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

October 10, 2010

SULPHUR ON THE HIGHWAY
On the peaceful little blacktop road running south of Pisté, from the bike I spotted a yellow butterfly lying at the road's edge. He'd been hit by a car, leaving his wings cramped unnaturally below him. I knelt and gently spread the wings atop the road surface. You can see the pretty orange markings there at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010yb.jpg.

Bea in Ontario tells me that this is an Orange-barred Sulphur, PHOEBIS PHILEA, a member of the big Whites & Sulphurs Family of butterflies, the Pieridae. It's a common species, frequent along weedy roadsides, and I've seen it a lot. I hadn't photographed one until now because they're swift, high fliers. When it's hot and sunny this one just streaks about, not waiting for a digital camera to do all its grinding and configuring.

Several look-alike yellow butterfly species are common here. You might find it interesting to compare a side shot of this week's Orange-barred Sulphur, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010yc.jpg with a similar side shot of an earlier-seen Dina Yellow, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/butt061.jpg.

If you place those two images in different windows, side by side on the computer screen, it's fascinating to see how for the most part they're identical, but here and there there's a spot on one but not the other, or a wing vein that's shorter or more bent than on the other.

One reason Orange-barred Sulphurs are so common is that there's plenty here for them to eat. Their caterpillars feed on the genus Cassia in the Bean Family, and Cassias are common here. Adults take nectar from many different kinds of flowers. Thus you find them in all kinds of lowland, weedy sites, including gardens, parks, forest edges and, as I did, along roads.

The species is distributed from Brazil all through Latin America to the US border and southern Florida, plus it wanders irregularly as far north as Minnesota and Connecticut. This seems to be a species poised to take advantage of global warming.

*****

CIP-CHÉ ABLOOM
Nowadays here and there at woods edges you see trees maybe 15 feet tall (4.5m) just glowing with smallish yellow flowers. A branch of one is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010bu.jpg.

Closer up you can see the tree's simple, opposite leaves, and flowers with five "clawed" yellow petals at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010bv.jpg.

A close-up of a single flower is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010bw.jpg.

In that picture the five spatula-like petals are easy enough to identify. From the elevated central area arise three slender, greenish styles (ovary necks) bearing stigmatic areas where pollen grains germinate. Clustered around the three styles are the stamens, the flat, paddle-shaped things below the brown anthers being staminodia, or sterile stamens. What's really interesting is the ring of shiny, oval items -- two between each pair of petal claws. Those are glands, a pair of them on each sepal. A view from below a flower showing the gland-pairs obscuring the sepals is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010bx.jpg.

We've run into oversized sepal glands before, such as on pink Barbados-Cherry flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122mr.jpg and yellow Nance, or Golden Spoon, flowers, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206ne.jpg.

The Barbados-Cherry, the Nance and the roadside tree we're talking about now all bear those large sepal-glands because they're in the same big family, the mostly tropical Malpighia Family, or Malpighiaceae. Members of the family are woody; no tree or bush well known to North Americans or Europeans belongs to that family.

Our roadside tree belongs to the genus BUNCHOSIA. Probably it's Bunchosia swartziana, though its leaf bases are more rounded than those shown in the few pictures of the species on the Internet. It might be B. lanceolata, which also occurs here, but which so far doesn't have pictures in cyberspace.

Whatever the species' binomial name, the local Maya, who call it Cip-Ché, have a high regard for it because of its miraculous healing powers. When you suffer "evil winds," a shaman with a handful of branches from this handsome tree can brush away your miseries. My shaman friend José explains that it equalizes the energies, also that there are three kinds of Cip-Ché, one with flowers, another with fruits, and another with nothing but leaves. I have found that often the Maya, even those very intimate with their local plants, don't recognize the fundamental relationship between all flowers and fruits.

If this is indeed Bunchosia swartziana, the tree is distributed from Mexico to Bolivia. In southeastern Mexico sometimes it's cultivated in home gardens for its fruits.

*****

"ROOSTER FOOT" VINE
We're entering that time of year when morning-glory vines start flowering, and I've never seen anyplace in the world with more morning-glory species than the Yucatán. We must be at or near the morning-glory center of evolution.

This week here and there along roadsides a conspicuous new morning-glory vine has appeared, with large, completely white flowers with spiraling anthers, and broad, deeply lobed leaves, with the lobes spreading like the toes of a chicken's foot. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010oo.jpg.

In that picture notice the deep pits in the flowers' throats, where hummingbird or moths with long proboscises can sup nectar. A close-up showing the unusual spiraling anthers dusted with white pollen, with the spherical, fuzzy-looking stigma atop its long, slender style down at the bottom-left, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010op.jpg.

In Spanish this vine often is called Pata de Gallo, which means "Rooster Foot," because of the leaves' shape. It's OPERCULINA PINNATIFIDA, a species distributed from southern Texas through lowland Mexico into Guatemala.

The fruits are as unusual and interesting looking as the flowers. You can see one subtended by five sepals at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010oq.jpg.

The bladdery item divided into four compartments is the mature ovary wall, or fruit husk. Inside each of the four cells lies a single large, black, hard seed.

Maximino Martínez's Las Plantas Medicinales de México reports that sometimes hemorrhoid sufferers carry the black seeds in their pockets to ease their pain. This is a good example of the Doctrine of Signatures, which states that medicinal plants may indicate their use by certain signs. In this case I suppose that the sign is the swollen bladder, which somehow is suggestive of what hemorrhoids feel like, even though they don't necessarily look that way.

*****

SCORPION TAIL FLOWERING
Right outside my hut's door there's a much-branched, four-ft-tall (1.2m) weed whose flowers are less interesting than how they're arranged. Take a look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010he.jpg.

Even if you live up North you've probably seen plants similar to this one because this is one of 250 or so species of heliotrope, or turnsole. This one's English name often is given as Scorpion Tail or Butterfly Heliotrope. It's HELIOTROPIUM ANGIOSPERMUM. You can see where the name's scorpion part comes from at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010hf.jpg.

The curl-tipped inflorescence is suggestive of a scorpion's arched tail.

In the picture, each of those white-topped items along the horizontal rachis is a flower. This inflorescence type, technically referred to as a "scorpioid" raceme, "scorpioid" meaning "scorpionlike" and a raceme being a flower spike whose flowers have no stems, or pedicels. This particular flower head is distinguished not only by its curled scorpioid tip but also by how the flowers arise from just one side of the rachis, generally pointing skyward. The name "heliotrope" translates to "sun seeker."

Heliotropium angiospermum is distributed from southern Florida and Texas through the American lowlands to Brazil; it's a common tropical-American weed. In much of Mexico a tea made from its brewed leaves is generally thought of as helping with stomach problems such as diarrhea, colitis and dysentery.

However, the online Atlas de las Plantas de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana tells us that none of the species' purported medicinal values have been confirmed scientifically. Moreover, there's a report from Barbados of some boys dying from taking too strong a tea, plus another study says that when fourteen rats were injected with an extract from this plant sarcomas developed in four of the rats at the injection site. At the very least this herb should be used with great care.

*****

ORCHID MYSTERY RESOLVED
Orchids are frequently seen here, the vast majority growing on trees as epiphytes. There's one very common terrestrial species, however, that for nearly a year has resisted my efforts to identify it -- until now. I've even listed every orchid I could find listed for the Yucatán -- there's quite a number of them -- and Googled them. Our terrestrial species so common here simply wasn't on any list. It was a mystery. You can see a flowering one on a cenote wall near the hut at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010or.jpg.

Note its mottled leaves. A close-up of a flower, about half an inch across (13 mm), is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010os.jpg.

Its characteristically nodding fruits are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010ou.jpg.

Its pseudobulbs -- those water-storage growths at the bottom of leaves of many orchid genera -- are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010ot.jpg.

A peculiarity of the pseudobulbs is that prickly spines arise from the bulbs' tops. This, along with its terrestrial mode and mottled leaves, should have made this orchid very easy to identify, but that wasn't the case.

Yesterday, in desperation, I tried a very different, non-technical approach. I Googled the keywords "orchid chichen itza" and by golly there it was the first thing! Turns out that an orchid collector had illegally robbed one from a ruin here at Chichén Itzá, taken it home, and after months finally was able to identify it.

It's OECEOCLADES MACULATA, apparently without a commonly used English name, and the reason it's been hard to identify is that it's a "weed" introduced from tropical Africa. Currently it's spreading fast in the Caribbean area, here and there in Central and South America, in the Yucatán, and even in the US. It was discovered in the Miami area in 1974 and is enlarging its area of distribution fast.

We think of orchids as being extremely fussy about their ecological requirements, and usually needing fairly undisturbed habitats. But this is one species that prefers disturbed places, and occupies many habitats from rainforests in the Caribbean to various "old growth" types, to our own somewhat disrupted, scrubby woods. It roots in various soil types, but -- despite the one in the picture occupying a slope -- strongly prefers level terrain.

So, this has been a hard-won ID, but it's one worth waiting for. An African weed-orchid not on any list I can find for this area. You just never know what you'll blunder into.

*****

POURING BACTERIA INTO TANKS
To keep from contaminating the area's groundwater, Hacienda Chichen discharges its bathroom and kitchen effluent into a series of tanks. In the tanks bacteria decompose organic compounds and filter out inorganic material. By the time water reaches the bottom of a nearby sinkhole it's practically pure. Last weekend I helped one of the owners, Don Bruce (pronounced BROOH-seh by the employees, though he's a gringo) renew the tanks' bacterial population. You can see Don Bruce and our friend Cuba pouring a brew into a tank at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010bt.jpg.

We tend to grossly underestimate the effect of microbes on Life on Earth. For example, did you know that the human body contains 20 times more microbes than it does cells? A story on National Public Radio suggested that if a naturalist from Outer Space were to visit Earth to study humans, the conclusion might be drawn that human bodies are just mobile homes for very diverse and sophisticated communities of microbes. You might enjoy listening to that story at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5527426.

Wikipedia has a page serving as a good introduction to the whole topic of microbes in human bodies at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_flora.

But last weekend we were concerned with bacteria not in human bodies but in the soil, the water, air, decaying plants and animals, etc. Bacteria are just as important in every ecological niche as they are in human bodies.

It happens that Don Bruce sells formulations concocted to enable bacteria to perform all sorts of jobs usually thought of as needing powerful chemicals. There's a "Pet & Wild Animal Odor & Stain Eliminator," an "All-In-One Vehicle Interior & Exterior Cleaning Solution" even an "Aircraft Oil, Exhaust & Carbon remover & Degreaser," and more. The mix we were using last weekend was especially for septic tanks. All these formulations have been certified and approved as harmless to the environment and humans. You can see a list of products at the parent office in Canada at http://www.earthalive.ca/products.php.

Maybe this new industry represents an important step away from society's current over-dependence on synthetic chemicals. If you're in the Yucatán and would like more information about possibly buying some formulations, let me know and I'll pass along your address to Don Bruce.

*****

WASTING FOOD
On my dandy, daily-updated, Online Nature-News Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/i-rss.htm I was browsing articles submitted by ScienceDaily.com. A new study archived there claimed that the US could save energy equivalent to about 350,000,000 barrels of oil a year simply by stopping wasting food -- and that without spending a penny or diminishing the quality of life. The study said that in 2007 between 8 and 16% of US energy consumption went toward food production, but some 27% of that food was wasted. The story appears at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101003081627.htm.

In discussions of this issue one important perspective I haven't heard anyone expressing is this: NOT wasting food feels GOOD. I mean, it feels good to live with a self discipline and to have an ethical foundation with which such waste simply doesn't arise in the first place.

The kind of food wasting reported in the article is so unnatural, so damaging to Life on Earth, and so without precedence in the natural world, that it constitutes a perversion. Perverse behaviors arise from sick spirits.

The interesting thing is that when we harmonize our thoughts and behaviors with Nature -- and part of that harmonization must always be to live sustainably -- we experience a kind of very gratifying resonance, the intensity of which is all out of proportion to our everyday feelings. It's similar to how a wet finger moved along the rim of a glass suddenly causes a completely unforeseen and inexplicably intense enchantment of resonating sound.

Consciously not wasting food, and not patronizing places that do waste food, can be thought of as one of many daily meditations available to us that can please and nurture our spirits -- or heal them if our spirits have been damaged or failed to develop properly.

Many other such behaviors that magically replenish and make us glad fall under the rubric of "simple living." Wikipedia provides a surprisingly nice page on that theme at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simple_living.

Sayings worth reflecting on, on the topic of simple living, are at http://www.gardendigest.com/simple.htm.

For example, at the above page there's this by Mohandas Gandhi, especially fitting when we talk about wasted food:

"Live simply, so others may simply live."

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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