Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the March 22, 2015 Newsletter issued from Río Lagartos, on the north-central coast of Yucatán, MÉXICO

Part of the joy of being in an area of high species diversity is that you never know what spectacular organism will greet you around the next corner. A big surprise this week in the thorn forest was a 15-ft-high (4.5m) tall tree I'd passed many times without noticing but which this week attracted attention with its large, white flower clusters. The tree's general form couldn't be made out because its branches were so entangled with those of other trees and bushes, but below you can see a typical branch with snowy inflorescences handsomely set amid dark green, glossy, simple leaves:

Princewood, CORDIA GERASCANTHUS, flowering branch

Despite the tree's impressive appearance, I had no idea what it could be, and so needed to "do the botany." The flowers were too high to examine closely but from the ground it could be seen that the blossoms were arranged in panicle-type inflorescences -- panicles having branches off their main axes themselves branched -- as shown below:

Princewood, CORDIA GERASCANTHUS, panicle

With the camera's modest telephoto ability and by pushing PhotoShop to its limit, a shot was obtained of a single flower with six corolla lobes -- contrasting with most flowers having only five lobes -- and a similar number of stamens, and a yellow, four-divided style, as seen below:

Princewood, CORDIA GERASCANTHUS, flower

Mingled among the flowering clusters were other clusters of brown items, which I assumed to be fruits. A blown-up picture of these things proved that they were otherwise, as shown below:

Princewood, CORDIA GERASCANTHUS, brown, dry corollas on tree

The brown, papery, 5-lobed item at the picture's top, left corner best shows that the brown things actually were corollas that as they aged dried and turned brown, retaining the corolla's original shape. Below the tree the ground was littered with discarded corollas, some of which are shown in my hand below:

Princewood, CORDIA GERASCANTHUS, brown, dried-up corollas

The corolla at the image's top, right corner retains a few shriveled stamens. The two corollas at the left show objects attached at their bases which at first glance one assumes to be hairy fruits. However, if one of the hairy things is torn open it's discovered to be a dried-up calyx enclosing a fruit.

The tree's whitish trunk bearing termite tunnels leading between the ground and upper branches is shown below:

Princewood, CORDIA GERASCANTHUS, trunk with termite tubes

Features of flowers and fruits led me to the Borage Family, the Boraginaceae, which most Northern gardeners think of as a family consisting mainly of herbs -- Borage, Hounds-Tongue, Bluebells, Forget-me-not -- but which in the tropics produces fair-sized trees. Knowing our tree's family, it was easy to discover our tree's identity by scanning the list of Borage Family members occurring in the Yucatan.

Our pretty tree is CORDIA GERASCANTHUS, sometimes known in English as Princewood or Spanish Elm, though it's not closely related to elms at all. The name Princewood reflects people's appreciation of the wood's beauty, workability and durability. Princewood occurs in arid environments, especially on limestone, from southern Mexico and the Caribbean south to northern South America.

This is the second tree we've encountered here whose main English name appears to be Princewood. The two trees are not closely related, but that's how common names work: Just about any tree whose name is highly admired might be called Princewood by someone.