All the Way to China

At first none of the people who had gathered in a town square of Venice about 700 years ago would believe the strangely dressed men. How could these ragged travelers with long straggly beards be Marco Polo and his father and uncle? The Polos had left Venice many years ago. No news had come back about them. Even their family was sure they were dead. And these men were boasting of adventures that sounded like fairy tales.

“Prove it,” the crowd yelled.”Prove it!”
And so Marco invited everyone to a great banquet. When the guests were seated, the Polos made a grand entrance. Such splendors! They swept into the hall wearing shining silk and satin robes. As the guests buzzed with excitement Marco led his father and uncle out of the room. When they returned again, they were wearing their tattered clothes.

“On faraway trails it’s easier to fool thieves if we wear such clothes,” Marco said. Then each man slit open the seams of his robe. Out poured glittering jewels-rubies, emeralds and other precious stones. “We’ve traveled over deserts and high mountains and strange seas,” Marco told them.”We’ve been all the way to China and we lived with an emperor.

There are many stories about the great explorer Marco Polo. He lived long ago when it took months to go as far as we can travel today between breakfast and lunch. From Marco the people in Venice heard for the first time about “Nuts as large as a man’s head” (coconuts!)..about strange animals whose skin was used to make wool coats(yaks!)..about leaves that people boiled in water and drank (tea!).

With Marco’s help, amp makers drew maps showing the new places that the Polos had been. Marco wrote a book about the wonderful and often dangerous places they had visited. But he said he could never tell all the things he had seen and done-because the world would never believe him!

Insects, Watch out!

This plant growing at the edge of a pond looks harmless enough. But it isn’t-not for this fly. If the fly smells the sweet-smelling nectar in this plant and touches a leaf, it will be captured. Just brushing against one tiny hair on the edge of the leaf will make the plant snap shut with the fly trapped inside. The plant is called a Venus’s flytrap. It catches insects and eats them!

To stay alive most plants get all the things they need from the soil they grow in and from the air and the sun. But this plant seems to need other things as well. It gets them by trapping insects. Of course these plants don’t really eat food the way you do. They can’t chew or swallow. They simply soak up the good parts of the insect to use for food.

A Venus’s flytrap isn’t the only plant that captures insects. This pitcher plant has leaves shaped like small pitchers. But it doesn’t trap food by snapping its leaves shut. Instead its leaves have slippery insides-so slippery that when an insect climbs in to taste the nectar it slips and slides all the way to the bottom of the leaves. Most insect eating plants grow near damp or wet places. This bladderwort is one that lives right in water-floating on top or growing on the bottom of a muddy pond or swamp.

It catches tiny water creatures with a trap no bigger than the tip of your finger. The trap is shaped like a very small bag and has bristles growing around an opening. When a water insect touches one of the bristles the bag opens and traps the insect for food.

The skinny stalks covering the leaf of the sundew plant are coated with a sticky liquid-just right for catching food. When the sun shines, the sundew plant shines too. Insects easily find their way onto the sticky stalks. But getting away isn’t easy at all. Their harder an insect tries to crawl of the stalk the more it gets stuck.

The Air Is Their Grocery Store

Spanish moss and Orchids don’t look alike. They have different shapes and different colors. But there is one thing that makes these two plants very much alike and at the same time keeps them very different from almost every other plant we know about. Most plants have roots that grow in the ground. Their roots soak up the food and water they need from the soil.

But not Spanish moss or the kind of orchid. They get food and water from the air! That’s why they’re called air plant. Some air plants have spongy roots for soaking up whatever food they can find in the air. And some have large leaves for collecting water. Other air plants take in food and water through tiny hairs on their leaves and stems.

Air plants can be found on the branches, leaves and trunks of trees. A few grow on rocks. Some even grow on poles. But no matter where they live, they all get food and water they need from the air around them.

Why Things Grow

Why do trees and other plants grow in some places and not in others? Why does some land have so much growing on it, while other land has almost no plants growing on it at all? To grow, plants need several things. One is warmth. In very cold places almost nothing grows. That’s why the cold land at the North and the South Pole is so bare. Plants also need water. In very dry parts on the Earth only a few unusual plants can grow. That’s why dry deserts everywhere are almost bare.

Plants must also have a place in which to put down their roots and grow. They find it hard to grow on rocky land. This town is built on rocky land. The plants here have only the soil found between the cracks of the rocks to grow in. Even where there are no rocks, the soil must be loose enough for the roots to push their way down and for the air and water to find their way to the roots. That is why farmers plow their fields-to loosen the soil.

Another thing plants must have before they can grow is food. What would happen if we tried to make things grow on this sandy beach?A few plants, such as beach grass, will grow in sand but most plants won’t. Even if the weather was warm enough and we watered the plants each day, many of them would die because the sand on this beach has very little food for plants.

What kind of food do plants need? They need the kind that is in soil where other plants have grown and died. When plants die, the sun dries them up. Then wind and rain break them into little powdery pieces, and they become part of the soil-an important part that will feed new plants. When soil holds a lot of this kind of food and there is enough warmth and water, plants of many kinds grow thick and green.

While growing plants use up the food in the soil. The food that these cabbages took from the soil won’t go back into it because the cabbages will taken away to be eaten. What happens then? The farmer has to put new food for plants into the soil. Sometimes he does this by planting a different kind of growing thing and then later plowing it under the soil. Or he may let the land rest for a year or two. But more often he puts a plant food called fertilizer into the soil. He buys the fertilizer in bags or tanks and uses a machine to sprinkle or spray it evenly onto the land. The fertilizer gives back to the land some of the plant food that growing plants took out of it.