JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

August 17, 2007

MEDICINAL SCORPIONS
Wednesday my student Lupita brought me a jar of scorpions collected in her house. They're shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070817ms.jpg.

That's about two years of scorpions preserved in alcohol. The collection reflects more than Lupita's antipathy for the arachnids; the jar's contents, she assures me, are medicinal.

Lupita says that insect bites stop hurting and itching when scorpion-alcohol is rubbed on them. Old folks tell her that the tincture also works on joints sore with arthritis but she doesn't have arthritis so she isn't sure about that.

*****

A MEXICAN REDRUMP TARANTULA
A few days earlier as I approached my casita after a morning of teaching Silvestre called to me not to overlook the jar on my step holding the tarantula seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070817ta.jpg.

That's BRACHYPELMA VAGANS, sometimes called the Mexican Redrump Tarantula, even though it also extends south into Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Tarantulas are docile and slow-moving, and don't bite unless obliged to. I've read that they "kick urticating hairs," urticating hairs being hairs that sting like nettle spines, so that's irritating but not serious.

When tarantulas "kick hairs" they dislodge urticating hairs from their abdomens and shower them at enemies, like sprays of stinging darts. This is a behavior evolved only among New World tarantulas, though not all New World tarantulas do it.

The individual in the picture is only partially grown. This species can have a leg span of five inches. The one shown is only about 3.5 inches. Males are typically smaller and thinner than females.

Like most tarantulas, Mexican Redrumps eat just about anything they can overpower, which is usually insects, but also small lizards and even rodents. Another student -- another Lupita since that's diminutive of the name Guadalupe, and many Mexican females are named after the Virgin de Guadalupe -- keeps a much larger Redrump as a pet, whom she feeds small toads and frogs.

*****

MUSHROOM PICKING AT SAN JUAN
The other day some of us scouted a potential hiking trail across a mountain ridge forested with oaks and pines above San Juan de Los Durán. A local lady joined us saying it was mushroom-picking time, but she was afraid to go alone because of snakes.

I figured she was looking for the red-topped Amanita "Caesar's Mushrooms" I told you about a couple of Newsletters ago. They're still out and can be picked by the bushel. However, it turned out that she knew only a few fungi, and kept saying she needed to talk to a certain old fellow in the village who knew them all, and that it was sad that so much knowledge such as his was slowly disappearing from the village.

To my astonishment the lady walked right past dozens of perfect "Caesar's Mushrooms." I wasn't about to tell her how delicious they are because I don't encourage people to eat mushrooms they don't know. If later she'd grown ill, it'd been because of my mushrooms.

She wanted Chanterelles. My very first Newsletter, issued on June 10th, 2001, spoke of Chanterelles and Caesar's Mushrooms appearing in the woods around my hermit camp in southwestern Mississippi. This week's mushroom hike evoked some good memories.

The lady was surprised to find so few Chanterelles in places where usually great numbers emerge at this season. Other mushroom kinds were out, however, so she switched to picking a coral fungus of the genus RAMARIA. You can see her day's piddling harvest, the much-branched ones being the Ramaria and the single orangish one in the center being a Chanterelle, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070817mu.jpg.

*****

POMEGRANATES/ GRANADAS
The mushroom-picking lady gave us some pomegranates from next to her house. You can see one I cut open at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070817pg.jpg.

Pomegranate fruits are thick-skinned, several-celled berries with seeds enmeshed in juicy pulp. It's the pulp you eat, which can be very sweet and juicy. The seeds are so soft that I just chew them, but I suspect some finicky sorts spit them out.

Notice how the fruit bears a "crown" consisting of 5-7 thick, leathery sepals. Sepals are the separate divisions of the usually green, leafy, cuplike calyx appearing beneath the corollas of typical flowers. Sepals usually wither and drop away as a blossom's ovary develops into a fruit, but pomegranates for some reason decided they needed those sepals.

Back when I studied botany pomegranate fruits and flowers were regarded as so weird that pomegranate species were assigned to their own two-species family, the Pomegranate Family, or Punicaceae. However, recent studies place them into the Loosestrife Family, the Lythraceae, the most famous member of which is the Crape Myrtle.

Pomegranate plants are deciduous shrubs or trees up to 20 feet high. They're native of southern Asia but have been naturalized in many places. They're PUNICA GRANATUM, in Spanish called Granadas.

*****

MARGARITA'S ENTOMATADAS
Last weekend Margarita and son Paul invited me up to their cabin in the highlands south of Jalpan. To get there we walked along narrow, often slippery trails on steep slopes. With no electricity, supper was prepared over a wood fire, on a special stove combining traditional elements with a high-efficiency design. Basically it was a native comal, or metal hotplate, atop an adobe-like oven from which heat didn't escape as easily as it usually does. You can see the stove at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070817c2.jpg.

Atop the comal plate you see two tortillas and a tomato being roasted. In the blue pan a toasted tortilla is being doused in hot tomato sauce.

Before roasting the tomato Margarita had similarly placed several green husk tomatoes, or tomatillos, onto the comal, saying that roasting them made them taste better. Along with diced onion, garlic and slender "serrano" hot peppers, the husk tomatoes and tomato were ground in a stone molcajete (mole-kah-HET-eh), with a stone pestle, or tejalote (teh-ha-LOW-teh), to make our hot-sauce. You can see the grinding at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070817c1.jpg.

In that picture, to the left of the molcajete, the folded, green grassblades are Zacate de Lemón, or Lemon Grass. These leaves steeped in hot water provided an excellent tea. The Lemon Grass plant grew just outside the cabin looking like a big clump of fescue.

In the first picture, the tortilla being dunked in hot tomato sauce was placed on a plate, a dollop of rice was deposited in a straight line across its face, and then the tortilla was folded, hot tomato paste was poured over it, it was garnished with cilantro, and crumbled white cheese was generously sprinkled over that. Thus was created an entomatada, a typical Mexican dish. If hot peppers had been included it'd been an enchilada. Entomatadas can have any kind of filling, not just rice. You can see our entomatadas at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070817c3.jpg.

Seeing how frequently and vigorously the molcajete was used, I asked if they wore out. Really I wanted to know if much ground-up molcajete ended up in the food, for it well known that food prepared in molcajetes tastes better, so maybe the added minerals account for that.

Yes, I was told. In fact, our molcajete had developed a hole in its bottom and dribbled hotsauce on the table as we ate. Sometimes molcajetes get so smooth inside that you have to jab them with metal rods to make the interiors rough again.

Well, you can just imagine -- especially in that cozy little hut in the chilly elevations as a storm rumbled across the ridge -- how good that meal tasted!

*****

SPRINGS OF THE OLD KIND
Along the footpath to and beyond Margarita's cabin we passed several springs issuing clear, good-tasting water. The springs were always surrounded by ferns, liverworts, mosses and other lushly growing plants. Each spring had its own personality, its own way of giving water. You can see a typical one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070817sp.jpg.

I can think of few places so peaceful, so life-affirming, so generous as a spring such as that shown above. When I was a kid in Kentucky old folks already were saying what a shame it was that people were ruining the land's springs. Road-building, mining, clearcutting the forests, all cut the spring's water sources off, dried them up, left them mere holes or, often, smothered with silt or buried in garbage or beneath pavement.

What a pleasure seeing these springs still producing water in the highlands south of Jalpan. Nearly all homes in the area have piped-in water now, so already the springs are being neglected, but at least I could still see them, and experience the microhabitats that blossomed so generously and prettily around them.

*****

A MEXICAN LEOPARD FROG
Passing by a pond emerald green with algae, a leopard frog was spotted a few feet from the bank. On my hikes typically critters fly or jump away before I can unstrap my backpack, bring out the camera and wait for it to hum and click before it can take a picture but this time I did all that and the frog still sat there. I took pictures closer and closer until he filled my entire viewer. You can see the resulting portrait at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070817lf.jpg.

Who knows why this frog didn't jump? He did when he was prodded. Maybe he was a philosopher frog. Anyway, he looks pretty much like the US's Northern Leopard Frogs, except that his body is grayer than I'm used to.

Back at the computer I was shocked to see that Northern Leopard Frogs have been shifted from the nice genus Rana to the harder-to-remember Lithobates.

Moreover, leopard frog taxonomy is so poorly understood that most authors refer to the frog in the picture as "belonging to the LITHOBATES PIPIENS Complex," meaning that probably several species are involved, but no one has figured them all out yet.

*****

A STRAIGHT-SNOUTED WEEVIL
Sunday morning as I packed up my tent outside Margarita's cabin I found one of the most singular- looking beetles I've ever seen quietly resting beneath the tent's fly apparently sheltering from the night's rain. You can see the insect at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070817pw.jpg.

My friend Jarvis in North Carolina, sent the picture, pegged it as a member of the Straight-snouted Weevil Family, the Brentidae, probably the genus BRENTUS, looking a bit like Brentus anchorago, which can be found under tree bark. Members of the family eat wood.

The extraordinary feature of that beetle is its very long snout, and the way antennae arise from it. You expect antennae to arise around the eyes, not near the tip of an outrageously long snout. Also, the antennae themselves are a bit unusual for beetles, because they aren't "elbowed," or with sharp bends in them.

*****

POSSIBLY THE MOST EXOTIC MUSHROOM YET
Well into the rainy season, it's a mushroomer's dream. Right beside the spring shown above, deep within dewy shadows beneath overarching fern fronds, Paul noticed the weird, eight-inch high, fungus fruiting body shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070817xy.jpg.

I'd seen mushrooms of that general shape but never of that shape, size and woody texture. Therefore I shipped the picture off to noted mycologist Tom Volk at the University of Wisconsin. He wasn't sure what it was but guessed that it was a member of the genus CORDYCEPS. He couldn't be sure without looking at its tissue beneath a microscope.

I really want to believe that it's a Cordyceps because Cordyceps is a fantastic fungus. Most Cordyceps species are parasitic on underground insects, especially grubs. Maybe if I'd yanked on the fungus shown above I'd have found it "rooted" in a big grub, whose nutrients it was slowly absorbing.

Tom has a special fondness for this genus, for he owes his life to it. It happens that the asexual state of another Cordyceps species produces the immunosuppressant drug called Cyclosporin. Cyclosporin prevents the body from rejecting foreign tissue, and that's exactly what Tom needed in 2006 when he was implanted with a new heart.

Of course it doesn't automatically follow that the fruiting body shown in the above photo is medicinal in any way, but if I were to choose an organism to research for its medicinal value I don't think I could do better than to examine this one.

Tom's very interesting fungus website can be browsed at http://tomvolkfungi.net/.

*****

COWFOOT
At another spring we found the remarkable small tree seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070817po.jpg.

That's PIPER UMBELLATA, at least in Jamaica called Cowfoot, and used there for colds, headaches, boils and tapeworms. I'm surprised I can't find a medicinal use for it here because its leaves possess a wonderful sarsaparilla smell. Also, usually anything that looks so strange is used medicinally.

Those white, fingerlike things are not the flowers, but rather spikes on which many hundreds of tiny, much- reduced flowers are crammed closely together. Each individual blossom consists of no more than a tiny scale, representing the calyx, 2-6 stamens, and a tiny ovary with just a single ovule, which will develop into the flower's one seed.

There may be up to 2000 species of tropical and subtropical Pipers. Back when I worked as a botanist at the Missouri Botanical Garden I studied the Pipers of Panama. I had a list of about 110 of them just for that little country. My work area always smelled really good because several pipers emit sweet fragrances. Pipers are members of the Black Pepper Family, the Piperaceae. Peppercorns are the dried fruits of an Asian Piper.

*****

BACKYARD NATURE FORUM REDESIGNED
For a while the Backyard Nature Forum was going great guns and lots of folks were exchanging observations from their own backyards. I think interest dropped off mainly because my server in the US, FatCow.com, placed the forum database on an overworked computer, so forum participants were continually getting error messages.

So, Mark in South Carolina, who does a great job taking care of the forum, has moved the whole site over to Google Groups. It's as easy as ever to sign up, post comments, and reply to other people's remarks, plus now you don't get those terrible error messages.

Anyone who's seen anything interesting lately in their own neighborhoods is very welcome to go to the new forum and share their observations. This was really fun when everyone was participating. The new address is:

http://groups.google.com/group/backyard-nature/.

*****

CARBON THOUGHTS
Looking over the daily-updated articles on my new nature-oriented RSS News Feeds page at http://www.backyardnature.net/i-rss.htm I came upon an article called "What We Can Learn From The Biggest Extinction In The History Of Earth." The "biggest extinction" is the one that happened 250 million years ago. We used to think a meteorite hitting Earth probably caused it but now there's evidence a volcanic event may have ignited a continental-size layer of coal, releasing an enormous amount of carbon dioxide and acidifying the oceans. The whole article is at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070809104722.htm.

Every day more evidence gathers that the entire Earthly ecosystem, the biosphere, is endangered by human activity releasing carbon into the atmosphere. One wonders what can be an individual person's proper response in the face of such possible, unthinkable pending disaster.

When George Bush announced his intention to invade Iraq remember the stunned silence in America for one or two days afterwards as the whole nation wondered what attacking Iraq had to do with dealing with the handful of oil-funded religious fanatics who had attacked us. Before a debate could take place the propaganda machine got going and soon it became unpatriotic to ask that question. Thus we see how great democracies confront great problems: Whoever has the most money to fund media manipulation guides policy. With the global warming issue, polluters have the money. Therefore, my opinion is that global warming is mainly an issue for individual people the world over to decide on and to take action on, and that waiting for enlightened leadership is pointless.

With the behavior of individual people of such critical importance, then, it's worth reflecting on certain features of the human character.

It's amazing how humanity has evolved so that in any community there's always a diversity of personality types. Even if it's a community entirely of non-violent vegans, you can bet that some of the children born there will exhibit aggressive, militaristic streaks. The opposite is true as well. Mother Nature knows that all kinds of people are needed in a well functioning society, the soldiers as well as the teachers, farmers and artists as well as shopkeepers. This phenomenon is beautiful, but it also assures that we'll never enjoy much of a consensus on such a complex, far-reaching problem as global warming.

Moreover, history shows that in societies under stress religions proliferate. Religions promote non-thinking "faith" over critical analysis. They promote ceremonial acts over taking decisive appropriate action. My opinion is that we are entering a time when an upsurge in religiosity will paralyze society's ability to deal with problems as enormous and mind-bogglingly threatening as global warming. Already the first symptoms of this are appearing -- for example, the US federal ban on funding embryonic stem-cell research.

Finally, history also shows that Nature/ the Universal Creative Force has permitted mass extinctions in the past, so one can assume She'll allow it again. Six extinctions are registered on my Geological Time Scale Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/g/geo-time.htm.

The question remains, then, of what each of us is to do on a personal, everyday level.

I would say that if you are disposed to admit that a problem exists, and you see it as a moral responsibility to act, then do so. Little things like turning the air conditioner down or off, planting a shade tree, or drying clothes outside instead of using an electric drier, mean so much.

Such acts are beautiful blossoms in unexpected places.

Flip a switch off, then smile inside yourself at your own loveliness.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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