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Sea-Weeds, Shells and Fossils   By:

Sea-Weeds, Shells and Fossils by Peter Gray

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Of the British Museum (Natural History), South Kensington.






Algæ, popularly known as sea weeds, although many species are inhabitants of fresh water, or grow on moist ground, may be briefly described as cellular, flowerless plants, having no proper roots, but imbibing nutriment by their whole surface from the medium in which they grow. As far as has been ascertained, the total number of species is about 9000 or 10,000. Many of them are microscopic, as the Desmids and Diatoms, others, as Lessonia, and some of the larger Laminariæ (oarweeds), are arborescent, covering the bed of the sea around the coast with a submarine forest; while in the Pacific, off the northwestern shores of America, Nereocystis, a genus allied to Laminaria, has a stem over 300 feet in length, which, although not thicker than whipcord, is stout enough to moor a bladder, barrel shaped, six or seven feet long, and crowned with a tuft of fifty leaves or more, each from thirty to forty feet in length. This vegetable buoy is a favourite resting place of the sea otter; and where the plant exists in any quantity, the surface of the sea is rendered impassable to boats. The stem of Macrocystis, which "girds the globe in the southern temperate zone," is stated to extend sometimes to the enormous length of 1500 feet. It is no thicker than the finger anywhere, and the upper branches are as slender as pack thread; but at the base of each leaf there is placed a buoy, in the shape of a vesicle filled with air.

Although the worthlessness of Algæ has been proverbial, as in the "alga inutile" of Horace and Virgil's "projecta vilior alga," they are not without importance in botanical economics. A dozen or more species found in the British seas are made use of, raw or prepared in several ways, as food for man. Of these edible Algæ, Dr. Harvey considers the two species of Porphyra, or laver, the most valuable. Berkeley says, "The best way of preparing this vegetable or condiment, which is extremely wholesome, is to heat it thoroughly with a little strong gravy or broth, adding, before it is served on toast, a small quantity of butter and lemon juice." A species of Nostoc is largely consumed in China as an ingredient in soup. A similar use is made of Enteromorpha intestinalis in Japan. Many species of fish and other animals, turtle included, live upon sea weed. Fucus vesiculosus is a grateful food for cattle. In Norway, cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs are largely fed upon it, and on our own coasts cattle eagerly browse on that and kindred species at low water. In some northern countries, Fucus serratus sprinkled with meal is used as winter fodder.

[Illustration: Fig. 1. Group of Sea weeds (chiefly Laminariæ)]

All the marine Algæ contain iodine; and even before the value of that substance in glandular complaints had been ascertained, stems of a sea weed were chewed as a remedy by the inhabitants of certain districts of South America where goître is prevalent. Chondrus crispus and (Gigartina) mamillosa constitute the Irish moss of commerce, which dissolves into a nutritious and delicate jelly, and the restorative value of which in consumption doubtless depends in some degree on the presence of iodine. The freshwater Algæ not only furnish abundant and nourishing food to the fish and other animals living in ponds and streams, but by their action in the decomposition of carburetted hydrogen and other noxious gases purify the element in which they live, thus becoming important sanitary agents. The value of aquatic plants in the aquarium is well known. A Chinese species of Gigartina is much employed as a glue and varnish; and also much used in China in the manufacture of lanterns and transparencies, and in that country and Japan for glazing windows... Continue reading book >>

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