Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the February 18, 2008 Newsletter written in the community of 28 de Junio, in the Central Valley, 8 kms east of Pujiltic, Chiapas, MÉXICO


Above you see one of the more unusual trees in our landscape, a palm that at a distance looks like an upside-down feather duster, and bearing more spines than would seem necessary. It's ACROCOMIA ACULEATA, called Coyol here.

Below you can see just how spiny the palm is, where my hand can hardly find a place among the trunk's many long and short spines jutting out at odd angles. In the picture's center the thing looking like a bird nest is the natural fiber often produced at the bases of palm fronds. You may remember the neater-looking fiber mats at the bases of Coconut Palm fronds examined back in the Yucatan, a picture of which still resides online at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/cocofibr.jpg


I've often wondered why a palm would go to such extremes of spininess. Half the spine density would seem enough to keep nearly any animal away. If I had to guess I'd say that the extreme spininess helps the palm create its own microhabitat. Especially now masses of leaves from dry-season-deciduous trees are collecting in the palms' crowns and between frond- petioles and trunks. Spiders, especially those constructing large funnel-webs with tunnels at one side, anchor their webs among the spines, gathering even more leaves and debris. These loose conglomerations attract insects who attract birds, lizards and more spiders, and then come things that eat birds, lizards and spiders.

Maybe the benefit of all this to the Coyol in that the decaying leaves, spider-discarded invertebrate carcasses and bird doo concentrate phosphorus and other precious nutrients around the palm.

from the April 14, 2008 Newsletter written in the community of 28 de Junio, in the Central Valley, 8 kms east of Pujiltic, Chiapas, MÉXICO

Nowadays the Coyol's flowers and fruits are grabbing my attention. First see the size of the fruits below:


Then see the abundance with which they're produced below:


The two-ft-long fruit clusters are impressive enough, but maybe even more imposing are the semi-woody, spine-covered, brown "spathes" partially covering them. A spathe is a bract or leaf surrounding or subtending a flower cluster. It protects the flowers as they develop. Sometimes they stay small and fall off, but on Coyol obviously they enlarge into something substantial. Coyol's spathe might be more useful to humans if they weren't so spiny. Coconut Palms also produce conspicuous spathes. You can a Coconut Palm inflorescence emerging from its protective spathe halfway down the page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/coco-frt.htm.

In the upper left of our Coyol picture you can see several slender, yellow items. Those are spikes bearing many very small flowers. In the same picture remnants of those spikes can be seen emerging from the fruit clusters, now pale gray and stiff with age. Since fruits occur only at the bases of each of these grayish items, I'm assuming that on Coyol inflorescences male flowers occupy the top of the spike while fruit-producing female flowers are limited to the spike's lower part.

When I first saw how abundant the fruits were I began thinking I might have something to add to my diet here. However, the "nut" inside the hard shell was too hard to deal with.

"You eat them when they're younger," I was told. "Then they're softer inside. You put sugar on the nuts and they're good to suck on."

I asked about medicinal uses.

"Boil some leaves in water and make a tea," a young man told me. "It's good for bones, makes them strong, and keeps your joints in good shape."

"Nah, no good at that," an old man with bad arthritis contradicted in this traditional society where people seldom openly contradict one another.

"Well, if your bones and joints are in good shape," the young man compromised, "a tea of Coyol leaves keeps them that way.

The old man looked skeptical but didn't say a word.

from the January 1, 2017 Newsletter issued from Rancho Regensis north of Valladolid, Yucatán, MÉXICO

In the garden I began noticing little brown balls with holes in them, as shown below:

ACROCOMIA ACULEATA, fruits having passed through a cow

Living this close to a major Maya ruin, Ek Balam, how could I not think that I was finding ancient Maya beads made of baked clay, with the holes serving for the necklace's string to pass through? The only feature not agreeing with that hypothesis was that each ball bore three holes, not two. Still, I spent a good bit of time looking for balls, imagining that the garden must have been established atop an ancient Maya burial. I visualized maybe a thousand years ago a Maya warrior or maiden wearing a necklace of colored beads being buried right here were now I was growing chili peppers and cilantro.

I showed the balls to Gonzalo the rancho manager, who smiled and said, "Cocoyol!" Cocoyol is the name of a spiny palm tree found growing throughout the rancho. Our page for the Cocoyol, which we've learned elsewhere to call Coyol, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/coyol.htm

This large palm produces heavy clusters of coconut-like fruits about the size of the balls in the picture. Here Cocoyols are welcome because the livestock gladly eat the hard nuts. In fact, that explains why so many of the fruits turn up in the garden, despite there being no Coyol nearby. "The animals eat the nuts, the nuts pass through their bodies, we collect the manure for the compost, and that gets strewn on the garden," Gonzalo explained.

It all made sense and Gonzalo doesn't say anything unless he's pretty sure he knows what he's talking about. Still, it was hard to give up my story about gardening in an ancient Maya graveyard until I found what's shown below:


At the edge of a frequently watered plant bed of chard, one of the balls had broken apart. Each ball bore inside three orangish seeds. In the picture, at the left, you see one of the orangish seeds still nestled inside the fruit's husk. Above that seed, the two dark, papery, ear-like items are the coverings of the fruit's two empty chambers. At the right in the picture is one of the other seeds, bearing roots.

Flower ovaries of Palm Family species contain three chambers, or carpels, with each carpel holding a single ovule -- the ovule becoming the future seed. This explains the three holes in each "clay ball" -- one hole for each of the three chambers. Water seeps through the hole to enliven the single seed in each carpel. In most Palm Family species two of the three ovules die by abortion, so that each fruit produces only one seed, but apparently the Coyol is one species where two or more seeds may survive.