped with irregular black marks. It is superior to walnut in the extreme closeness of the grain and the richness of its color.
There are upward of eighty different woods produced in Ceylon, which are made use of for various purposes; but of these many are very inferior. Those most appreciated are-
Calamander, Ebony, chiefly used for furniture and cabinet work. Satin-wood, Suria (the tulip tree). Tamarind. Jackwood. Halmileel. Cocoa-nut. Palmyra.
The suria is an elegant tree, bearing a beautiful yellow blossom something similar to a tulip, from which it derives its name. The wood is of an extremely close texture and of a reddish-brown color. It is exceedingly tough, and it is chiefly used for making the spokes of wheels.
The tamarind is a fine, dark red wood, mottled with black marks; but it is not in general use, as the tree is too valuable to be felled for the sake of its timber. This is one of the handsomest trees of the tropics, growing to a very large size, the branches widely spreading, something like the cedars of Lebanon.
Jackwood is a coarse imitation of mahogany, and is used for a variety of purposes, especially for making cheap furniture. The latter is not only economical, but exceedingly durable, and is manufactured at so low a rate that a moderate-sized house might be entirely furnished with it for a hundred and fifty pounds.
The fruit of the jack grows from the trunk and branches of the tree, and when ripe it weighs about twenty pounds. The rind is rough, and when cut it exposes a yellow, pulpy mass. This is formed of an infinite number of separate divisions of fleshy matter, which severally enclose an oval nut. The latter are very good when roasted, having a close resemblance to a chestnut. The pulp, which is the real fruit, is not usually eaten by Europeans on account of its peculiar odor. This perfume is rather difficult to describe, but when a rainy day in London crams an omnibus with well-soaked and steaming multitudes, the atmosphere in the vehicle somewhat approaches to the smell of the jack-fruit. The halmileel is one of the most durable and useful woods in Ceylon, and is almost the only kind that is thoroughly adapted for making staves for casks. Of late years the great increase of the oil-trade has brought this wood into general request, consequent upon the increased demand for casks. So extensive and general is the present demand for this wood that the natives are continually occupied in conveying it from certain districts which a few years ago were utterly neglected. Unfortunately, the want of roads and the means of transport confine their operations to the banks of rivers, down which the logs are floated at the proper season.
I recollect some eight years ago crossing the Mahawelli river upon a raft which my coolies had hastily constructed, and reaching a miserable village near Monampitya, in the extreme north of the Veddah country. The river is here about four hundred paces wide, and, in the rainy season a fine volume of water rolls along in a rapid stream toward Trincomalee, at which place it meets the sea. I was struck it the time with the magnificent timber in the forests on its banks, and no less surprised that with the natural facilities of transport it should be neglected. Two years ago I crossed at this same spot, and I remarked the wonderful change which a steady demand had effected in this wild country. Extensive piles of halmileel logs were collected along the banks of the river, while the forests were strewed with felled trees in preparation for floating down the stream. A regular demand usually ensures a regular supply, which could not be better exemplified than in this case.
Among fancy woods the bread-fruit tree should not be omitted. This is something similar to the jack, but, like the tamarind, the value of the produce saves the tree from destruction.
This tree does not attain a very large size, but its growth is exceedingly regular and the foliage peculiarly rich and plentiful. The fruit is something similar in appearance to a small, unripe jack-fruit, with an equally rough exterior. In the opinion of most who have tasted it, its virtues have been grossly exaggerated. To my taste it is perfectly uneatable, unless fried in thin slices with butter; it is even then a bad imitation of fried potatoes. The bark of this tree produces a strong fibre, and a kind of very adhesive pitch is also produced by decoction.
The cocoa-nut and palmyra woods at once introduce us to the palms of Ceylon, the most useful and the most elegant class in vegetation. For upward of a hundred and twenty miles along the western and southern coasts of Ceylon, one continuous line of cocoa-nut groves wave their green leaves to the sea-breeze, without a single break, except where some broad clear river cleaves the line of verdure as it meets the sea.
Ceylon is rich in palms, including the following varieties: The Cocoa-nut. The Palmyra. The Kittool. The Areca The Date. The Sago. The Talipot.
The wonderful productions of this tribe can only be appreciated by those who thoroughly understand the habits and necessities of the natives; and, upon examination, it will be seen that Nature has opened wide her bountiful hand, and in the midst of a barren soil she has still remembered and supplied the wants of the inhabitants.
As the stream issued from the rock in the wilderness, to the cocoa-nut tree yields a pure draught from a dry and barren land; a cup of water to the temperate and thirsty traveler; a cup of cream from the pressed kernel; a cup of refreshing and sparkling toddy to the early riser; a cup of arrack to the hardened spirit-drinker, and a cup of oil, by the light of which I now extol its merits-five separate and distinct liquids from the same tree!
A green or unripe cocoa-nut contains about a pint of a sweetish water. In the hottest weather this is deliciously cool, in comparison to the heat of the atmosphere.
The ripe nut, when scraped into a pulp by a little serrated, semi-circular iron instrument, is squeezed in a cloth by the hand, and about a quarter of a pint of delicious thick cream, highly flavored by cocoa-nut, is then expressed. This forms the chief ingredient in a Cingalese curry, from which it entirely derives its richness and fine flavor.
The toddy is the sap which would nourish and fructify the blossom and young nuts, were it allowed to accomplish its duties. The toddy-drawer binds into one rod the numerous shoots, which are garnished with embryo nuts, and he then cuts off the ends, leaving an abrupt and brush-like termination. Beneath this he secures an earthen chatty, which will hold about a gallon. This remains undisturbed for twenty-four hours, from sunrise to sunrise on the following morning; the toddy-drawer then reascends the tree, and lowers he chatty by a line to an assistant below, who empties the contents into a larger vessel, and the chatty is replaced under the productive branch, which continues to yield for about a month.
When first drawn the toddy has the appearance of thin milk and water, with a combined flavor of milk and soda-water, with a tinge of cocoa-nut. It is then very pleasant and refreshing, but in a few hours after sunrise a great charts takes place, and the rapidity of the transition from the vinous to the acetous fermentation is so great that by midday it resembles a poor and rather acid cider. It now possesses intoxicating properties, and the natives accordingly indulge in it to some extent; but from its flavor and decided acidity I should have thought the stomach would be affected some time before the head.
From this fermented toddy the arrack is procured by simple distillation.
This spirit, to my taste, is more palatable than most distilled liquors, having a very decided and peculiar flavor. It is a little fiery when new, but as water soon quenches fire, it is not spared by the native retailers, whose arrack would be of a most innocent character were it not for their infamous addition of stupefying drugs and hot peppers.
The toddy contains a large proportion of saccharine, without which the vinous fermentation could not take place. This is procured by evaporation in boiling, on the same principle that sugar is produced from cane-juice. The syrup is then poured into small saucers to cool, and it shortly assumes the consistence of hardened sugar. This is known in Ceylon as "jaggery," and is manufactured exclusively by the natives.
Cocoa-nut oil is now one of the greatest exports of Ceylon, and within the last few years the trade has increased to an unprecedented extent. In the two years of 1849 and 1850, the exports of cocoa-nut oil did not exceed four hundred and forty-three thousand six hundred gallons, while in the year 1853 they had increased to one million thirty-three thousand nine hundred gallons; the trade being more than quadrupled in three years.
The manufacture of the oil is most simple. The kernel is taken from the nut, and being divided, it is exposed to the sun until all the watery particles are evaporated. The kernel thus dried is known as "copperah." This is then pressed in a mill, and the oil flows into a reservoir.
This oil, although clear and limpid in the tropics, hardens to the consistence of lard at any temperature below 72 Fahrenheit. Thus it requires a second preparation on its arrival in England. There it is spread upon mats (formed of coir) to the thickness of an inch, and then covered by a similar protection. These fat sandwiches are two feet square, and being piled one upon the other to a height of about six feet in an hydraulic press, are subjected to a pressure of some hundred tons. This disengages the pure oleaginous parts from the more insoluble portions, and the fat residue, being increased in hardness by its extra density, is mixed with stearine, and by a variety of preparations is converted into candles. The pure oil thus expressed is that known in the shops as cocoa-nut oil.
The cultivation of the cocoa-nut tree is now carried to a great extent, both by natives and Europeans; by the former it is grown for a variety of purposes, but by the latter its profits are confined to oil, coir and poonac. The latter is the refuse Of the nut after the oil has been expressed, and corresponds in its uses to the linseed-oil cake of England, being chiefly employed for fattening cattle, pigs and poultry.
The preparation of coir is a dirty and offensive occupation. The husk of the cocoa-nut is thrown into tanks of water, until the woody or pithy matter is loosened by fermentation from the coir fibre. The stench of putrid vegetable matter arising from these heaps must be highly deleterious. Subsequently the husks are beaten and the fibre is separated and dried. Coir rope is useful on account of its durability and power of resisting decay during long immersion. In the year 1853, twenty-three hundred and eighty tons of coir were exported from Ceylon.
The great drawback to the commencement of a cocoa-nut plantation is the total uncertainty of the probable alteration in the price of oil during the interval of eleven years which must elapse before the estate comes into bearing. In this era of invention, when improvements in every branch of science follow each other with such rapid strides, it is always a dangerous speculation to make any outlay that will remain so long invested without producing a return. Who can be so presumptuous as to predict the changes of future years? Oil may have ceased to be the common medium of light - our rooms may be illumined by electricity, or from fifty other sources which now are never dreamed of. In the mean time, the annual outlay during eleven years is an additional incubus upon the prime cost of the plantation, which, at the expiration of this term, may be reduced to one-tenth of its present value.
The cocoa-nut tree requires a sandy and well-drained soil; and although it flourishes where no other tree will grow, it welcomes a soil of a richer quality and produces fruit in proportion. Eighty nuts per annum are about the average income from a healthy tree in full bearing, but this, of course, depends much upon the locality. This palm delights in the sea-breeze, and never attains the same perfection inland that it does in the vicinity of the coast. There are several varieties, and that which is considered superior is the yellow species, called the "king cocoanut." I have seen this on the Maldive Islands in great perfection. There it is the prevailing description.
At the Seychelles, there is a variety peculiar to those islands, differing entirely in appearance from the common cocoa-nut. It is fully twice the size, and is shaped like a kidney that is laid open. This is called by the French the "coco de mer" from the large numbers that are found floating in the sea in the neighborhood of the islands.
The wood of the cocoa-nut tree is strong and durable; it is a dark brown, traversed by longitudinal black lines.
There are three varieties of toddy-producing palms in Ceylon; these are the cocoa-nut, the kittool and the palmyra. The latter produces the finest quality of jaggery. This cannot be easily distinguished from crumbled sugar-candy which it exactly resembles in flavor, The wood of the palmyra is something similar to the cocoa-nut, but it is of a superior quality, and is much used for rafters, being durable and of immense strength.
The kittool is a very sombre and peculiar palm. Its crest very much resembles the drooping plume upon a hearse, and the foliage is a dark green with a tinge of gray. The wood of this palm is almost black, being apparently a mass of longitudinal strips, or coarse linen of whalebone running close together from the top to the root of the tree. This is the toughest and most pliable of all the palm-woods, and is principally used by the natives in making "pingos." These are flat bows about eight feet in length, and are used by the Cingalese for carrying loads upon the shoulder. The weight is slung at either end of the pingo, and the elasticity of the wood accommodates itself to the spring of each step, thereby reducing the dead weight of the load. In this manner a stout Cingalese will carry and travel with eighty pounds if working on his own account, or with fifty if hired for a journey. A Cingalese will carry a much heavier weight than an ordinary Malabar, as he is a totally different man in form and strength. In fact, the Cingalese are generally a compactly built and well-limbed race, while the Malabar is a man averaging full a stone lighter weight.
The most extraordinary in the list of palms is the talipot. The crest of this beautiful tree is adorned by a crown of nearly circular, fan-shaped leaves of so touch and durable a texture that they are sewn together by the natives for erecting portable tents or huts. The circumference of each leaf at the extreme edge is from twenty to thirty feet, and even this latter size is said to be frequently exceeded.
Every Cingalese throughout the Kandian district is provided with a section of one of these leaves, which forms a kind of fan about six feet in length. This is carried in the hand, and is only spread in case of rain, when it forms an impervious roofing of about three feet in width at the broad extremity. Four or five of these sections will form a circular roof for a small hut, which resembles a large umbrella or brobdignag mushroom.
There is a great peculiarity in the talipot palm. Is blossoms only once in a long period of years, and after this it dies. No flower can equal the elegance and extraordinary dimensions of this blossom; its size is proportionate to its leaves, and it usurps the place of the faded crest of green, forming a magnificent crown or plume of snow-white ostrich feathers, which stand upon the summit of the tall stem as though they were the natural head of the palm.
There is an interesting phenomenon at the period of flowering. The great plume already described, prior to its appearing in bloom, is packed in a large case or bud, about four feet long. In this case the blossom comes to maturity, at which time the tightened cuticle of the bard can no longer sustain the pressure of the expanding flower. It suddenly bursts with a loud report, and the beautiful plume, freed from its imprisonment, ascends at this signal and rapidly unfolds its feathers, towering above the drooping leaves which are hastening to decay.
The areca is a palm of great elegance; it rises to a height of about eighty feet, and a rich feathery crest adorns the summit. This is the most delicate stem of all the palm tribe; that of a tree of eighty feet in length would not exceed five inches in diameter. Nevertheless, I have never seen an areca palm overturned by a storm; they bow gracefully to the wind, and the extreme elasticity of the wood secures them from destruction.
This tree produces the commonly-called "betel-nut," but more properly the areca-nut. They grow in clusters beneath the crest of the palm, in a similar manner to the cocoa-nut; but the tree is more prolific, as it produces about two hundred nuts per annum. The latter are very similar to large nutmegs both in size and appearance, and, like the cocoa-nut, they are enclosed in an outer husk of a fibrous texture.
The consumption of these nuts may be imagined when it is explained that every native is perpetually chewing a mixture of this nut and betel leaf. Every man carries a betel bag, which contains the following list of treasures: a quantity of areca-nuts, a parcel of betel leaves, a roll of tobacco, a few pieces of ginger, an instrument similar to pruning scissors and a brass or silver case (according to the wealth of the individual) full of chunam paste - viz., a fine lime produced from burnt coral, slacked. This case very much resembles an old-fashioned warming-pan breed of watch and chateleine, as numerous little spoons for scooping out the chunam are attached to it by chains.
The betel is a species of pepper, the leaf of which very much resembles that of the black pepper, but is highly aromatic and pungent. It is cultivated to a very large extent by the natives, and may be seen climbing round poles and trees in every garden.
It has been said by some authors that the betel has powerful narcotic properties, but, on the contrary, its stimulating qualities have a directly opposite effect. Those who have attributed this supposed property to the betel leaf must have indulged in a regular native "chew" as an experiment, and have nevertheless been ignorant of the mixture.
We will make up a native "chew" after the most approved fashion, and the reader shall judge for himself in which ingredient the narcotic principle is displayed.
Take a betel leaf, and upon this spread a piece of chunam as large as a pea; then with the pruning scissors cut three very thin slices of areca-nut, and lay them in the leaf; next, add a small piece of ginger; and, lastly, a good-sized piece of tobacco. Fold up this mixture in another betel leaf in a compact little parcel, and it is fit for promoting several hours' enjoyment in chewing, and spitting a disgusting blood-red dye in every direction. The latter is produced by the areca-nut. It is the tobacco which possesses the narcotic principle; if this is omitted, the remaining ingredients are simple stimulants.
The teeth of all natives are highly discolored by the perpetual indulgence in this disgusting habit; nor is this the only effect produced; cancer in the cheek is a common complaint among them, supposed to be produced by the caustic lime which is so continually in the mouth.
The exports of areca-nuts from Ceylon will give some idea of the supply of palms. In 1853 no less than three thousand tons were shipped from this colony, valued at about 45,000 l. The greater portion of these is consumed in India.
Two varieties of palms remain to be described - the date and the sago. The former is a miserable species, which does not exceed the height of three to five feet, and the fruit is perfectly worthless.
The latter is indigenous throughout the jungles in Ceylon, but it is neither cultivated, nor is the sago prepared from it.
The height of this palm does not exceed fifteen or twenty feet, and even this is above the general average. It grows in the greatest profusion in the Veddah country. The stem is rough and a continuation of rings divides it into irregular sections. The leaves are a rich dark green, and very light and feathery, beneath which the nuts grow in clusters similar to those of the areca palm.
The only use that the natives make of the produce of this tree is in the preparation of flour from the nuts. Even this is not very general, which is much to be wondered at, as the farina is far superior in flavor to that produced from most grains.
The natives ascribe intoxicating properties to the cakes made from this flour; but I have certainly eaten a fair allowance at one time, and I cannot say that I had the least sensation of elevation.
The nut, which is something similar to the areca in size, is nearly white when divested of its outer husk, and this is soaked for about twenty-four hours in water. During this time a slight fermentation takes place and the gas generated splits the nut open at a closed joint like an acorn. This fermentation may, perhaps, take some exhilarating effect upon the natives' weak heads.
The nuts being partially softened by this immersion are dried in the sun, and subsequently pounded into flour in a wooden mortar. This flour is sifted, and the coarser parts being separated, are again pounded until a beautiful snow-white farina is produced. This is made into a dough by a proper admixture with water, and being formed into small cakes, they are baked for about a quarter of an hour in a chatty. The fermentation which has already taken place in the nut has impregnated the flower with a leaven; this, without any further addition, expands the dough when in the oven, and the cake produced is very similar to a crumpet, both in appearance and flavor.
The village in which I first tasted this preparation of the sago-nut was a tolerable sample of such places, on the borders of the Veddah country. The population consisted of one old man and a corresponding old woman, and one fine stout young man and five young women. A host of little children, who were so similar in height that they must have been one litter, and three or four most miserable dogs and cats, were additional tenants of the soi-disant village.
These people lived upon sago cakes, pumpkins, wild fruits and berries, river fish and wild honey. The latter is very plentiful throughout Ceylon, and the natives are very expert in finding out the nests, by watching the bees in their flight and following them up. A bee-hunter must be a most keen-sighted fellow, although there is not so much difficulty in the pursuit as may at first appear. No one can mistake the flight of a bee en route home, if he has once observed him. He is no longer wandering from flower to flower in an uncertain course, but he rushes through the air in a straight line for the nest. If the bee-hunter sees one bee thus speeding homeward, he watches the vacant spot in the air, until assured of the direction by the successive appearance of these insects, one following the other nearly every second in their hurried race to the comb. Keeping his eye upon the passing bees, he follows them until he reaches the tree in which the nest is found.
There are five varieties of bees in Ceylon; these are all honey-makers, except the carpenter bee. This species is entirely unlike a bee in all its habits. It is a bright tinsel-green color, and the size of a large walnut, but shaped like the humble bees of England. The month is armed with a very powerful pair of mandibles, and the tail with a sting even larger and more venomous than that of the hornet. These carpenter bees are exceedingly destructive, as they bore holes in beams and posts, in which they lay their eggs, the larvae of which when hatched greedily feed upon the timber.
The honey bees are of four very distinct varieties, each of which forms its nest on a different principle. The largest and most extensive honey-maker is the "bambera". This is nearly as large as a hornet, and it forms its nest upon the bough of a tree, from which it lines like a Cheshire cheese, being about the same thickness, but five or six inches greater in diameter. The honey of this bee is not so much esteemed as that from the smaller varieties, as the flavor partakes too strongly of the particular flower which the bee has frequented; thus in different seasons the honey varies in flavor, and is sometimes so highly aperient that it must be used with much caution. This property is of course derived from the flower which the bee prefers at that particular season. The wax of the comb is the purest and whitest of any kind produced in Ceylon. So partial are these bees to particular flowers that they migrate from place to place at different periods in quest of flowers which are then in bloom.
This is a very wonderful and inexplicable arrangement of Nature, when it is considered that some flowers which particularly attract these migrations only blossom once in "seven years." This is the case at Newera Ellia, where the nillho blossom induces such a general rush of this particular bee to the district that the jungles are swarming with them in every direction, although during the six preceding years hardly a bee of the kind is to be met with.
There are many varieties of the nillho. These vary from a tender dwarf plant to the tall and heavy stern of the common nillho, which is nearly as thick as a man's arm and about twenty feet high.
The next honey-maker is very similar in size and appearance to our common hive bee in England. This variety forms its nest in hollow trees and in holes in rocks. Another bee, similar in appearance, but not more than half the size, suspends a most delicate comb to the twigs of a tree. This nest is no larger than an orange, but the honey of the two latter varieties is of the finest quality, and quite equal in flavor to the famed "miel vert" of the Isle de Burbon, although it has not the delicate green tint which is so much esteemed in the latter.
The last of the Ceylon bees is the most tiny, although an equally industrious workman. He is a little smaller than our common house-fly, and he builds his diminutive nest in the hollow of a tree, where the entrance to his mansion is a hole no larger than would be made by a lady's stiletto.
It would be a natural supposition that so delicate an insect would produce a honey of corresponding purity, but instead of the expected treasure we find a thick, black and rather pungent but highly aromatic molasses. The natives, having naturally coarse tastes and strong stomachs, admire this honey beyond any other. Many persons are surprised at the trifling exports of wax from Ceylon. In 1853 these amounted to no more than one ton.
Cingalese are curious people, and do not trouble themselves about exports; they waste or consume all the beeswax. While we are contented with the honey and carefully reject the comb, the native (in some districts) crams his mouth with a large section, and giving it one or two bites, he bolts the luscious morsel and begins another. In this manner immense quantities of this valuable article are annually wasted. Some few of the natives in the poorest villages save a small quantity, to exchange with the travelling Moormen for cotton cloths, etc., and in this manner the trifling amount exported is collected.
During the honey year at Newera Ellia I gave a native permission to hunt bees in my forests, on condition that he should bring me the wax. Of course he stole the greater portion, but nevertheless, in a few weeks he brought me seventy-two pounds' weight of well-cleaned and perfectly white wax, which he had made up into balls about the size of an eighteen-pound shot. Thus, in a few weeks, one man had collected about the thirtieth part of the annual export from Ceylon; or, allowing that he stole at least one-half, this would amount to the fifteenth.
It would be a vain attempt to restrain these people from their fixed habit; they would as soon think of refraining from betel-chewing as giving up a favorite food. Neither will they be easily persuaded to indulge in a food of a new description. I once showed them the common British mushroom, which they declared was a poisonous kind. To prove the contrary, I had them several times at table, and found them precisely similar in appearance and flavor to the well-known, "Agaricus campestris;" but, notwithstanding this actual proof, the natives would not be convinced, and, although accustomed to eat a variety of this tribe, they positively declined this experiment. There is an edible species which they prefer, which, from its appearance, an Englishman would shun: this is perfectly white, both above and below, and the upper cuticle cannot be peeled off. I have tasted this, but it is very inferior in flavor to the common mushroom.
Experiments in these varieties of fungi are highly dangerous, as many of the most poisonous so closely resemble the edible species that they can with difficulty be distinguished. There is one kind of fungus that I have met with in the forests which, from its offensive odor and disgusting appearance, should be something superlatively bad. It grows about four inches high; the top is round, with a fleshy and inflamed appearance; the stalk is out of all proportion in its thickness, being about two inches in diameter and of a livid white color; this, when broken, is full of a transparent gelatinous fluid, which smells like an egg in the last stage of rottenness.
This fungus looks like an unhealthy excrescence on the face of Nature, who, as though ashamed of the disgusting blemish, has thrown a veil over the defect. The most exquisite fabric that can be imagined - a scarlet veil, like a silken net - falls over this ugly fungus, and, spreading like a tent at its base, it is there attached to the ground.
The meshes of this net are about as fine as those of a very delicate silk purse, and the gaudiness of the color and the size of the fungus make it a very prominent object, among the surrounding vegetation. In fact, it is a diminutive, though perfect circular tent of net-work, the stem of the fungus forming the pole in the centre.
I shall never forget my first introduction to this specimen. It was growing in an open forest, free from any underwood, land it seemed like a fairy bivouac beneath the mighty trees which overshadowed it. Hardly believing my own eyes at so strange and exquisite a structure, I jumped off my horse and hastened to secure it. But the net-work once raised was like the uncovering of the veiled prophet of Khorassan, and the stem, crushing in my fingers, revealed all the disgusting properties of the plant, and proved the impossibility of removing it entire. The elegance of its exterior only served to conceal its character-like Madame Mantilini, who, when undressed, "tumbled into ruins."
There are two varieties of narcotic fungi whose properties are so mild that they are edible in small quantities. One is a bright crimson on the surface; this is the most powerful, and is seldom used. The other is a white solid puff-ball, with a rough outer skin or rind.
I have eaten the latter on two occasions, having been assured by the natives that they were harmless. The flavor somewhat resembles a truffle, but I could not account for the extreme drowsiness that I felt soon after eating; this wore off in the course of two or three hours. On the following day I felt the same effect, but to a still greater degree as, having convinced myself that they were really eatable, I bad taken a larger quantity. Knowing that the narcotic principle is the common property of a great variety of fungi, it immediately struck me that the puff-balls were the cause. On questioning the natives, it appeared that it was this principle that they admired, as it produced a species of mild intoxication.
All people, of whatever class or clime, indulge in some narcotic drug or drink. Those of the Cingalese are arrack, tobacco, fungi and the Indian hemp. The use of the latter is, however, not so general among the Cingalese as the Malabars. This drug has a different effect from opium, as it does not injure the constitution, but simply exhilarates, and afterward causes a temporary lethargy.
In appearance it very nearly resembles the common hemp, but it differs in the seed. The leaves and blossoms are dried, and are either smoked like tobacco, or formed into a paste with various substances and chewed.
When the plant approaches maturity, a gummy substance exudes from the leaves; this is gathered by men clothed in dry raw hides, who, by walking through the plantation, become covered with this gum or glue. This is scraped off and carefully preserved, being the very essence of the plant, and exceedingly powerful in its effects.
The sensation produced by the properties of this shrub is a wild, dreamy kind of happiness; the ideas are stimulated to a high degree, and all that are most pleasurable are exaggerated till the senses at length sink into a vague and delightful elysium.
The reaction after this unnatural excitement is very distressing, but the sufferer is set all right again by some trifling stimulant, such as a glass of wine or spirits.
It is supposed, and confidently asserted by some, that the Indian hemp is the foundation of the Egyptian "hashisch," the effects of which are precisely similar.
However harmless the apparent effect of a narcotic drug, common sense must at once perceive that a repeated intoxication, no matter how it is produced, must be ultimately hurtful to the system. The brain, accustomed to constant stimulants, at length loses its natural power, and requires these artificial assistants to enable it to perform its ordinary functions, in the same manner that the stomach, from similar treatment, would at length cease to act. This being continued, the brain becomes semi-torpid, until wakened up by a powerful stimulant, and the nervous system is at length worn out by a succession of exciting causes and reactions. Thus, a hard drinker appears dull and heavy until under the influence of his secret destroyer when he brightens up and, perhaps, shines in conversation; but every reaction requires a stronger amount of stimulant to lessen its effect, until mind and body at length become involved in the common ruin.
The seed of the lotus is a narcotic of a mild description, and it is carefully gathered when ripe and eaten by the natives.
The lotus is seen in two varieties in Ceylon - the pink and the white. The former is the most beautiful, and they are both very common in all tanks and sluggish streams. The leaves are larger than those of the waterlily, to which they bear a great resemblance, and the blossoms are full double the size. When the latter fade, the petals fall, and the base of the flower and seed-pod remains in the shape of a circular piece of honeycomb, full of cells sufficiently large to contain a hazel-nut. This is about the size of the seed, but the shape is more like an acorn without its cup. The flavor is pleasant, being something like a filbert, but richer and more oily.
Stramonium (Datura stramonium), which is a powerful narcotic, is a perfect weed throughout the island, but it is not used by the natives otherwise than medicinally, and the mass of the people are ignorant of its qualities, which are only known to the Cingalese doctors. I recollect some years ago, in Mauritius, where this plant is equally common, its proprieties were not only fully understood, but made use of by some of the Chinese emigrants. These fellows made cakes of manioc and poisoned them with stramonium. Hot manioc cakes are the common every-day accompaniment to a French planter's breakfast at Mauritius, and through the medium of these the Chinese robbed several houses. Their plan was simple enough.
A man with cakes to sell appeared at the house at an early hour, and these being purchased, he retired until about two hours after breakfast was concluded. By this time the whole family were insensible, and the thieves robbed the house at their leisure. None of these cases terminated fatally; but, from the instant that I heard of it, I made every cake-seller who appeared at the door devour one of his own cakes before I became a purchaser. These men, however, were bona fide cake-merchants, and I did not meet with an exception.
There are a great variety of valuable medicinal plants in the jungles of Ceylon, many of which are unknown to any but the native doctors. Those most commonly known to us, and which may be seen growing wild by the roadside, are the nux vomica, ipecacuanha, gamboge, sarsaparilla, cassia fistula, cardamoms, etc.
The ipecacuanha is a pretty, delicate plant, which bears a bright orange-colored cluster of flowers.
The cassia fistula is a very beautiful tree, growing to the size of an ash, which it somewhat resembles in foliage. The blossom is very beautiful, being a pendant of golden flowers similar to the laburnum, but each blossom is about two and a half feet long, and the individual flowers on the bunch are large in proportion. When the tree is in full flower it is very superb, and equally as singular when its beauty has faded and the seed-pods are formed. These grow to a length of from two to three feet, and when ripe are perfectly black, round, and about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. The tree has the appearance of bearing, a prolific crop of ebony rulers, each hanging from the bough by a short string.
There is another species of cassia fistula, the foliage of which assimilates to the mimosa. This bears a thicker, but much shorter, pod, of about a foot in length. The properties of both are the same, being laxative. Each seed within the pod is surrounded by a sweet, black and honey-like substance, which contains the property alluded to.
The gamboge tree is commonly known in Ceylon as the "ghorka." This grows to the common size of an apple tree, and bears a corrugated and intensely acid fruit. This is dried by the natives and used in curries. The gamboge is the juice of the tree obtained by incisions in the bark. This tree grows in great numbers in the neighborhood of Colombo, especially among the cinnamon gardens. Here, also, the cashew tree grows to great perfection. The bark of the latter is very rich in tannin, and is used by the natives in the preparation of hides. The fruit is like an apple in appearance, and small, but is highly astringent. The well-known cashew-nut grows like an excrescence from the end of the apple.
Many are the varieties and uses of vegetable productions in Ceylon, but of these none are more singular and interesting than the "sack tree," the Riti Gaha of the Cingalese. From the bark of this tree an infinite number of excellent sacks are procured, with very little trouble or preparation. The tree being felled, the branches are cut into logs of the length required, and sometimes these are soaked in water; but this is not always necessary. The balk is then well beaten with a wooden mallet, until it is loosened from the wood; it is then stripped off the log as a stocking is drawn off the leg. It is subsequently bleached, and one end being sewn lip, completes a perfect sack of a thick fibrous texture, somewhat similar to felt.
These sacks are in general use among the natives, and are preferred by them to any other, as their durability is such that they sometimes descend from father to son. By constant use they stretch and increase their original size nearly one half. The texture necessarily becomes thinner, but the strength does not appear to be materially decreased.
There are many fibrous barks in Ceylon, some which are so strong that thin strips require a great amount of strength to break them, but none of these have yet been reduced to a marketable fibre. Several barks are more or less aromatic; others would be valuable to the tanners; several are highly esteemed by the natives as most valuable astringents, but hitherto none have received much notice from Europeans. This may be caused by the general want of success of all experiments with indigenous produce. Although the jungles of Ceylon produce a long list of articles of much interest, still their value chiefly lies in their curiosity; they are useful to the native, but comparatively of little worth to the European. In fact, few things will actually pay for the trouble and expense of collecting and transporting. Throughout the vast forests and jungles of Ceylon, although the varieties of trees are endless, there is not one valuable gum known to exist. There is a great variety of coarse, unmarketable productions, about equal to the gum of the cherry tree, etc., but there is no such thing as a high-priced gum in the island.
The export of dammer is a mere trifle - four tons in 1852, twelve tons in 1853. This is a coarse and comparatively valueless commodity. No other tree but the doom tree produces any gum worth collecting; this species of rosin exudes in large quantities from an incision in the bark, but the amount of exports shows its insignificance. It is a fair sample of Ceylon productions; nothing that is uncultivated is of much pecuniary value.