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THE COW TREE.
Palo de Vaca.
6 The soil untillid
MONTGOMERY's Pelican Island.
WHILE Messieurs Humboldt and Bonpland were pursuing their journey from Porto Cabello to the valleys of Aragua, they were frequently told of a tree the juice of which was a vegetable milk of a highly nourishing character. Trees of this kind had been known to the Spanish colonists as early as the year 1683; for we read, in a description of the Western Indies, (as all South America was then
called,) printed at that time, the following passage:
Among the trees which are natives of that place, some are mentioned by Spanish writers which exude a kind of milky liquor; this soon becomes hard like gum, and emits a sweet odour. Others, also, which discharge a liquor like coagulated milk, are used as food without injury."
During the stay of these gentlemen at a plantation called Barbula, they were assured that the negroes drank copiously of this vegetable milk, and considered it a very wholesome beverage. As all the milky juices from plants with which they were acquainted were both acrid and bitter, this account surprised them not a little ; but while at the plantation they were fully convinced that the good qualities of the Palo de Vaca, the Cow Tree, had not been exaggerated. The flower of the tree was not seen, but its leaves are about ten inches in length, of a leathery consistence. The fruit is fleshy, and contains one or two nuts. When incisions are made in the trunk of the Cow Tree, it yields abundance of a glutinous milk, tolerably thick, with a pleasant taste, and of an agreeable balsamic smell. It is drunk in the shell of the calabash tree, and in great quantities, by the natives, both in the morning and evening. They experienced no disagreeable effects from this lux. ury of nature; the only unpleasant quality is that of its clamminess. Both the negroes and the free people who work in the plantations drink it, and dip their maize or cassava bread in it. The superintendant of the farm declared that the negroes got sensibly fatter during the term that the trees gave out their milk most abundantly.
When this butter is exposed to the air, yellowish thread-like strings, like cheese, settle on the top: these filaments are elastic like India rubber, but after a space of five or six days become sour and putrid. This substance, from its resemblance to that material, is called cheese.
When the juice was shut up in a stopped vial, it deposited very little of this thick part, and retained its balsamic smell.
This extraordinary tree appears to be peculiar to the Cordilleras of the coast, particularly from Barbadoes to the lake of Maracaybo. At Caucagua, the natives call the tree which furnishes this nourishing juice the “Milk Tree,” and say that they can, from the thickness and colour of the foliage, discover the trunks that yield the most
juice; just as the herdsman distinguishes from external signs a good milch cow.
“Amid the number of curious phenomena,” says Mr. Humboldt, “that have presented themselves to me in the course of my travels, I confess there are few which have so powerfully affected my imagination as the aspect of the Cow Tree. It is not here the solemn shades of forests, the majestic course of rivers, the mountains wrapped in eternal snows, that excite our emotion : a few drops of vegetable juice recall to our minds all the powerfulness and fruitfulness of nature.
“On the barren side of a rock grows a tree with tough dry leaves : its large woody roots can scarcely penetrate into the stone. During many months of the year not a single shower moistens its foliage; its branches appear dead and withered; but yet, when the trunk is pierced, there flows from it a sweet and nourishing milk. It is at sun-rise that this vegetable is most abundant. The blacks and natives are then seen hastening from all quarters furnished with large bowls of calabash to receive the milk, which grows yellow and thickens on the surface. Some drink their bowls under the tree,
others carry home the juice to their children; all rejoice in a provision so admirably suited to their wants, and which entails upon them neither labour nor care."
The following account of the Milk tree of Demerara is condensed from an interesting letter received by Professor Jameson from James Smith, Esq.:
“ In a late excursion up the river Demerara, it was my good fortune to fall in, certainly not with the same kind of tree, but with one possessing the mild milky qualities ascribed by Humboldt to the Palo de Vaca. I chanced to stop at the little Indian settlement of Byawadanny, and there I was told of a tree called by the Indians Hyà-Hyà, the milk of which was both drinkable and nutritious. I was then in company with Mr. Couchman the superintendent of a wood-cutting establishment in the immediate vicinity. We had sent a lad to search around for the tree, and he returned in a short time to tell us he had met with it. We followed him to the spot, and found that he had felled the tree. It had fallen across a little rivulet, the water of which, when we arrived, was completely whitened from its juice. On sticking a knife into the bark, a