JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

Issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Headquarters in
Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

June 15, 2007

ORGAN-PIPE OASIS
Early that morning, high up the scrubby slope west of town, I heard drawn-out, nasal ZWEEIRS amidst varied twittering warbles: A strikingly yellow-bottomed, black-topped, male Lesser Goldfinch in full courtship plumage (black-backed form) accompanied his somewhat less stunningly colored mate inside a kitchen-size thicket of candelabra-like organ-pipe cacti. The birds feasted on the cacti's globular, red, sublimely spiny fruits.

Before I could get into position with my binoculars to see how the birds were handling such spiny fruits, they'd flown away. I could see clearly, though, that nearly all the mature fruits had been split open. The goldfinches had been feeding in the fruits' open wounds, but I couldn't be sure whether the goldfinches or something else had made the deep gashes.

A couple of weeks earlier I'd been riding with my friend Pancho as we'd passed a cluster of organ pipes. Pancho had smacked his lips and said it wouldn't be long until the "pitayas" would be ripe. They were ripe now and the goldfinches were eating them. I'm sure Pancho could have knocked one or two pitaya fruits down and expertly opened them so that the glistening, crimson, strawberry-like flesh could be eaten without getting spines in our fingers and lips, but I was alone that day and I knew from experience to not even try.

People here call all large cacti with definite trunks and upward rising arms órganos, (organ-pipe cacti), and this was one of those. I'm pretty sure it was the endemic STENOCEREUS QUERETAROENSIS. You can see this cactus's almost-ripe, baseball-size fruit at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070615pi.jpg.

I continued up the slope, the rest of the morning finding nothing more to report on than the fact that everything is in a stunned state of suspended animation waiting for the rainy season, which again this year is coming late. Descending the slope in late morning, the entire valley silent in the stinging heat, I decided to rest near the organ pipes, hoping for a better view of the goldfinches eating their pitayas.

The Goldfinches didn't return but for half an hour two Broad-billed Hummingbirds zipped about the cactus copse dipping their red, black-tipped bills into the pitaya gashes as if the pitaya were flowers, not fruits. Instead of pecking at the flesh they appeared to sip the sweet juice glistening on the exposed pitaya flesh. The birds were mostly green and black and the male's gorget shimmered iridescently blue. How pretty it all was, the birds, the green cactuses soaring around them, the red fruits, the blue sky beyond...

The hummingbirds competed for the sweet pitaya juice with honeybees and flies. In fact, often a hummer would hover before a gashed pitaya a few seconds but then move on, there being too many honeybees clustered there with no inclination to move on.

A Brown-crested Flycatcher glided in and staged a foray or two past fly-orbited pitayas. A White-winged Dove on whistling wings fluttered onto a branch and parked himself so that nothing showed through a slit between two órgano arms but his glassy, amber-colored eye surrounded by a blue goggle looking exactly at me.

So, here's how it seemed to me: That morning, that entire slope was so dry it was next to dead, awaiting rain. But there was an oasis of life in one tiny spot, right there where a handful of organ pipes grew. But those cacti wouldn't have meant anything if their pitayas had been gashed. Had the goldfinches cut the fruits open, or woodpeckers, or maybe bats or rodents in the night?

What a thing, that so much life depended on a few gashed pitayas!

To add color to the above report you might enjoy taking a look at the Lesser Goldfinches at http://www.birds-n-garden.com/lesser_goldfinch.html.

Brown-crested Flycatchers can be seen at http://www.greglasley.net/browncrfc.html.

A wonderful Broad-billed Hummingbird is shown at http://www.focusonnature.com/NABroad-billedHummingbird.htm.

*****

SILVIANO'S TEPEGUA
Tuesday morning Silviano was watering plants near the office buildings. As I walked by he bent over, picked a leaf from an unspectacular-looking "weed" growing next to the fern he was watering, crushed the leaf, and even before he held it beneath my nose I smelled it's wonderfully refreshing odor, much like the fragrance of cilantro, but even sharper and more piquant, maybe like cilantro mingled with tangerine- rind or arrugula. Silviano called it "Tepegua" and he described it as a common weed that country people around here use a lot as a seasoning. Also it was medicinal, but he didn't know what it was used for. You can see Silviano's Tepegua next to its fern at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070615pf.jpg.

Bearing no flowers or fruits, I couldn't imagine what plant family it belonged to. Especially the slit-like "pellucid glands" ornamenting the leaves didn't make sense. These glands, filled with aromatic oils that impart to the leaves their fragrance, can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070615pg.jpg.

On the Internet I found Silviano's "Tepegua" listed as a name for a plant more commonly known in the rest of Mexico as Pápaloquelite (PAH-pa-low-keh-lee-teh). The "quelite" part of that name derives from the Nahuatl language spoken by the ancient Aztecs and still heard in much of Mexico. "In Nahuatl, "quilit" is a generic term used for plants with edible leaves -- what a Kentuckian might refer to as "greens." Pápaloquelite is POROPHYLLUM RUDERALE, which surprises me by being a member of the Composite/Sunflower Family. The Porophyllum genus name refers to the leaves' oil-filled "pores." I don't recall having ever seen a composite with such leaves. The species is somewhat related to marigolds. Marigolds also bear leaf-glands filled with aromatic oils, but those oils are too musky and bitter to taste good.

On the Internet there's a wonderful paper in both Spanish and English presented by five Mexican women researchers looking at the availability, supply and consumption of various "quelites," including Pápalaquelite, in the indigenous Mexican community of Ixhuapan, Veracruz. If you read this ethnobotanical treatise you'll gain fine insights into what it's like being indigenous folks who gather and grow much of their own food. The PDF document can be downloaded at http://www.colpos.mx/agrocien/Bimestral/2004/jul-ago/art-8.pdf.

Apparently Pápaloquelite has been discovered by North Americans as "a new spicy herb out of Mexico." You can read about it and see a delicious-sounding recipe at http://www.freshcutherbs.com/herbofthemonthpapalo.htm.

What a treat to find out about a new plant like this, to have a friend introduce it to you, to learn about its deep roots in history, to see what botanically curious features distinguish it, to smell it, to taste it, and think about future dishes atop which you'll sprinkle a few leaves and the whole room will blossom with such a unique, friendly fragrance...

*****

WALKINGSTICK
These days with the whole landscape aching for rain, Silviano spends almost all his time watering plants. Therefore, this week not only did his waterings lead to my learning about Pápaloquelite, but also one morning he brought me a walkingstick he'd just plucked from a bougainvillea he was watering. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070615ws.jpg.

It's surprising how many people confuse walkingsticks with praying mantises. Mantises have roundish heads that move back and forth atop narrow necks, while you can see in the picture that walkingstick heads aren't at all mobile. Also, mantises have specially adapted front legs that they hold folded before them, always ready to dart out and catch prey, but walkingstick front legs are very similar to the back and middle legs. To firm up the differences between them in your mind, compare the walkingstick with the mantis at http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/praying-mantis.html.

When I was a kid in Kentucky I was sure that mantises were wonderful little critters but walkingsticks were like poisonous needles that were deadly if they stabbed you. That was wrong. Walkingsticks are as kind and innocent as anyone, depending on their camouflage to protect them. Around my hermit trailer in Mississippi I had Two-lined Walkingsticks who would indeed spew a nasty, toxic chemical when handled, but typical walkingsticks like the one in my hand don't seem to spew anything.

Silviano agreed that walkinsticks around here aren't dangerous, but he still didn't like to hold it except in a folded leaf, and he told me that if a horse or cow accidentally eats one it's an awfully bad deal.

*****

HARD TO HIDE AS A GUAVA
I'm reading a Mexican novel in which the characters speak down-home Spanish. "Hard to hide as a guava" is one colorful expression I've run across. Of course every Mexican knows why a guava is so hard to hide: Because of its powerful odor.

The other day Don Ereberto gave me a bag of guavas he'd bought at the market, shared with his friends, and now didn't want any more. It was late and I wasn't hungry, so I stored the bag on my desk. About midnight I had to get up and put the bag outside because the odor was so penetrating I just couldn't stand it.

It's one of those odors that at first strikes you as delicious and perfumy, with only a slightly musky undercurrent. But as time passes the muskiness takes over, grows heavy, smoothers with its insistent fragrance, and I am sure there must be pheromones involved working at the subconscious level. The odor of ripe guava is too like the voluptuous love affair that reaches unimagined fulfillment and then deep in the bosom of a certain languid, exhausted night this question arises: Now what? Heavy, heavy, even suffocating, and I put those guavas outside where the night air could carry their fragrance to less jaded nostrils and souls.

Guavas, called guayabas in Spanish, have been grown horticulturally for so long that many varieties have arisen. You can see the type commonly seen here at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070615gv.jpg.

The many varieties are regarded as having been developed from two guava species. The typical yellow guava is PSIDIUM GUAJAVA, while the usually smaller, purplish-red "Strawberry Guava" is PSIDIUM CATTLEIANUM. Guavas are members of the Myrtle Family, in which we also find eucalyptuses and Allspice. The family is famous for its species producing aromatic oils.

In the above photograph, notice the dark, leathery items messily adhering to the top of each fruit. These are old calyx-lobes, the calyx being the usually greenish, cup-like thing out of which the corolla arises. Calyx lobes usually wither and either fall off or remain very inconspicuous as the fruit develops. For some reason they remain on guavas, and their presence is one way you can distinguish guavas from other medium-size, yellow or red fruits.

You can see a variety of guavas, read about their nutritional value, and browse some recipes at http://www.fao.org/WAIRdocs/x5425e/x5425e04.htm.

*****

LETTUCE SEED
We let a small corner of the display garden's lettuce bed go to seed, and I've been gathering the seeds. You can see what lettuce seed-heads look like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070615lt.jpg.

Since lettuce is a member of the Composite/Sunflower Family it's in the same family not only as Pápaloquelite but also dandelions. Therefore, for good reason each puffy head looks like a dandelion puffball.

Each of the several puffballs in the picture is actually a cluster of what we're calling seeds here. Each "seed," closely packed in its head, bears atop it a white "parachute" that'll catch on the wind and carry the "seed" to a new home.

Though everyone refers to the slender, brown items beneath the parachutes -- the things we sow in the garden -- as seeds, actually they are one-seeded fruits, known technically as achenes.

You might ask why, if something looks like a seed and behaves like a seed, it's worth making the distinction that actually it's a fruit. Well, it matters if you like to understand why things are as they are, and use the right words.

The fundamental point to keep in mind is this: Flower ovaries develop into fruits, while ovules inside flower ovaries develop into seeds.

When you eat an apple, it's clear that the apple itself is a fruit and the hard, black things inside are seeds. Everyone who has ever watched apple fruits developing over the weeks from apple flowers is glad to be able to make the mental connection between the flowers and the fruits. Well, those brown thingies in the puffball heads developed from individual composite-flower ovaries, not the ovules inside those ovaries, so they're fruits, not seeds.

*****

DELICATE PLANT WITH A SHADY PAST
A delicate-looking vine with very pretty pink flowers is beginning to blossom here now. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070615pd.jpg.

Anyone familiar with eastern North America's Trumpet Vine will recognize it as a close relative, both from its pinnate leaves and flower shape and size. A common English name for this plant is Pink Trumpet Vine but it goes by many others. It's PODRANEA RICASOLIANA, of the Bignonia Family. One of the main botanical features distinguishing it from other Bignonia Family members is its papery "inflated calyx," which blouses out at the base of the blossom. Also, its fruits form particularly long and slender capsules.

My horticulture book describes it as coming from South Africa, but an interesting page in Africa, at http://www.plantzafrica.com/plantnop/podranricasol.htm points out that South African botanists have noticed that populations there typically occur in areas associated with early slave traffic. They think the plant somehow may have been introduced there by slavers or slaves. Now the plant is scattered so generally throughout the Earth's warmer regions that its real home may never be determined.

I wish I knew how this plant made its way from Africa to here where it so prettily and innocently clambers over stone fences next to people's homes.

*****

THE RAINY SEASON COMETH
I write "cometh" because the archaic "th" verb-ending is used mainly by Bible translators to add a sense of timeless grandeur to their work, and by people parodying this kind of writing for the sake of humor. I use it to tap into the grandeur.

For, it's a grand thing to behold the rainy season coming. Mainly I've been beholding the coming on the Internet.

Each day I consult an animated satellite image centered above central Mexico showing how weather patterns have evolved over the last several hours. The region covered extends from Lake Erie in the north to Columbia, South America, so a very large area is shown, including all of the Caribbean, some of the Atlantic, and a big chunk of the Pacific. You can see it, constantly updated, here.  

When I began watching that page about five months ago an almost continual line of storms kept moving in a straight line from east to west at the image's very bottom. Those storms marked what's called the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which is where hot, moist equatorial air rises, cools, the moisture condenses, and rainstorms develop. Read more about the ITCZ at http://iri.ldeo.columbia.edu/~bgordon/ITCZ.html.

The ITCZ's storms track westward because the rotating Earth's surface moves eastward with greatest velocity at the Equator, while the air mass near the Equator lags a bit. To the observer in the ITCZ it looks as if the air is moving westward, but actually it's the Earth's surface moving eastward through slower-moving air.

The ITCZ's rising air fuels a planet-wide system of air circulation, the best known features being the Trade Winds and the Hadley Cell, the latter responsible for most of the Earth's deserts. These are described at http://earthguide.ucsd.edu/virtualmuseum/climatechange1/08_1.shtml.

As the Sun's ecliptic continues wandering northward the ITCZ with its unending train of westward-trending storms also drifts northward, bring with it the rainy season. Starting about five months ago I watched the ITCZ's storms begin in Panama, move through Nicaragua and Honduras, and now it's in southern Mexico. It's a messy thing, not always a pretty, straight line. You can see it at its prettiest and straightest crossing the Atlantic from central Africa to northern South America, its storms always marching westward, here.

This last map is the one to watch later this season as hurricanes form off the coast of Africa and drift toward the Caribbean.

*****

ADOLESCENT ROOSTERS
Adjoining the Reserve office compound, up by the gate, there's a half-acre-large poultry farm. The man operating it isn't into eggs or selling pullets to the fried-chicken market however. He raises fighting roosters. Quite a number of roosters are staked out across his ground, each with a leg tethered by a rope attached to a stake. The roosters crow 24 hours a day, though sometimes there are brief intermissions from around 9 PM to midnight. Still, even then, one rooster can start crowing and soon the whole community sets in.

A few weeks ago a number of hens were running around the grounds followed by chicks. Now those chicks are about one-third grown, not yet with tail feathers, but already showing personalities. They're in their 9-year-old boy stage.

When I walk past the grounds I can't take my eyes off these young roosters. What's interesting is their aggressiveness. Most young chickens will try to steal another's grasshopper, or will peck at a mate just for the fun or the meanness, but these birds are clearly programmed to attack, and to fight back with vicious stabs of the sharp spurs on their legs. No one taught these young birds their aggression or to fight with their spurs. What I'm seeing is a pure expression of the birds' genetic heritage, and every time I pass the gate, this sets me to thinking.

For one thing, how much of human behavior and thinking is NOT programmed by our genes the same way it is for these young roosters? Even when it's our families and societies who program us, weren't we programmed to structure our families and societies so that they reinforce our individual programming?

Still, as I walk along the reservoir beneath the afternoon blue sky and white clouds, I always come to the conclusion that we modern humans are capable of "free thought."

We are capable precisely insofar as we exercise our minds within the domains of art, science, and spirituality ("spirituality," not religiosity). (Agape "love" I lump with spirituality.)

Outside those domains -- walk as far as I will and think as hard as I can -- so far I haven't come up with a single human thought or behavior I'd regard as not rooted in genetically fixed "animal" needs.

It's important to recognize which of our thoughts and behaviors are "free," and which are dictated by our genes. For, our genes were encoded throughout millennia of animal struggle for existence. The life-threatening problems that face us now are too complex and subtle to solve with behaviors and thoughts arising from genetic instructions written into our genes on the African savannah.

To save Life on Earth, then, we must recognize the sanctity of art, science and spirituality (not religions), and always keep clear in our minds which of our impulses are shared by all mammalian primates, and which are indeed worthy only of the most sophisticated, highly evolved animal of all.

For, giving free reign to our "animal predispositions" has gotten us into a lot of trouble, and that trouble will increase as time passes. "Trouble," such as global warming, overpopulation, warring over limited natural resources, etc.

Only thoughts and behaviors blossoming from art, science and spirituality can save us.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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