JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: Qurétaro state to Yucatán State, MÉXICO

October 23, 2006

MARIGOLDS IN THE CORNFIELD
Last week began with me still at the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve near Jalpan, Querétaro, in the arid highlands about 100 air-miles north of Mexico City. People at the Reserve get to work around 8 AM and stay until 1 or 2 o'clock, then take a two-hour siesta, often returning to their homes in Jalpan, then return in the afternoon and work until 7 or 8 PM. The top bosses seem to never stop working.

During siesta hours I'd walk along the mud road running in front of the compound to a spot next to a reservoir where I'd sit along the banks watching things. A variety of ducks and grebes could always be seen. Large, red dragonflies, amberwings and a nice variety of butterflies flitted along the lake's banks.

On my walks to the reservoir I especially enjoyed walking along cornfields where marigolds grew so rankly. You can see such a corn-and-marigold scene at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061023m.jpg.

If you look at that picture you'll see that Jalpan's wild marigold blossoms are smaller and simpler than most ornamental types. However, to convince yourself that these are really marigolds all you have to do is to crush a leaf and smell, and the air around you quickly fills with the powerful and distinct marigold odor.

It's not surprising that wild marigolds should grow here, for this is considered the marigold homeland. You might enjoy reading Burpee Seed Company's "History of Marigolds" where you can read that the ancient Aztecs believed marigolds' magical properties were useful, for example, "for one who wishes to cross a river or water safely." Burpee's page is at http://www.burpee.com/jump.jsp?itemID=536&itemType=CONTENT_ARTICLE.

While you're looking at my corn-and-marigold snapshot you might notice how tall the local corn is. Besides marigolds, you often see where folks have planted bean and squash vines among the corn. The long vines seem to run endlessly through the tall corn, often a few feet off the ground, and the squash fruits produced come in a variety of shapes and colors. However, none are like the yellow crooknecks of northern gardens. Jalpan's squashes are closer to pumpkins.

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NEOBUXBAUMIA POLYLOPHA -- ENDEMIC GIANT CACTI
Last Tuesday afternoon Beto invited me to ride with him three or four miles from town to a certain canyon. As soon as we were a little inside the canyon I could see why he'd brought me. You can see it, too, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061023c.jpg.

All along the limestone canyon wall, emerging majestically from the thorny forest to heights of 30 to even 40 feet, were giant cacti. They were NEOBUXBAUMIA POLYLOPHA. Apparently the species has no English name. The locals call it Cardón, but they call any big, columnar cactus Cardón, and in this area there are several columnar species.

Other than the size, a striking feature of the cactus at this dusky hour was the pale halo gracing each cactus's rounded crown, where in the dimness light gathered in new thorns there. The effect was much more extraordinary than my picture portreys. I had to overexpose that picture drastically in order to show details of the cactus and other plants, and this overexposure reduced the contrast between the halos and the canyon's general gloominess.

One reason Neobuxbaumia polylophy has no well accepted common English name is that it's endemic -- in the whole world found only in Querétaro, the neighboring state of Hidalgo, and a bit of the adjoining states of Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí.

People at the Reserve are trying to scrape up about $5,000 to buy the canyon wall on which most of the giant cacti grow. Locals are removing rocks from there for building, destroying some of the habitat, so this is just one more of quite a number of urgent buying projects the Reserve is working on.

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OCOTILLO GALORE
Before I could set too many roots in this glorious place, the day came for more busing, for continuing into upland Mexico's interior, over more mountains and on a road so sinuous and in a bus so swerving and weaving that I simply couldn't have made it without my Dramamines. But after a Dramamine either I'm asleep or in a mind-numbed daze. I remember little of the trip other than a windswept enormity of gray, deserty, rock-littered slopes and ridges often mantled with endless populations of a plant consisting of clusters of arching, thorny, succulent stems from which ridiculously small leaves emerged right from the stem. On moonlit nights, what a witchy place it must be out among those wildly clawing stems clearly expressing some kind of berserkness.

The bushes were Ocotillo, FOUQUIERIA SPLENDENS, a species so unusual that it's placed into its own family, the Fouquieriaceae, the Ocotillo Family. You can see the plant's strange aspect, its thorny stems and its piddling leaves at http://www.birdandhike.com/Veg/Species/Shrubs/Ocotillo/Ocotillo.htm.

I also remember from my Dramamine'd trip how at dusk a crimson sun set over jagged, gray peaks whle part of a rainbow appeared more intense than any I've ever seen, despite there being no evidence of rain where I was.

Then darkness and hours and hours of riding buses.

The next morning I awakened at the base of the volcano called Orizaba. I had a panoramic view, could see it from the slope beginning right outside my bus window up through fields and plantations, and hacked- up forest that turned conifer blue below the tree line, then into high-elevation grasslands, then dark gray barrenness, and then snow. You can see Orizaba at http://cervisa.com/gallery/mexico/Orizaba.jpg.

At 18,490 feet (5636 meters), Orizaba is the highest mountain in Mexico and third highest in North America.

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MY LAST BUS RIDE FOR A WHILE
The next morning I awoke entering Mérida, Yucatan's capital city, where I retrieved some books left there last spring. Then the next morning I bussed eastward. We passed close enough to the ruins of Chichén Itzá for me to see ruin tops from the bus. Chichén Itzá is one of the most spectacular and frequently visited of all Maya ruins. But I continued beyond Chichén Itzá, all the way to the city of Valladolid in the Yucatan's center, midway Mérida in western Yucatan and Cancún on the eastern coast. Then north I traveled in a local bus for about 20 minutes, then I backpacked about three miles on a road so infrequently traveled that even the most rickety Mexican buses don't bother going there, to the Maya village of Ek Balam. In Maya, Ek Balam means "black jaguar."

Ek Balam village lies about 1.5 miles from the Maya ruin also known as Ek Balam. You can read about and see pictures of Ek Balam's ruin at http://www.yucatantoday.com/destinations/eng-ekbalam.htm.

I'll be staying in Ek Balam village a while, at the ecolodge known as Genesis Retreat. You can see pictures of the retreat and Ek Balam village at http://www.genesisretreat.com/.

Ek Balam is much more isolated and much more Maya than my earlier locations near Dzemul and Telchac Pueblo. In those places you seldom met a young person who could speak Maya fluently. Here most speak it habitually in the streets and their homes, regarding Maya as faster and easier than Spanish. Many speak Spanish with a strong Maya accent. The community feels much different here from where I was earlier, and the landscape is less disturbed. So far I haven't seen fields of henequen here, or orange orchards. It's a different world.

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CECROPIAS
On my "Yucatan Vegetation Page" at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/vegetatn.htm I make the point that in the Yucatan the farther northwest you go the drier it gets. You may remember that at my two previous Yucatec homes the dominant inland vegetation type was thorny scrub, most trees and bushes of which lost their leaves during the winter dry season. Therefore, this week as I traveled eastward I headed into a rainier climate, and as the climate became rainier the vegetation grew correspondingly lusher and less scruby.

From the bus window I watched average forest height rise from maybe fifteen feet at Mérida to twenty and maybe thirty at Valladolid. The forest lost a lot of its hard-bit, scrubby feeling, mellowed out, got an easy feeling about it, limbs becoming relatively slender and lithe, leaves broader and thinner, trading some of their hard silvery grayness for softer yellow-green. It was a pleasure to watch, this transition into a kind of relative softness.

Moreover, new species appeared, species needing more rain than we had at Dzemul and Telchac Pueblo. The most conspicuous of all these new species, because of their unusual branching pattern and large, spectacularly palmate leaves -- shaped like a hand with thick fingers arising all around the palm -- were the Cecropias, sometimes called Trumpet-trees, CECROPIA PELTATA. You can see the Cecropia beside me as I type this at Genesis at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/cecropia.jpg.

I never saw a single Cecropia in northwestern Yucatan, but here they're common, practically weed- trees. They have hollow trunks jointed almost like bamboo. The trunks are relatively soft. A sharp machete can cut right through an arm-thick stem in one well-directed swipe.

When I was at the university I was taught that Cecropias were members of the Fig Family. Now I see that gene sequencing has shifted them to, of all things, the Nettle Family, the Urticaceae. Well, if you think about it, both Cecropias and Stinging Nettles produce male flowers on one plant and female ones on another -- they're "dioecious." Also, their inflorescences, or flower clusters, are vaguely similar.You can compare the Cecropia's male and female flower clusters at http://www.discoverlife.org/IM/I_SP/0006/320/Cecropia_peltata_flower,I_SP613.jpg with those of Stinging Nettles at http://www.arthurhaines.com/primitive_skills/Uritica-dioica-habit.jpg.

Our Cecropia peltata is such a vigorous species that it's become an invasive weed in Hawaii, French Polynesia, West Africa and Malaysia, where it invades disturbed areas, lava flows, and forest gaps. In fact, the "Global Invasive Species Database" says that the species has been nominated for the "World's Worst Invaders List."

But, here, the species is at home, a valued part of the community.

Cecropias enjoy a beautiful textbook-case of mutualism with ants. But that's for another newsletter.

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SNAPSHOTS OF FLOWERING PLANTS AT GENESIS
Much in contrast to my last two places, Genesis Retreat only extends over about an acre, is walled in, and it would be hard to find a comfortable space large enough for a tent. Everything is either bungalows, office area or garden. The garden is very pretty on much exposed, eroded limestone, and plenty of plants are flowering now at the end of the rainy season. On Sunday I walked around snapping pictures.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/alpinia.jpg you can see Red Ginger, ALPINIA PURPURATA, sometimes called Tropical Ginger or Polynesian Ginger. It's a member of the Ginger Family but it is not THE Ginger from which spice is made from the rhizome. Red Ginger is a native of the South Pacific islands, forming a clump of leafy stems up to 15 feet tall. The red items in the picture are not flowers but rather bracts (modified leaves), which shield the slim, tubular flowers. The Ginger Family embraces hundreds of species and many are showy like this one.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/boatlily.jpg is the Boat Lily, TRADESCANTIA SPATHACEA, also called Moses-in-a-boat, Oysterplant, Boatplant, and many other things. It's a native Mexican plant but mostly the plant is seen in gardens. Notice the small, white flowers emerging from between the purple bracts at the lower, right in the picture. The plant's foot- long leaves are purplish below, much in contrast to the green upper surfaces.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/xanthos7.jpg nine-ft-tall Arrowleaf Elephantear leaves stand right before the dining room's open-walled exit. Several plants are known as "Elephant Ears." One distinguishing feature of this species is that its very large leaves arise from thick, pale rhizomes, which you can see in the picture lying horizontally on the ground, appearing from behind the sign. Leaves of most other "Elephant Ear" species arise directly from the ground. Also, some other "Elephant Ear" leaves are of a slightly different shape or design, and few are as large as these. This and most other "Elephant Ears" are members of the Arum Family, in which flowers are presented in a special arrangement -- where many tiny flowers are tightly packed on an erect, fingerlike spadix. You can see our plant's spadix, with a white, leaflike spathe rising above it, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/xanthos8.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061023h.jpg you can see a Heliconia, or Wild Plantain, HELICONIA sp., a member of the Banana Family.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061023r.jpg you see one of many Canna species. This plant's flowers aren't nearly as large and showy as most garden cannas, and I suspect it's a wild species that hasn't been horticulturalized yet.

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REFLECTION OUT THE WINDOW
Usually I say something insightful here but this last week has been so occupied with travel that it's been impossible to nourish any decent thought.

I suspect that the lives of most people are like that, most of the time. Certainly I've lived years, maybe even decades, afflicted with having so little time that I could never digest what was happening around me, could never reflect on things, and never benefit from insights I might derive.

I look back on those years with regret, and wonder just why I felt myself to be in such a hurry, wanted to make so much money, wanted to have so many things that required money, wanted to rise in the department or field in which I worked, wanted, wanted, wanted...

This, when maybe more than anything I NEEDED some time to look around and think about things.

At least I can remember from my earlier thinking times that wanting and needing are two different things. "Wanting" is mostly a reptile-brain thing, while "needing" is most properly rooted in the spiritual realm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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