Botany and the Americas
William Gardener investigates the history of American flora and finds among its contributions to the health and happiness of Europe the not inconsiderable commodities of maize, the potato, rubber, tobacco, and quinine.
When the Spaniards climbed the cordillera of the Andes in Central America, they intruded on a civilization as ferocious as any of which there is record, and a landscape of gardens that must rank among the past wonders of the world. The thirst for gold, and the urge to discover and to proselytize, combined into one blast that swept away the rulers of ancient Mexico, and destroyed also the basis of their gardens. Even in the first generation of the new masters there were men who might have repeated:
vidi ego odorati victura rosaria Paesti
sub matutino cocta iacere Noto.
Mexico of the Aztecs was a forested country, its tableland covered with oak and sycamore, and cypress and cedar and larch and other conifers. The Valley of Mexico itself, at 7,000 feet and over, appeared as a great park, wherein the prevailing green was enlivened by yellow fields of maize, and the towering agave. The mass of trees attracted moisture and; in cities adjacent to the rich woodlands and orchards, royal and princely demesnes had been established, watered by canals and irrigation-ducts, and basins and fountains.
Intensive culture was not confined to firm land. Nurseries and plots two and three hundred feet in length floated on the lakes, and were poled about as if they had been punts, to carry a profusion of flowers and vegetables to people who delighted in the one and, populating a country where the pressure on cultivable land was severe, depended on the other.
From sea-level to the upland plateaux the territory that now comprises modern Mexico and the states south to the Isthmus has, through dispersion after the time of the Conquest, been the source of many of the cultivated plants most useful to man—trees and grains and vegetables that are now of such widespread use that the economy of certain parts of the world has grown to depend on them.