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

August 29, 2010

GARDEN SPIDER
These days up North in gardens and along roadsides often you see a really big, black-and-yellow spider suspended in the center of a large web with a conspicuous, white, zigzagging pattern of silk running vertically and passing beneath the spider. You can see such a spider over its zigzagging silk at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829gs.jpg.

That's a female ARGIOPE AURANTIA, so widely spread and conspicuous at this time of year that it goes by many English names, including Garden Spider, Writing Spider, Signature Spider, Banana Spider and Corn Spider. We have the same critter here, too, for the species is distributed from southern Canada through the US, Mexico and Central America.

The circular part of the female's web stretches about two feet across (60 cm) and the webs themselves usually are built between two to eight feet high. The zigzagging pattern of silk, called the stabilimentum, is variously thought to camouflage the spider or attract insect prey, but my favorite theory is that it's mainly to make it easy for birds to see the web so they won't destroy it by flying through it.

That's a female in the picture, her body minus legs being about an inch long (2.5 cm). The slender little brownish males are about a third as large. Males roam about looking for females and when they find one they may build their own much smaller web near or actually within the female's web, then court the female by plucking strands on her web.

*****

IGUANA IN THE MARIGOLDS
Next to the chair beside the hut's door where I eat breakfast a dense thicket of marigolds about four feet high is just beginning to issue flower buds. In about a month they'll be a pretty sight. As I sit next to them their sharp, medicinal odor suffuses the morning's calm, moist air.

Most mornings, within arm's length of where I'm sitting, an immature Black Iguana perches motionless, either waiting for prey, watching me, or both. He's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829ig.jpg.

Mature Black Iguanas are gray and black, but the younger they are, the greener.

This particular iguana, about a foot long, has almost become a pet. On afternoons when sometimes I read in the door chair he rushes from the general area of the marigolds and perches atop a rock about six feet away. If I get up, he doesn't move. In fact, I can walk right up to him. He's like a dog, but not enough for me to tickle him.

Of course, iguanas have reptilian brains, not mammalian ones, so, theoretically, affection and maybe curiosity shouldn't be part of this critter's behavioral repertory. But, who really knows what's going on in that lizard's brain?

*****

MARIGOLD GLANDS
In the above picture, maybe you noticed the many little bumps near the marigolds' leaflet edges. A close-up of some leaflets, with backlighting, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829mg.jpg.

Those are glands filled with oils rich in chemicals that repel certain insects. You've probably read the advice to liberally plant marigolds in your garden to help control pests.

Studies have shown that most marigolds also produce chemical compounds that are toxic or antagonistic to certain harmful nematodes -- and you may remember that my entire tomato crop is being wiped out by nematodes. I don't know if marigold's chemical compounds will control the specific kind of nematode killing my tomatoes, but as soon as I have enough seeds from the marigolds next to my chair I'm going to sow them where now my tomatoes are dying.

*****

POCHOTE FLOWERING
Biking the quiet little road running south of Pisté to Yaxuná I saw a tree very similar to the big Ceibas we often speak of here. Spiny-trunked Ceibas are one of the largest, most distinctive and appreciated trees of the humid American tropics. Our Ceiba Page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ceiba.htm.

The tree on the road to Yaxuná, despite growing to about the same big size as the Ceiba, despite having a very spiny, thick trunk like a Ceiba, and despite its leaves being digitately compound with seven or so leaflets like a Ceiba, definitely wasn't a Ceiba. Ceiba flower petals are white or pink and about 1-1/3 inches long (3.3 cm). This tree's petals were brown on the outside and white inside, and were an impressive 4-1/3 inches long (11 cm)! You can see two big blossoms reaching for the sun at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829cb.jpg.

One of the tree's digitately compound leaves is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829cc.jpg.

A small section of its very spiny trunk is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829cd.jpg.

The Maya call this tree Piim but in most of Mexico the Spanish name is Pochote, and I don't think it has a decent English name. It's CEIBA AESCULIFOLIA -- the species name aesculifolia meaning "having leaves like a Horse-chestnut or Buckeye tree." You can see that Piim or Pochote belongs to the same genus as the Ceiba, the genus Ceiba, but regular Ceibas are Ceiba pentandra. In other words, the Ceiba aesculifolia along the road to Yaxuná is very closely related to the famous Ceiba, but it's something else.

On our Ceiba page there's a picture of a Ceiba fruit releasing lots of white, cottony fiber. That fiber once was sold commercially under the name of kapok, and before cheap synthetic fibers came along was much used for stuffing pillows, cushions, life-saving vests, etc. In the Flora of Yucatan (1947), Paul Standley reports that in southern Yucatan the Maya once made large numbers of mantas, or capes, from Pochote's fruit fibers, and they were regarded as superior to those of the Ceiba. He also says that Pochote's fibers were used for starting fire, while Ceiba's fibers won't easily catch fire.

Pochote's fibers are still in demand nowadays as stuffing for cushions and such for people with allergies to wool and feathers.

Pochote, which in rainy tropical lowlands can reach 100 feet tall (30 m), and whose thick trunks often flair broadly with buttresses, is distributed through much of humid, lowland Mexico, to Costa Rica. As with Ceiba, it's a member of the Bombax subfamily of the Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae.

*****

STAR-APPLE FLOWERING
Next to the Hacienda's bathroom the big Star-Apple tree, CHRYSOPHYLLUM CAINITO, with its five-inch-long (13 cm), evergreen leaves -- glossy green above and silky golden-brown below -- is flowering. Its leaves and 3/16ths-inch-long (4 mm) flowers are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829st.jpg.

Besides being a very shapely, fair-sized tree (up to 50 feet, or 15 m) with unusually attractive leaves, the main thing about Star-Apples is their fruits, which are apple-sized, spherical, covered with a smooth purple or light green skin, and contain a translucent, whitish pulp with 3-8 shining seeds. And that flesh is very tasty. Star-Apple fruits were falling about a month ago, but they all hung too high to photograph, and the ones that fell were all half- eaten by Kinkajous, so I missed showing them to you.

Still, the current flowers are worth looking at. You can see one much magnified at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829su.jpg.

Books say that Star-Apple flowers have five corolla lobes and stamens but you can see that this one, picked at random, bears seven of each. In the first photo you can make out that there's a general mix of five-lobed, six-lobed and seven-lobed flowers in the inflorescences. Well, Star-Apples have been cultivated for a long time and it often happens among cultivars of long standing that genes get a bit scrambled and funny things occur -- random spots on cattle, for instance, and flowers with seven corolla lobes.

Another unusual thing about the blossom shown in the close-up is that its pollen-producing stamens arise opposite the corolla lobes, at their bases. Stamens in most flowers alternate with their corolla lobes. Also, it's a little unusual for stamens to simply arise from a corolla wall instead of beneath the ovary.

However, having stamens exactly like these is a general feature of the family to which Star-Apples belong, the Sapodilla Family, the Sapotaceae. Other members of that family include the Chicozapote or Chicle tree, the Mamey, and Canistel, all trees producing large, delicious fruits much sought in tropical markets.

Star-Apples are native tropical American trees planted widely throughout the Earth's tropics.

*****

ZINNIAS BY THE HUT
Often I sit just outside the hut door reading, watching the critters, or just looking around. Each day it's more pleasant there because my springtime plantings are producing a gardeny feeling.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829hu.jpg you can see my chair with strawberry-red-flowered zinnias in the foreground, a tuft of lemongrass just beyond them, some basil beyond that, then just beyond the chair and walkingstick is the big clump of marigolds in which the iguana perches each morning.

The zinnias -- these are Common Zinnias, ZINNIA ELEGANS -- are reaching their blooming peak about now. A very red flowerhead three inches across (7.5 cm), with opposite, stemless leaves arising below is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829zh.jpg.

I say flowerhead instead of flower since zinnias are members of the Composite or Sunflower Family, so what's shown in the last image is a head consisting of many packed-together, tiny flowers. If you need to be refreshed on what composite flowers are like, check out http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_comps.htm.

Now look at the medial section of a zinnia head shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829zk.jpg.

At the top, right corner of that picture what looks like a golden, upside-down starfish is one of the head's many disk flowers -- the five starfish arms being five corolla lobes. Follow the corolla tube down from the starfish and you'll see that a long, slender thing shaped a little like a shoehorn partly wraps around the corolla tube's base. That's a bract, or modified leaf, separating each flower from the other. Many kinds of Composite Family flower heads have no bracts, so their presence here is a feature helping us know that this as a zinnia. The fact that the bracts' crimson tops have jagged margins also is notable because the genus Zinnia embraces 20 or so species, and the jagged margins help distinguish our species elegans.

Another feature of zinnias is that their "involucral bracts" are rounded instead of having the more common sharp points, plus they overlap one another in several series instead of standing side-by-side as in many genera. You can see the zinnias' involucral bracts at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829zl.jpg.

Some of our zinnias' flowers are long past their glory, as you can see in the dried, brown bulk shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829zj.jpg.

I've been picking these heads and saving "seeds" from them, some of which lie in the palm of my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829zi.jpg.

The best-formed and probably the only fertile "seed" in that image is the one at the bottom, right. Immediately above it, the scoop-shaped thing is a dried involucral bract. I put quotation marks around seed because the "seed" is actually a special dry, one-seeded fruit typical of the Composite Family, known as an achene.

Common Zinnias are native to Mexico, but not to the Yucatán. They're so loved by gardeners worldwide that many forms have been developed. There are zinnias with white, cream, green, yellow, apricot, orange, red, bronze, crimson, purple, and lilac flowers, those with striped, speckled and bicolored blossoms, there are zinnias with double, semi-double and dahlia-like "pompon" heads, and zinnia forms that range from dwarfs not exceeding 6 inches tall (15 cm) to those well over a yard tall (1 m), like mine.

*****

LUSTY PICA-PICA
Maybe you remember from a Newsletter issued around last Christmas when I introduced you to the vine called Velvetbean, Pica-Pica in Spanish, famous for its large legumes being covered with a thick, brown mat of sharp hairs that can make you itch like crazy. You can see Pica-Pica and read all about it at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mucuna-p.htm.

It's way too early for Pica-Pica to be flowering or fruiting, but it's definitely making its presence felt, at least to Luis the milpa planter, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829pp.jpg.

That picture shows a very discouraged and disgusted Luis. On Saturday he'd cleaned every weed from the area he's standing in, but now on Monday morning the ground is littered with hundreds of vigorous, new green shoots, and that's Pica-Pica. Before this area was cleared for the milpa, actually Pica-Pica hadn't been among the most conspicuous species. However, you can see that now, if left untended, in a day or two there'll be a rampant, garden-choking carpet of Pica- Pica.

Pica-Pica, MUCUNA PRURIENS, is such a tough, vigorous plant that you just have to admire it -- unless you're Luis.

By the way, in the background and to the right notice the low earthen beds framed with rocks and stems of fallen trees. The Maya call those "eras," and they're special for this culture. The Yucatán's soil is so thin and often impoverished that sometimes good soil must be collected here and there and collected in "eras" so that plants will have something to root in. In some places in the Yucatán I've seen people sneak onto private property at night and rob topsoil, carrying it home in bags. The Maya here also put such earthen beds on wooden platforms with legs, and those structures are called "canchés."

Beyond the eras you can make out Luis's knee-high corn, among which also are planted squash and beans.

*****

HOES NO, COAS SÍ
The average Northern gardener will see all those seedling Pica-Picas and immediately think that the best way to deal with them would be chop them down with a hoe. Here the hoe is an alien concept.

Apparently there's no word in Maya for the hoe, and I've seen myself that if you use the Spanish word for hoe, azadón, they'll never have heard of it. You can see how Luis deals with weeds without a hoe at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829ko.jpg.

Luis's implement, rather like a short machete with a curved pointed tip, is known as a coa in Maya, and every Maya man who works with the land has one, as well as a machete. You can get a better look at a coa at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100829kp.jpg.

For me, the advantage of a hoe over a coa or machete when used for something like cutting down all those Pica-Pica seedlings is that you don't have squat or bend over. However, when I explain the concept to the Maya, usually drawing a hoe on the ground with a stick, the skepticism on people's faces is clear.

Hoes are just another instance of gringos using something complex to accomplish what a simple machete or coa can do so easily. I've seen men spend long, long days squatting with their coas, waddling across the ground they clear like legless ducks, doing what I figure a hoe could accomplish much faster and much less painfully.

*****

ON THE BEAUTY OF RAISING HELL
The human species became Earth's most dynamic lifeform by outcompeting other species. Our brains enabled us to outthink the species we hunted, and to domesticate other animal and plant species. Our ancestors struggled for dominance aggressively, self-servingly and piteously. Had a race of flower-sniffing, nonviolent vegetarians like me mutated into existence, we wouldn't have lasted long; instantly we'd have succumbed to neighboring clans coveting what we had, and maybe wanting to eat us.

With humanity's evolutionary history, it's amazing that on the average today we're such a docile, peaceable species. Only occasionally, as when we're under stress or experiencing mass hysteria, does our aggressiveness break out.

That's not saying that we're all just waiting to tear one another apart. Our instincts for aggression are strong, but our social programming is stronger. Also, I believe that once the Sixth Miracle of Nature enters one's life -- the Miracle of inspired thinking, feeling and behaving beyond mere instinct-driven impulses -- there's something new in a being's life, maybe something not yet named (unless it's "love-for- all-things"), that's even stronger.

Since we all have this inborn urge to raise hell, it's worth thinking systematically about the matter.

To my mind, hell raising by definition is shocking and disruptive. Therefore, drunken or drug-induced behavior, reckless driving, public cursing -- none of that is hell raising because it's so commonplace and therefore not shocking. Society even gives a wink and a smile to such behaviors through its mass marketing and entertainment.

When Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony with that final movement the most stirring and revolutionary in all music history, that was raising hell.

When a spontaneous mutation occurs in a species and a new feature arises to be passed on to future generations, that's Nature raising hell, shockingly and disruptively foregoing the usual step-by-step approach, willing to gamble with life while knowing that probably the mutation will be maladaptive or even lethal, but just possibly it might be something grand.

A form of hell raising that's particularly pretty to me is when somebody challenges and refuses to go along with humanity's comfortable, established but biosphere-shattering and Life-On-Earth-threatening traditions and agreed-on social mindsets and behaviors.

In fact, the most beautiful forms of hell raising are those arising when one thinks and thinks, and feels and feels, and loves and loves, and in doing so gets so mad that he or she actually does something creative and decisive in response. Maybe something like wearing lighter clothing when it's hot, or just putting up with the heat, instead of using an air conditioner.

That's shocking or at least weird to "normal behaving people," and it's certainly disruptive to society's dominant power structures and vested interests, and it really is beautiful.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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