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

August 15, 2010

ELVES ON CALTROP FLOWERS
Last week we looked at yellow-flowered Big Caltrops. This week the Caltrops are flowering even more spectacularly, and at mid morning whole fleets of Elves come sipping nectar from them. The dark, orange-striped little Elves are MICROTIA ELVA. One is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815ef.jpg.

One with its wings wide open appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815eg.jpg.

Though these are exceptionally small butterflies with wingspans of only about 1-½ inches (3.8 cm), their lineage is nothing special. They're members of the huge Brush-footed Butterfly Family, the Nymphalidae, and the very big True Brushfoots Subfamily, the Nymphalinae. On the evolutionary Tree of Life that places them alongside ubiquitous checkerspots and crescents.

At mid morning as Elves flit from Caltrop blossom to blossom, you can see how the slightest breeze knocks their tiny forms about. Elves are alert little beings, and they need to be so, because they're so small that dragonflies can catch them. Sometimes I do see dragonflies darting among them but so far I've not witnessed a capture. The darting happens so quickly, though, that I'm not sure my mind would even register it if it did happen.

Elves are widely distributed from Venezuela north through Central America and Mexico, as far north as various spots along the US/Mexico border. At least one has strayed as far as eastern Missouri.

*****

A SICK TOBACCO HORNWORM
During my daily morning patrol of the organic garden's tomatoes I saw something gratifying. A thick, juicy Tobacco Hornworm who had been eating a tomato plant, with no urging from me, toppled from its holey leaf, barely catching itself on a lower leaf's margin. It was a very sick caterpillar, and you can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815to.jpg.

I was tickled by the poor caterpillar's disposition because this is what's supposed to happen in an organic garden. There's supposed to be such a diverse web of interrelationships between plants, animals and soil that nothing gets far out of balance. You don't get run-away outbreaks of diseases or pests because there's always something there buffering the system -- be it ichneumon wasps preying on caterpillars, or distance between like-kind plants that keeps diseases from spreading, or whatever.

So, something in the organic garden got to this Tobacco Hornworm, and maybe if I'd sprayed the tomatoes with an insecticide it would have killed the thing that now was killing the hornworm. I can't prove that that's the case; just that this is how it's supposed to work.

By the way, if you have similar caterpillars on your own tomato plants, you might be interested in seeing whether they are Tobacco Hornworms, like the one in the picture, or Tomato Hornworms. Every time I've ever identified a very large, green caterpillar on my tomatoes, either here or up North, it's turned out to be a Tobacco Hornworm, However, I read that often Tomato Hornworms are the main ones on tomato plants. The two caterpillar types are similar.

Tomato Hornworms have eight V-shaped markings along their sides while Tobacco Hornworms, as in the above picture, display seven diagonal stripes. I read that older Tomato Hornworms possess black horns while older Tobacco Hornworms have red ones. Our caterpillar's horn is green, but more black than red, so maybe that's not a dependable distinction.

*****

A BIT OF JAVA IN PISTÉ
Don Bruce, one of Hacienda Chichen's owners, has lent me his bicycle, so now my weekly banana buying trips to Pisté go much quicker and I can explore a bit more. That's what I was doing among Pisté's backstreets when I saw the 15-ft-tall (4.5 m) tree gloriously abloom with 1-¾ inch wide, red flowers shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815cl.jpg.

I'd never seen this kind of tree, or anything quite like it. An up-close look of the flowers didn't ring a bell, either. You can see the blossoms' five corolla lobes, four stamens and long, slender style at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815cm.jpg.

In that picture notice how young flower buds cluster along one side of the stem, or rachilla, they arise from -- they're not arranged spirally around their rachilla. Also, the rachilla curves toward its end. Those features hint of the Vervain/Borage/Phlox group of families. The five corolla lobes and four stamens suggest the Acanthus Family, but the flowers don't have bracts beneath them, which most species in that family do. To figure this tree out I had to snip off a flower, return to the hut, and "key it out" using my old, always-carried-in-the-backpack, Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants, just like a beginning student. It felt good to be stumped so completely by such a striking plant!

It turned out to be CLERODENDRUM SPECIOSISSIMUM, the "specio" in the species name meaning "showy," and the "issimum" being a suffix meaning "very." Native to Java, Indonesia, the species is planted in the tropics worldwide, and thus is known by many English names, the most common ones seeming to be Java Glorybower, Flaming Glorybower, Pagoda Flower and Giant Salvia. Giant Salvia is a fair name because Scarlet Sage is a Salvia, and the flowers do look like Scarlet Sage flowers, just that they're on a tree. Also, Scarlet Sage is a member of the Mint Family, and -- to my astonishment -- so is Clerodendrum speciosissimum.

My astonishment was because I'm not used to mints being trees. In fact, Bailey's Manual places the genus Clerodendrum in the Verbena Family. Only recently has genetic sequencing shifted it to the Mint Family. It's also hard to accept this tree as a mint because its ovary is not deeply four-lobed, with each lobe in time falling away as a seedlike "nutlet." If you can't picture that, take a look at Mint Family Hedge Nettle nutlets at http://www.backyardnature.net/mintnut.jpg.

I don't think I've ever seen a Mint Family member whose ovaries weren't deeply four-lobed. But take a look at Clerodendrum speciosissimum's ovary at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815cn.jpg.

It's clearly four-sectioned, but hardly four-lobed. Well, this whole plant-family business strictly resides in human heads, and Nature makes no attempt to fit into our pigeonholes, so I think this must be one of those in-between genera not really neatly fitting anywhere.

In China Clerodendrum speciosissimum's roots and flowers are used to treat arthritis, liver and eye problems, hemorrhoids and hernias, and insomnia.

One reason we may see this species so seldom is that, from what I observed on this tree, after flowering the ovaries simply fall off without maturing into fruits bearing seeds. I read that the species spreads by root suckering. As such, it's managed to spread from cultivation at several places in southern Florida.

*****

PROTANDROUS FLOWERS
Look again at Clerodendrum speciosissimum's flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815cm.jpg.

In that picture notice that the pollen-producing stamens of the flower at the lower left are bent backwards beneath the corolla, but its style (the female ovary's long, slender "neck" with pollen- receiving stigma at its end) is held straight out. But on the flower at the right, the stamens stick straight out while the pistil bends downwards.

This is a fine example of "protandrous" flowers. Protandry is a strategy that helps flowers avoid pollinating themselves. When a protandrous flower first opens, its stamens are held straight out while the style droops downward, keeping its stigma away from the stamens' pollen-shedding anthers. That's what the flower at the right is doing. Once the anthers' pollen is shed, the stamens bend backward while the style rises into position in front of the flower to receive pollen arriving on pollinators from other flowers. That's what the flower at the lower left is doing.

Pretty neat, huh? Something amazing going on right here in Pisté, Yucatán.

*****

NANCE FRUITING
Maybe you remember the Nance tree from last December 6th's Newsletter. It was flowering then, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/nance.htm.

Now it's just as prettily fruiting, as can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815nc.jpg.

In December I wrote, "When Nance fruits are ripe, traditional markets are full of them at very low prices. They're abundant and easy to harvest, but their taste is just so-so, from tasteless to a little acidy to a little sweet, and maybe with just a hint of cheesiness. Each fruit contains a large seed so there's not much flesh to them."

In December I pointed out that one of the most unusual features about the Nance flower is that each of its yellow, fleshy sepals bears two conspicuous glands on its underside. Now the sepals have turned brown and hardened to a leathery texture, but they still bear their odd-looking but weather-worn glands, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815nd.jpg.

Gland-bearing sepals are a feature not just of Nance, but also of the entire large, mostly tropical family Nance belongs to, the Malpighia Family, the Malpighiaceae.

*****

HYBANTHUS AND THE EVIL EYE
When Luis cleared the understory of the woods near the organic garden, for his milpa, or cornfield, he left the foot-tall, densely leafy, white-flowered herb seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815hy.jpg.

I asked him why he'd left it.

"It's medicinal," he said. "For the mal de ojo. It protects babies when drunks or hungry people look at them."

"Mal de ojo is "the evil eye," and we've run into a cure for it before. In this year's May 23rd Newsletter we saw that the woody vine known as Beadvine, Abrus precatorius, serves the same use. That wasn't surprising because the vine produces spherical, red fruits, each bearing a single large, black dot on it, causing the fruit to look like an inflamed eyeball. But this little herb preserved by Luis didn't seem to suggest inflamed eyeballs at all. Maybe the plant works simply by being so pleasing to the eyes, with its dainty, white flowers against such a lush, green backdrop.

The plant belongs to a family known by all North American wildflower fanciers. Can you figure it out? Notice the presence of heart-shaped, shallowly toothed leaves. A closer look at some flowers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815hz.jpg.

Notice how the flower at the right terminates a hooked pedicle, and how the green calyx is slightly bisymmetrical, bulging backward at its base. How about the Violet Family?

This is in fact a member of the Violet Family, though not the violet genus Viola. It's HYBANTHUS LONGIPES, in the same genus as the Green-violet found throughout forested eastern North America. The genus Hybanthus holds about 150 mostly tropical and subtropical species, so the North's Green-violet actually is an atypical Hybanthus species because of its frost tolerance. Our Hybanthus longipes is more typical of the whole genus.

The blossom's flaring lower petal is unlike anything seen in northern violets. Also, in violets, that lower petal forms a baglike "spur" extending back and below where the flower attaches to its pedicel. With Hybanthus there's a slight backward bulge but no long spur. Violets are strictly herbaceous, but the wiry stems of our Hybanthus are somewhat woody at their bases. Despite these differences between Northern violets and our Hybanthus, if you break open our plant's half-inch long flower (13 mm) -- most of the length being that big lower petal -- you'll see a floral anatomy very similar to a regular violet flower, especially in how the five stamens join to form a ring around the ovary.

In most woods up north several violet species occur, so for wildflower lovers walking in a springtime woods there's often the pleasure of seeing a number of "variations on the violet theme." At least eight violet species occurred in my little home county in western Kentucky. When you run into this Hybanthus you definitely experience the violet theme, but the variation is so extreme that it's almost a dissonance. But, still, it's a pleasing dissonance.

*****

CHLORIS BESIDE THE ROAD
In certain lights and settings even the lowliest weed presents itself with charm, and such was the case the other day beside the road in Pisté, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815ch.jpg.

Like last week's Goosegrass, this species sets its flowering heads' spreading, spiky racemes atop a slender flower stalk. In other words, it has a digitate inflorescence. One English name for the species in the picture is Feather Finger-grass. It's CHLORIS VIRGATA, in the same Grass Family tribe as Goosegrass and Bermuda Grass.

Though at a distance Feather Finger-grass's digitate inflorescences look like those of last week's Goosegrass, up close there are big differences. You might remember that Goosegrass's flowers bore no needle-like bristles -- shown in last week's photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100808gi.jpg. Now look at Feather Finger-grass's flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815ci.jpg.

Hairlike bristles, or "awns," arise from the flowers up to half an inch long (12 mm). However, as with Goosegrass, all the flowers are packed on one side of the raceme midrib, or rachilla.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815cj.jpg several mature flowers fallen off their rachillas rest in my palm and you can see -- especially on the center flower -- that the flowers are hairy. Goosegrass's flowers were hairless, or "glabrous."

Feather Finger-grass is native to the American tropics but has spread to tropical lands worldwide as an invasive weed.

By the way, that name Chloris has a history. In ancient Greek mythology Chloris was a nymph associated with spring, flowers and new growth. Her Roman equivalent was the goddess Flora. She was abducted by Zephyr, the god of the west wind, who later married her. Ovid wrote of her: "As she talks, her lips breathe spring roses: I was Chloris, who am now called Flora." In sculpture and paintings Chloris often is portrayed as an alabaster-white maiden with a rose vine awkwardly issuing from her mouth. Who knows what there is about our Pisté grass that reminded the old botanists of nymph Chloris?

*****

A TYPICAL MAYA CORNFIELD
Last weekend I explored the road heading south of Pisté to Yaxuná. Along the way I passed several cornfields. Corn -- what Europeans call maize -- is so important in traditional Maya culture that when you're here it's worth paying attention to the cornfields. You can see one beside the road to Yaxuná at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100815mp.jpg.

The white mound is limestone bedrock. Years of slash-and-burn agriculture have eroded the soil from the mounds, not leaving much ground for growing corn on them. The low-lying soil is rich, though, and if rains come when they're needed this farmer can expect a good harvest. Dead trees on the limestone hill show that not long ago the hill was forested. The trees have been killed, probably by girdling, to make available for planting the limited amounts of soil on the mounds.

Traditionally the Maya planted beans and squash among their corn, but in the cornfields I saw only corn was apparent.

*****

THE CASTE WAR
I'm still wrestling with Mexican bureaucracy for a visa permitting me to stay here longer, so lately I've needed to make a couple of bus trips into Valladolid, the central Yucatán's main city, located about half an hour to the east, on the road to Cancún.

Valladolid has seen its share of history, and one of its distinctions is that historians often say that the Caste War of Yucatán (±1847 to ±1901) started there, when three Maya men were executed for planning an uprising among the Maya. The uprising triggered by the execution at first sought to reclaim for the Maya their communal lands, which had been passing inexorably into the hands of private ownership. However, the war gradually became one of the Maya against their non-Maya, mostly European (usually Spanish or partly Spanish) overlords. It ended up mostly a race war.

At first the Maya enjoyed great success. By the spring of 1848 they'd completely cleared Europeans from the peninsula, except for the walled cities of Campeche and Mérida, and the southwest coast. But then the Maya lost their strategic advantage when many of their fighters want home to plant and tend their cornfields. By August of that year guns, money and troops from Mexico were pouring into the besieged towns, and Maya forces were pushed back from more than half of the territory they'd taken control of.

Then the war ground on for more than half a century, costing 40,000-50,000 lives. Its official end was declared several times, the last time being in September, 1915. However, Maya fighters and Mexican soldiers were dying battling one another as late as 1933.

Eventually hostilities came to an end less because of any decisive victory of the Mexicans over the Maya than from changing economic and political realities. In the peninsula's southern region where Chicozapote or Chicle trees grow, the Wrigley Company began paying men for the latex they drained from the trees, used for making chewing gum, and that provided an alternative to fighting. England, finding itself doing more business with Mexico than the colony of British Honduras (now Belize), appeased the Mexicans by stopping the flow of gunpowder from its colony to the Mayas, the Mayas' main gunpowder source.

Long wars always have their surreal features, and Yucatán's Caste War saw more than its share. Early in the conflict the Maya war effort got a boost from the appearance of the Cult of the Talking Cross, whose believers, known as the "Cruzob," thought that God was telling them through the medium of a talking Cross that the war effort should continue. Though later the Talking Cross was discovered to be the invention of a ventriloquist, and the cult fractured over such issues as whether Catholicism should be rejected, through all the conflict's later years Cruzob adherents were greatly responsible for keeping the war going.

If you want to learn more about this conflict, which occurred not so long ago, a good place to start is Wikipedia's page with hot-linked terms at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste_War_of_Yucatán.

*****

PRESENCE & POSITION
Unexpectedly the afternoon rains have ended, drying things out and making it hotter. In mid afternoon sometimes a siesta inside the darkened hut's mosquito net feels pretty good. Lately, that's when I've been thinking about the Fifth Miracle of Nature. (There are six, outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/.)

The Fifth Miracle is that in higher animals the mere presence and positions of certain atoms on DNA molecules somehow express abstract concepts that get brought into the "real world" by an animal acting instinctually.

For example, a bird instinctually builds its unique kind of nest even though that bird has never seen such a nest. The instinct to do so arises in information encoded on the bird's DNA molecules, and that encoding is in the form of the presence and position of certain atoms on the molecule.

Just what might be the nature of the thing that reaches into the quantum mechanics world of the DNA molecule, decodes various of the Universe's abstract urges, and translates them into things like birdnests? Whatever it is, at the end of heat-dazed half-dreaming and cogitation inside the sagging-with-humidity mosquito net, it always seems like a miracle to me.

The Mayas' Great Spirit structures reality as cycles within cycles, and is helped by such things as snakes who talk, and gnomelike aluxob who serve as guardians. However, the Maya just don't concern themselves with the question of how atomic presence and position on a DNA molecule can express an abstract concept, which is then instinctually brought by an animal into the real world.

Still, being with the Maya has contributed to my thoughts about the Fifth Miracle, and it's been done in a way harmonious with the twisty realities of the DNA atoms' quantum physics, as well as with the Mayas' own mind-bending cosmology. Here's how that works:

By living day by day in the Mayas' rich, gorgeous, incomprehensible world, somehow what I do or do not believe has become less important than ever.

What's important is that I am here right now, keeping in mind the mystery of the Fifth Miracle of the Six Miracles of Nature as I submit more and more to the exquisite presence and position of everything around me.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

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