Issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort adjoining Chichén Itzá Ruin in
December 27, 2009
|WARBLER BENEATH A PALM FROND
This week as I passed beneath some Coconut Palms I heard a familiar sharp chipping sound, looked up, and saw the fast-moving little being shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227yt.jpg.
It was a Yellow-throated Warbler, DENDROICA DOMINICA, and he couldn't have been more at home, for his species is known to have a passion for palms when he's down here, though up north he tends to prefer the tops of pines and Sycamores.
The picture could be sharper but mainly I wanted to share with you the feeling of the moment, not anything you need a particularly sharp view of to appreciate. The feeling was of a small, nervously flitting, silhouetted little critter moving across palm fronds like a musical note bouncing up and down across lines of music while a song is being sung about light, fresh air, and glowing, living hope.
FRITZIE'S CHRISTMAS BIRDCOUNT
Whatever the case, I still enjoy hearing about other folks' counts. This week Fritzie in New York sent a newsy, informative, friendly-rambling letter about a count up there. Here's a part of it just to give you a feeling for what a "real" Christmas bird count is like:
ALVARADOA'S LONG, SLENDER "WORMS"
We saw this species last year in Chiapas when it was fruiting at the dry season's end. That picture remains at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/alvarado.htm.
We called it Alvaradoa then because I couldn't find a good English name, and I still can't. It's ALVARADOA AMORPHOIDES of the same family, the Simarubaceae, as the Ailanthus or Tree-of-heaven, which is a native of China gone wild in much of North America.
The "worms" dangling so conspicuously on the trees now are 10-inch-long (24 cm) racemes of male flowers, for Alvaradoa trees are unisexual, or "dioecious." You can see some male flowers consisting of only a green calyx on a pedicel from which arise five hairy-filamented stamens and some slender, hair-like staminodia at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227am.jpg.
If boy trees are flowering there must be girl ones in the vicinity, and such was the case, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227an.jpg.
As with the Ailanthus or Tree-of-heaven, Alvaradoa fruits are samaras, which means that they are dry, winged fruits that don't split open when mature. Thus the flattish, scale-like items stacked atop one another in the last picture are ovaries on their ways to becoming winged samaras. A close-up showing them is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227ao.jpg.
Each of those green pod-like things is an ovary. To the left each ovary arises from a brown, drying-out calyx, and each calyx arises from an enlarging pedicle, or stem. At the ovary's top -- right in the picture -- the purplish lines are the ovaries' stigmatic zones where pollen lands and germinates.
Maximino Martinez's Las Plantas Medicinales de México reports that here in the Yucatan people brew a tea of Alvaradoa's bark to treat the itch, and a similar brew of the interior bark is used as a stomach tonic.
Alvaradoas are fairly common in much of Mexico and their production of drooping samaras is prolific. I've watched seed-eating birds such as finches eat a lot of these fruits at the end of the dry season other foods are scarce, so this is a very important species ecologically.
CEIBA SPINES & LEAVES
In all that discussion I've never focused on the remarkable spines adorning the young Ceiba trunk, so this is a good time to show that, for a young tree with exemplary spines grows near my room, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227cb.jpg.
As the tree matures the spines disappear. A mature Ceiba's bark is gray and smooth like an elephant's skin.
Here it's not dry enough yet for our Ceibas to lose their leaves, so now you can see typical Ceiba leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227cc.jpg.
They're classic "digitally compound" leaves, leaves divided into separate segments that arise from a common point at the petiole's top, like a hand's "digits."
Sabal Palmettos, also known as Cabbage Palms, Cabbage Palmettos, Palmetto Palms, and Sabal Palms (but not Saw Palmettos, which are another species), are native to Florida and coastal zones of Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and Louisiana, as well as Cuba and the Bahamas, so they're strictly garden plants here. You can see that they are "fan palms," as opposed to most palm species whose frond segments arise from the long midrib like barbs on a feather's shaft. Sabal Palmettos can grow over 65 feet tall (20 m).
Features distinguishing Sabal Palmettos from other similar fan palms are:
You can see this interesting last feature at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227sc.jpg.
That photo also shows you yet another feature which is that the long-persisting petiole bases create such deep irregularities in the trunk that debris collects there enabling plants such as orchids and aroids to find footing as if they were in airborne pots! The Sabal Palmetto's trunk creates its own little ecosystem.
The very hard-shelled, hamburger-looking seeds that fascinated everyone were produced by Bean-Family species in the genus Mucuna, in pods very densely invested with slender, stiff, hairs. A Mucuna species is fruiting here now and you can see it, a vine with trifoliate leaves very like those of garden beans, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227mv.jpg.
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227mu.jpg you can see just how fuzzy those four-inch-long (10 cm) pods are. Back in the 70s when I worked in the herbarium of the Missouri Botanical Garden we always dreaded having to handle dried specimens of Mucuna because those pod hairs came loose, got on you, and made you itch until you took a scrubbing bath.
The species at hand here is MUCUNA PRURIENS, often called Velvetbean in English and Picapica in Spanish ("pica" means "to prick"), and though it's a native of India it now grows in tropical weedy areas worldwide. By the way, that species name "pruriens" is from the Latin meaning "itching sensation." I read that the hairs are a common ingredient of itching powder.
I'd expected Mucuna pruriens to be listed as having medicinal properties because I remembered from Standley's old Flora of British Honduras his statement that in Belize the legume's stinging hairs traditionally were mixed with molasses and taken as a medicine for expelling intestinal worms. However, I was surprised to see that the species is yet another of those "medicinal wonders" being sold at untold numbers of websites. Here are the most commonly mentioned uses:
As you might expect, most websites focus on its effects on sexual performance. (A typical dose for a man, I read, is 15 g of ground seeds mixed with cow's milk.)
However, the wider world of science seems most interested in the fact that the seeds contain natural L-dopa, used for controlling Parkinson's Disease. You can read much more about Mucuna pruriens' medicinal uses, including its preparation and side effects, at http://www.rain-tree.com/velvetbean.htm.
NEPHTHYTIS, THE ARROWHEAD VINE
In English often it's called Nephthytis or Arrowhead Vine. It's SYNGONIUM PODOPHYLLUM, and it's a native to Central America. I don't know if it's distributed this far north in the wild; it's a garden plant here. You can see a close-up of one of its deeply lobed leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227sh.jpg.
If you're familiar with aroids you know that they produce many tiny flowers on a fingerlike stem (the "spadix", which is Jack in Jack-in-the-pulpit) with a hoodlike modified leaf, or "spathe," usually wrapped around or overtopping the spadix (the pulpit in Jack- in-the-pulpit). Our Nephthytises are flowering now and you can see a cluster of inflorescences at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227si.jpg.
The topmost inflorescence has lost its spathe, revealing the upper part of the spadix and exposing the tops of many male flowers. The female flowers are below the collar-like scar at the base of the male flowers, inside the green, bulging area. The bulging area surrounding the female flowers looks closed, but when the female flowers are receptive an opening develops just large enough for pollinators to enter, then the opening closes.
To the right of the topmost inflorescence is a younger inflorescence still with its spathe attached. Below these you can make out several developing "fruits," all topped with brown, dry scars where both the spathe and that part of the spadix holding the male flowers have fallen off. At the bottom left a "fruit" is turning red. "Fruit" is in quotation marks because, technically, the real fruits are the matured ovaries of the individual female flowers inside the bulging fruitlike things. Turning red like that, it's obviously inviting seed-dispersing fruit-eaters to a snack.
You can see how the stem sprouts aerial roots that attach it to tree bark as it grows at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227sj.jpg.
Sometimes Nephthytis can't find anything to climb so its stems range across the ground forming a dense groundcover. Leaves on these horizontal stems are smaller and typically have only three lobes or no lobes at all. You can see some three-lobed ones, suggesting where the name Arrowhead Vine comes from, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227sh.jpg.
If he above three-lobed leaves look familiar it may be because un North Nephthytis often is grown in pots where it seldom has enough room to develop the more robust, several-lobed blades.
Nephthytis must be fairly adaptive, for it's escaped into the wild in central and southern Florida.
Its juice is milky and can cause mild to severe poisoning if ingested.
That's a plastic liter soda-drink bottle with its bottom cut out and slit along one side so it could be slipped around the hibiscus's stem, tied in place upside-down, and filled with potting soil. Certain plant stems sprout roots if their stems make contact with moist soil, and Chinese Hibiscus is one of them. Eventually the hibiscus's stem will fill the potting soil with roots, then the stem can be severed right below the bottle's mouth, the bottle will be removed, and wherever the root-filled soil is planted there'll stand a new Chinese Hibiscus already two or three feet tall.
THINKING ABOUT THE NEW YEAR
Down here days also have been noticeably shorter during recent weeks, though not as conspicuously so as farther north. Here the "real" New Year, if we need to define one, begins at the end of the dry season when suddenly rains turn the world green again, many plants do their blossoming, there's a surge in insect numbers, and much more. That occurs around May. On the Equator where day lengths stay the same all year and in places where it rains year round, it'd be hard to define when a "real" New Year begins.
The urge to recognize a precise moment as the beginning of a new year is a function of the human brain's right hemisphere, which always is creating "stories" to make sense of facts gathered by the left hemisphere. Nature does very well without paying attention to formal beginnings and ends, without fitting Herself neatly into the cycles and trends our brain's right hemisphere identifies or imagines it identifies.
Yet, we humans are programmed so that there's something depressing about thinking of ourselves as actors on a stage where the play has no beginning or end, no plot-advancing acts following one another, and in fact no real plot or theme at all. We humans need to feel that we're part of an ongoing effort, that we're contributing to a world passing from Point A to Point B, and that Point B somehow will be better than Point A.
So, if we can't really identify with others celebrating this or that "new beginning" or progress accomplished in an imagined goal, are we doomed to see ourselves as actors in an interminable play with no plot or theme? This week I've thought about that, and here's what I decided:
Even when viewed on a purely rational basis and without our brains' right hemispheres generating stories causing what we behold to seem more exciting, events here on Earth suggest that the Universe's evolution does indeed have direction, and that Point B may turn out to be better than Point A was.
The facts I'm referring to are those I've described elsewhere as constituting The Six Miracles of Nature:
In this first week of "the real" New Year here in Earth's Northern Hemisphere, these thoughts suggest a New Year's resolution: To harmonize my own life with "the flow of the Universe." That can be accomplished by rededicating myself to the daily struggle for ever greater understanding and sensitivity as I look around, think about and feel for the Creation around me, and simply LIVE.
Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,
To subscribe OR unsubscribe to this Newsletter, go to www.backyardnature.net/news/natnat.php.
Post your own backyard-nature observations and thoughts at http://groups.google.com/group/backyard-nature/
All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.
Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net