JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort
adjoining Chichén Itzá Ruins in
YUCATÁN, MÉXICO

February 7, 2010

A FRISKY BLUE BUNTING
Back in November I showed you a male Blue Bunting, CYANOCOMPSA PARELLINA, who was either so very sick or hurt, with very ruffled feathers, that he could hardly fly. Despite his species being endemic to just lowland tropical Mexico and northern Central America, the species is fairly common here, and this week for some reason Blue Buntings have been very conspicuous flitting along weedy trails and roadsides, calling excitedly with a metallic CHIK, CHIK, CHIK. Our males' heads, shoulders and rumps are a more dazzling blue than shown in Howell's guide, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207bb.jpg.

This is a small bird, some 5¼ inches (13.5 cm) long, about the size of the North's Indigo and Varied Buntings, which belong to a different genus. After seeing that earlier one in such an unhappy state, it felt good seeing this week's birds so healthy and frisky.

*****

JACARATIAS FLOWERINGS
One of the strangest-looking trees nowadays is one that's lost all its leaves for the dry season, and possesses a gray, smooth trunk swollen so out of proportion to its branching system that it looks like a little fruit tree sprouting from a gigantic elephant's leg. The local Maya call it Bonete, though I've read that in northwestern Yucatan they call it Ch'iich'puut. I find no English name for it. It's JACARATIA MEXICANA, endemic but frequent in the Mexican states of Yucatán and Campeche, and growing to about 40 feet high (12 m).

Vegetation hides all our Jacaratias' weird trunks but in 2006 near Telchac Pueblo I photographed a tree with its trunk completely exposed and you can see it, with a Tropical Mockingbird singing his heart out in it, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/jacarati.htm.

Our trees are flowering now. You can see a hand-size panicle of flowers, mostly not yet open, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207ja.jpg.

A cross section of one of those thumbnail-size flowers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207jb.jpg.

The unusual thing about that blossom is that its pollen-producing anthers -- the erect, slit-faced items in the flower's center, at its throat -- are very well developed, though they lack the stems, or filaments, of normal anthers. Also, down at the bottom of the corolla tube where you'd expect a plump ovary to reside, there's just a fingerlike thing looking like it could never develop into a fruit. Of course this is a unisexual male flower, for Jacaratias come in male and female trees (the trees are dioecious) and that fingerlike thing is just a sterile, vestigial ovary. This flower looks very much like a male Papaya flower, one of which you can see on the right at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/papaya3.jpg.

Jacaratia's female flowers, in contrast, are much larger than the Papaya's female flower shown on the left in the above picture. You can see a female Jacaratia flower with its oversize, brown stigmas at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207jd.jpg.

In the above picture notice how this female flower's ovary bears longitudinal ridges. Those ridges will develop into "fins" on a torpedo-like fruit, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207jc.jpg.

The fruit gets to about six inches long (15 cm) and may yellow. The local Maya eat it raw, saying that it's sweet enough as it is.

The tree's leaves, which will return with the rains but which now are completely absent, cluster toward the tips of branches and are "palmately compound" -- consist of five to seven slender leaflets arising from atop a stem, or petiole, like fingers from the palm of a hand. They look rather like a Schefflera's compound leaves, if you know that potted plant up North.

*****

GUINEA-HEN ROOT/ ANAMÚ
As the dry season tightens its grip, various trees continue losing their leaves and herbs die back. The forest acquires a lighter, airier feeling which, despite the warmth, evokes for the Northerner feelings of fall with all its dry leaves crunching underfoot. This year some unusual showers have kept weedy spots such as roadsides greener this year than usual. Weed species, having evolved elsewhere, are less dependent on local natural cycles and thus opportunistically thrive when unscheduled rains come, while many native plants are programmed by their genes to close down during the dry season, rain or not.

In the forest where few weeds penetrate, however, it's getting hard to find flowering plants to profile here. However, it's easy enough to find flowering weeds. One is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207pt.jpg.

If you know your Eastern North America flora, can you guess what family that plant belongs to? Up North there's a familiar roadside weed much bigger than this plant, but with leaves very similar, and similarly bearing small, white flowers in slender raceme branches. How about Pokeweed? Can you see the familial similarity?

This is PETIVERIA ALLIACEA, a member of the Pokeweed Family, the Phytolaccaceae, native to nearly all the warm regions of the Americas, including southern Florida and Texas. An interesting fieldmark is how its slender racemes droop toward their tips.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207pu.jpg you can see one of the flowers. Typical of the Pokeweed Family, the four white, ¼-inch long (5 mm) "petals" are actually petal-like sepals, which are calyx lobes. The hairlike pink items are the stamens' filaments. One filament bears a pale anther, the baglike part producing pollen. I suspect that originally the eight stamens all bore anthers, for I've seen that the anthers drop off very easily. Maybe that's an adaptation to help avoid self-pollination. The hairy item in the flower's center is the ovary, which will develop into a fruit. You can see three fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207pv.jpg.

That picture also shows how the fruits disseminate themselves: When you brush against a plant, the fruits attach themselves like Northern stick-tights. The three fruits in the picture are sticking to my leg. Notice their sharp, pale, backward-pointing spines that so effectively snag onto passing hairy legs.

Because the plant occurs in so many lands, and so many cultures regard it as medicinal, it enjoys more than the usual number of common names. In Belize the Creole speakers call it Guinea-Hen Root, in Perú it's Mucura and in French speaking countries Feuilles Ave and Herbe aux Poules. If you Google the technical name Petiveria alliacea you'll find many pages hawking it as a medical supplement under the name Anamú, the name used in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

With regard to the medicinal uses, the Wikipedia entry for the plant says that it's been used widely to treat "an astounding range of medical conditions both in humans and in animals," from cancer to hysteria, and rabies to serving as a bat repellent. "Las Plantas Medicinales de Mexico" is less enthusiastic about it, however, mentioning only that its leaves smell like a skunk (others say onion, but I find the odor rather faint) and that it serves as an antidote for any fishbite, for sores and wounds, and for several other ailments I've never heard of.

*****

A CACTUS SEEDLING
At dusk I sat beside a forest trail as low-slanting sunlight penetrated deeply into the forest on the trail's east side. During such special, fleeting lighting situations I always hope to see a tinamous walking across the floor or maybe a Kinkajou leaving his aerial den for the night, but that day nothing really memorable happened. One thing that did happen, however, was that a large bromeliad, a Tillandsia fasciculata, for no apparent reason lost its grip on its tree branch and fell crashing through the understory to wedge in a forking branch not ten feet from me. You can see our Tillandsia fasciculatas at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/tilland1.htm.

Bromeliads and orchids are always falling like that. After storms the ground might be covered with thousands of them. They may live awhile where they land, maybe even a few years if they end up where the right kind of air circulates the way they need it, for, as we emphasized in the next section, they manufacture their own food. They use the trees they're on merely as perches.

When I find such orphaned epiphytes I carry them back to Hacienda Chichen and mount them where I think they'll thrive, and in places where visitors can get a good luck at them. Thus when I left my observation spot that afternoon I retrieved the fallen bromeliad.

It was about the size of a medium dog, bearing a basketball-size wad of thick, spaghetti-like aerial roots. And sprouting out of the blackish wad of aerial roots there was a seedling so young it still consisted mostly of its two cotyledons -- those two "first leaves" that appear on many non-grass plants (the class Dicotyledonae) when they first emerge from their seed. The seedling was about as tall as the middle link of a girl's middle finger.

Usually it's hard to impossible for me to know the identity of a seedling still in its cotyledon stage, but this time it was easy, as you can see, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207hy.jpg.

With that incipient roundish stem and the clusters of immature spines, what could this be but a cactus? The common epiphytic cactus in this area is one of several epiphytic cactus species known as "Night-blooming Cereus" and known locally as the Pitaya. It's HYLOCEREUS UNDATAS, the same species whose baseball- size, red, highly edible fruits sometimes appear in Northern markets under the name of dragonfruit.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207hz.jpg you see a young, slender stem section of the Pitaya showing white aerial roots searching for support and finding nothing. Note how the stem is triangular in cross section, and bears short, stubby clusters of spines.

In young woods which 20 or so years ago were ranchland you don't find Pitayas but in older forest here the species is very common. Here, I'm told, they'll flower when the rainy season gets underway in June. Then during the night they'll produce foot-long (30 cm), white, wondrously fragrant blossoms.

That's something to look forward to. We saw this species flowering in Querétaro, and that picture still resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/cereus.htm.

*****

AN ANTHURIUM'S AERIAL ROOTS
The Pitaya isn't the only epiphytic plant around here with thick, white, aerial roots. All the arboreal orchids have them. Though most or all our bromeliads don't have them, some of the aroids do. For example, this week I also salvaged a waist-high ANTHURIUM SCHLECHTENDALII, which we've already profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/anthuriu.htm.

That locally common member of the Aroid Family produces lots of thick, white aerial roots, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207an.jpg.

In that picture notice how the roots point upward instead of searching for the ground below. The upward pointing makes sense when you remember that these airborne epiphytic plants are by no means parasitic on the trees they perch in. They derive their nutrients from air, water and whatever organic material happens to accumulate among their roots, so those upward-growing roots are well designed for absorbing moisture from humid morning air.

The roots' thickness and whiteness is provided by mycorrhiza. Mycorrhiza are fungi that convert nutrients that may be present in the environment, but which are chemically unusable, into usable nutrients. The most famous instance of this is when mycorrhiza in a legume plant's nodules covert free atmospheric nitrogen, which is unusable to plants, into forms the plant can use. The mycorrhiza "fix" the nitrogen.

Nowadays it's being realized that many more plants are associated with and dependent on mycorrhiza than was earlier believed. Gradually it's dawning on people that to have healthy plants it's important to assure that the right mycorrhiza are present, and that the mycorrhiza have what they need to survive. Probably people often use harsh chemicals that don't damage the plant itself, but which hurts or kills its mycorrhiza, so the plant suffers indirectly.

One reason I wanted to focus on bromeliads and aroids this week is that a hotel owner across the road can't be convinced that the orchids, bromeliads and aroids on his big trees' branches are NOT parasites. He sends his garden crew into the trees to "clean" them of all their beautiful epiphytes, to "save the trees."

By the way, while writing the above it occurred to me that I wasn't sure whether the word "mycorrhiza" is singular or plural. On the Internet I see that many others have shared my doubt. For a while "mycorrhiza" was considered singular while "mycorrhizae" was considered plural, but then worry arose over the word "mycorrhiza" being derived from Greek roots, but "ae" being a Latin suffix. Therefore today the trend is toward using "mycorrhiza" for both singular and plural -- as is done already with the word "species."

*****

MYSTERY BLOSSOM
Nowadays one of Hacienda Chichen's flowering plants is especially pretty. I photographed the inside of a fallen blossom and wonder if anyone out there can identify what species it is just from this inside view? It's commonly planted in the tropics. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207~~.jpg.

*****

THATCHING THE MAYA HOUSE'S ROOF
Work on Hacienda Chichen's traditional Maya house continues. This week Paulino and Santos have been thatching the roof with Huano Palm fronds. Huano is SABAL YAPA, one of the fan palms. Our page about it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/huano.htm.

Last weekend a truck arrived carrying big bundles of Huano fronds tied together with the ropy stems of "Tropical Grapevine," Cissus sicyoides, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207h0.jpg.

After chopping off each of the frond's stems, or petioles, so they'd be the same length, the men tied together bunches of them so they could be risen to their working spot on the roof, by rope, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207h2.jpg.

One reason the Huano Palm's fronds are favored over other palm species is that the fronds' petioles extend like a midrib into the fannlike blade. The fronds are affixed to the wooden pole below them by inserting the petiole extension and the leaflets arising from it BELOW the pole, while all the rest of the leaflets go ABOVE the pole. This way the frond hooks onto the pole very securely. You can see how this looks from below at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207h1.jpg.

You can see what the house looked like after the first hour of thatching at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100207h3.jpg.

*****

A LIFE-CHANGING MEDITATION IN THREE STEPS
In my life, almost by chance, I've stumbled upon a spiritual, mystical path that has granted me contentedness and fulfillment.

Actually, maybe it's a two-lane path, for one part of the path is to strive for simplicity. Keeping one's life simple is not easy. However, instead of talking about that here I want to focus on the second lane.

That second lane deals with managing this magnificent brain we humans have inherited. For, our brains are so vulnerable to genetic and social programming, changing chemical levels in our bloodstream, and physical damage that it's amazing we all get along as well as we do. For, because of ever-changing external influences, the brain constantly shifts its center of perception, even while incessantly spewing illusions and spinning stories that often disorient us, stress us and get us in trouble.

In college, by reading books, I learned basic principles of meditation. They enabled me to calm my spirit, focus my mind, and to visualize states of peace which sometimes I could access. Putting this learning into practice enabled me to pass through a time of life when suicide was very much on my troubled mind.

Maybe the most powerful insight from that experience was this: That certain systematic procedures exist that can make you happier if you practice them. Back then, just learning how to breathe deeply made me feel much better and brightened by attitude. The lotus position helped, and ommmmmmmming... I don't do those things so much now, but the discovery that "known procedures" can work on one's psychic and spiritual state was a powerful and important discovery for me, for until then I'd assumed that we humans "are just what we are."

Now let me tell you about the procedure that means so much to me at this time in my life. It's a procedure that for me has become something like a meditation or even a prayer when I practice it. It's the very same procedure that is outlined at the first main link on the front page of my Backyard Nature website at http://www.backyardnature.net

There it's referred to as "3 Steps to Learning about Nature." Those steps are:

Step 1: Identify something

Step 2: Look up the name on the Internet or in books and see what's said about the named thing

Step 3: Keep gathering and organizing the information as the years pass, in your Nature Notebook or on the computer.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/listopen.htm these points are further discussed, and links are provided, especially to help you get started with the identification step.

Here's my theory on how this procedure works:

The brain can hold just so much. It's like a bowl full of good and bad stuff. If you start pouring only good stuff into it, like learning which birds have what songs, and what the features are of this and that flower, good stuff goes in while bad stuff goes out. Eventually the bowl ends up filled with much more good stuff than bad stuff, and you feel good. Simple as that.

For me personally, the Three Steps have become "My Key to Happiness." You are welcome to try them.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim