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Alexander von Humboldt: „On the Milk extracted from the Cow Tree (l’ Arbre de la Vache), and on Vegetable Milk in general“, in: ders., Sämtliche Schriften digital, herausgegeben von Oliver Lubrich und Thomas Nehrlich, Universität Bern 2021. URL: <> [abgerufen am 24.03.2023].

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Titel On the Milk extracted from the Cow Tree (l’ Arbre de la Vache), and on Vegetable Milk in general
Jahr 1818
Ort London
in: The London Medical Repository, Monthly Journal, and Review 9:53 (1. Mai 1818), S. 424–429.
Postumer Nachdruck
Alexander von Humboldt, Das große Lesebuch, herausgegeben von Oliver Lubrich, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer 2009, S. 136–138 [ediert nach dem Isis-Druck].
Sprache Englisch
Typografischer Befund Antiqua; Auszeichnung: Kursivierung.
Textnummer Druckausgabe: III.56
Dateiname: 1818-Sur_le_Lait-02-neu
Seitenanzahl: 6
Zeichenanzahl: 11858

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On the Milk extracted from the Cow Tree (l’ Arbre de laVache), and on Vegetable Milk in general.— By Humboldt. Annales de Chimie.—“

We have given (say the editors of theAnnales) the extract of a memoir read by M. Humboldt in one |425|of the last sittings of the Academy of Sciences. The readerswho may desire a more extended detail on a subject so inte-resting in vegetable chemistry, will find it in the sixth volumeof the Relation Historique, by the author, which will be veryshortly published. “We had for several weeks past heard mention made of acertain tree in the valleys of Aragua, the juice of which wassaid to be a nourishing milk; the tree, indeed, was called thecow tree, and we learnt that the negroes of the place, whodrank it abundantly, looked upon it as a very wholesome spe-cies of aliment. This account excited surprise in our minds,since the general characters attached to the milky juices ofplants, are those of being acrid, bitter, and more or less poison-ous. But since our residence in Barbula (province of theCaraccas), we have found that in this account of the Palo devaca there was no exaggeration. The tree thus named, is oneof a very beautiful appearance. Its flowers we had not anopportunity of seeing; the fruit of it is rather pulpy, and en-closes sometimes one and sometimes two kernels. When in-cisions are made into the trunk of this tree, which appears tobelong to the sapota tribe of plants, it gives out an abundanceof a glutinous thick kind of milk, void of all acrimony, andexhaling an odour by no means unpleasant. We drank consi-derable quantities of it, both in the evening before we retiredto rest and early in the morning, without experiencing theslightest inconvenience: it is only the glutinous nature ofthe fluid in question that occasions its taste to be at all un-pleasant. Both the slaves and others employed upon theplantations drink it freely, and mix it with the maize and ca-pada plant. The master of the plantation assured us that theslaves always thrived and gained flesh during the season inwhich the Palo de vaca furnished them with milk. When thismilk is exposed to the air, its surface becomes covered with astrongly animalized substance of a yellowish hue, and fibrousstringy appearance, resembling a cheesy matter. This changein the juice is probably produced by an absorption of oxygenfrom the air. When the membranous substance of which wespeak is separated from the more fluid part of the milk, itproves to be nearly as elastic as caoutchouc; but it undergoesin the course of time a like putrefaction with gelatine. Thepeople of the place call this matter cheese. It becomes sourin about five or six days, according to the observation which Imade on some portions of it which I took with me to Orenoque.The milk, enclosed in a well stopped vial, had thrown down asmall quantity of coagulum, which, far from being fetid, con-stantly exhaled a sort of balsamic odour. The fresh milkscarcely coagulated at all upon being mixed with cold water; |426|but a separation of this viscous matter took place when Iheated it with nitric acid. We sent two bottles of this milkto M. Fourcroy, at Paris. The one bottle contained the juicepure, in the other it was mixed with a quantity of carbonateof soda. This remarkable production, the Palo de vaca, appears to beconfined to the Cordilleras (la Cordillière du Littoral), espe-cially near the lake of Marakabo. It is found also near thetown of San Mateo; and, according to M. Bredmeyer (whosevoyages have so much contributed to enrich the beautiful green-houses of Schônbrun and Vienna), it is to be seen in the valeof Caucagua, three days’ journey east of the Caraccas. Thisnaturalist, like ourselves, found the vegetable juice in questionof an agreeable taste and aromatic odour. The natives of Cau-cagua call the tree which furnishes it, the milk tree arbol deloche. The inhabitants of the Andes had been in the practice offabricating wax lights from the wax which is found on thetrunk of the palm tree long before the chemists of Europe haddiscovered quantities of wax in the pollen of flowers, varnishin leaves, and farina in fruits; in like manner the caseum, thebasis of cheese, has but recently been detected in the emulsionsof almonds; whereas we find that ages ago, in the mountainsof Venezuela, the milk of a tree, and the cheese which sepa-rates itself from such milk, were used as aliment. How are weto account for these singularities in regard to the developementof our knowledge of nature’s productions? How can we ex-plain the fact, that the people of another hemisphere have dis-covered and applied properties which had for so long a timeescaped the penetration of men whose very occupation it is tosearch Nature’s laws, and penetrate her mysterious operations? It would appear that the fact is to be explained partly fromthe circumstance of the elements and principles of plantsbeing distributed among so many orders and families of thevegetable creation, partly from that difference of quantity, withrespect to their essential principles, which is observed in thevegetable world, according as the particular plant is a native ofequatorial, or of cold and temperate latitudes, and partly by aningenuity derived from necessity, which impels uncultivatedman to seek for his sustenance in the natural productions bywhich he is surrounded. Thus the juices, the bark, the roots,and the fruits of trees, become the subjects naturally of in-stinctive investigation; and when poisonous productions arecombined with those that are wholesome and nutritive, man istaught by the same necessity to separate the one principle fromthe other, as in the arum, tacca, &c. The American savage,as well as the inhabitants of the South Sea islands, have thus |427|learnt the art to prepare the fecula of plants, by compressingit and separating its juice. In the milk of plants, as also in themilky emulsions, materials considerably nutrient, such as albu-men, the caseous and the saccharine principles are intermixedwith caoutchouc, and deleterious ingredients, such as morphineand hydrocyanic acid. These combinations vary not only inthe different tribes of plants, but also in the respective speciesof the same genera. Sometimes it is the morphine or narcoticprinciple, which predominates in vegetable milk; in other in-stances the caoutchouc is the characterizing ingredient; andlastly, as we have seen in the juice of the papaya, and cowtree, the caseous is the main principle. The lactiferous plants belong principally to the three familiesof the Euphorbia, the Urticaria, and the Apocyna; and as uponinvestigating the different distribution of vegetable growth inthe several parts of the world, we find that the species of theseorders of plants are most numerous in the tropical regions, weinfer that a very high temperature is necessary for the properelaboration of the milky juices, as well at to the completeformation of the caoutchouc of albumen, and of the caseousprinciple. The juice of the Palo de vaca certainly presentsone of the most striking examples of a vegetable milk in whichthe acrid and deleterious principles are not united to albumen,caseum, or caoutchouc; but the euphorbium and asclepiasgenera, so generally known by their caustic properties, hadbefore furnished us with some species of which the juice isbland and innocent, as in the instance of the tabayba dulce,(euphorbia balsamifera) of the Canary Isles, and the asclepiaslactifera of Ceylon. Bruman has told us, that the inhabitantsof Ceylon make use of this last in lieu of milk, and that theymix its leaves in cookery with those articles of food that aregenerally prepared with milk. It is to be wished that Mr. JohnDavy may pay attention to this particular during his stay atCeylon; for it appears probable, as has been suggested by M.Decandolle, that it is only the juice which exudes from theyoung plant, which is used for the purposes in question, viz.that which flows from the vegetable before the development ofthe acrid principle. Indeed, in some countries, the first shootsof even the apocyna are eaten. I have thus endeavoured to institute a general resemblancebetween the juices which circulate in plants, and the lactiferousemulsions which are yielded by the almond and palm tribe;and I may here add a few remarks respecting some experimentsupon the carica papaya, which I made during my stay in thevalleys of Aragua; not, of course, of so satisfactory a nature as theymight have been, had I been furnished with the several reactîvesnecessary to conduct investigations of this kind. I ascertained |428|that the younger the fruit of the plant, the greater was thequantity of milk which it furnished: this juice, indeed, wasfound even in the germ of the fruit; and as it proceeded tomaturity, its milk became not merely less abundant, but alsomore aqueous. In it was found less of the animal coagulablematter (matière animale coagulable), and it is conceivable thatas the plant advances in growth, this matter, abstracted fromthe fruit, comes to constitute its pulpy or fleshy parts. Thecoagulum from the very young fruit, heated with nitric acid,becomes viscous, and exhales a waxy odour, similar to thatwhich I have observed in muscular flesh and in small mush-rooms (morilles), when the acid is added to them in the samemanner. Following the hints of Fourcroy and Vauquelin, Imixed the milk of the papaya with a solution of carbonate ofsoda. The mixture did not run into coagulated lumps, evenwhen water was added to it. The membranous substance didnot show itself, until, by the addition of an acid to the solution,the soda became neutralized. The coagulum formed by thenitric acid, lemon juice, and hot water, I caused to disappear,by adding to the mixture the carbonate of soda. By this ad-dition the juice resumed its milky and liquid appearance; butthe experiments only answered when the addition was made torecently formed coagula. In conclusion, it may be remarked, that a comparison of themilky juices of the papaya with those of the cow-tree and thehevea, offers a striking analogy between the juices which aboundin the caseous, and those that contain the caoutchouc principle.All the productions in which the latter is predominant, as like-wise the impenetrable garments (manteaux imperméables) thatare fabricated in Spanish America, are made to exhale a likeanimal and disagreeable odour, by placing the milk of thehevea between two layers of them; a circumstance which wouldseem to argue that the caoutchouc in coagulating, attracts toitself the caseum, which is no other, perhaps, than albumen ina different form. The fruit of the bread-tree is not any morebread than are the bananas before their maturity, or the tube-rous and amilaceous roots of the cassada, the convolvulus bat-tatas, or the potatoe. On the contrary, the milk of the Palode vaca contains the caseous principle in the same manner asdoes the milk from the mammalia. In pursuing these analogiesbetween the animal and vegetable world, we may, with M.Gay-Lussac, consider the caoutchouc as the oily part, the butteras it were of the vegetable milk. In a word, we may find invegetable milk, caseum and caoutchouc; in animal milk, caseumand butter. The two principles vary in their proportions indifferent animals, as they do in the various species of lactiferousplants. In these last, they are more generally mingled with |429|other materials which are not alimentary; but from such mate-rials they may, perhaps, be always separated by chemicalprocesses. Vegetable milk becomes wholesome and nourish-ing when it is deprived of its acrid and narcotic principle, andwhen it abounds more in caseous matter than in caoutchouc.