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

October 17, 2010

"MAYA CUCUMBERS"
Often I've mentioned that the Maya plant their own locally developed seeds. Several months ago Don Philomeno spread numerous broad banana-tree leaves over a large garden area and planted inside the carpeted area several hills of cucumber. The banana leaves kept weeds from coming up and provided a clean surface for cucumbers to develop on. His crop reached is peak about a month ago and he harvested several bushels of cucumbers.

They were unlike any cucumber I'd ever seen. Everyone called them "pepinos," which means "cucumbers," so I called them that, too, though I fully expected that once I studied the matter they might turn out to be some kind of squash. You can see what one looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101017cc.jpg.

That's a small one. Most of Don Philomeno's cucumbers were about two feet long (60 cm). He stopped watering them a while back, so now the leaves are drying up and just small fruits are forming. Sometimes up North if you overlook a regular cucumber in the garden it gets large and yellowish like these, but the Northern ones aren't ribbed longitudinally as these are. It's the ribs and lengths that distinguish our fruits.

But, are they really a cucumbers? One reason I wonder is because the Cucumber plant genus, Cucumis, arose in and is native to the Old World. But the squashes, genus Cucurbita -- with some species such as Zucchini looking cucumberish -- are American. Wouldn't any cucumber developed by the Maya be from an American genus? Two indications that our plants are Old World Cucumbers are seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101017cd.jpg.

The first Cucumber Family fieldmark in the picture is the tendril, which is simple instead of branched. The vines of squashes and pumpkins bear branched tendrils while cucumbers bear unbranched or simple ones.

The second fieldmark for cucumber vines is the corolla, which is divided for more than half its total length. Squash and pumpkin flowers are more shallowly lobed. For comparison you can see a squash flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_sqwsh.htm.

The main proofs that it's really a cucumber, however, become apparent when you cut a fruit open, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101017ce.jpg.

Not only does it look cucumbery but it tastes, smells and feels cucumbery.

But, it's not really a cucumber...

At this point you might be interested in visiting a web page showing several fruits known as cucumbers. It's at http://solanaseeds.netfirms.com/cucumbers.html.

Within the Squash/Cucumber Family, the genus Cucumis is home to both cucumbers and muskmelons. Regular cucumbers are Cucumis sativus, while muskmelons are Cucumis melo. It looks like our "Maya Cucumber" is, or is a derivation of, what often is known as the Armenian Cucumber, CUCUMIS MELO var. FLEXUOSUS. In other words, our "Maya Cucumber," despite its look, taste, odor and Spanish name, is much closer related to muskmelons than to regular garden cucumbers.

Don Philomeno's cucumber tends to be a bit shorter and thicker than those in most pictures of Armenian Cucumbers I find on the Internet, plus the ribs are farther apart and less prominent. Also our cucumbers don't grow as long and slender as Armenian Cucumbers, which also are called Snake Cucumbers, sometimes do. I'm guessing that Armenian Cucumbers were introduced into the Maya area soon after the Conquest, but during the last 500 years the variety has been altered by the Maya as they selected for plants best able to survive here.

Sometimes Armenian Cucumber seeds can be bought from companies specializing in selling heirloom seeds. I read that Armenian Cucumbers date back at least to the fifteenth century, when they were introduced into Italy from Armenia.

Here's the most important point about our "Maya Cucumber." Don Philomeno's cucumber vines -- planted during the rainy season like mine -- produced a bounty, while my North American garden-type vines succumbed to insects, nematodes and fungal diseases long before they ever produced.

*****

MEXICAN OREGANO
Visitors to the garden usually regard a rather plain looking, much branched, six-ft-high (1.8m) shrub as one of the most interesting plants there. That's because we call it Orégano, its crushed leaves give off the oregano smell, only stronger, and the leaves are used in the kitchen just as oregano would be used. You can see Edgar of the kitchen staff, recruited as a measuring stick on his way from picking squash for Chef Cime, standing next to the unspectacular bush at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101017ln.jpg.

But, anyone who knows the Oregano plant up North -- often also called Marjoram -- knows that that plant, Origanum vulgare of the Mint Family, only grows a bit over two feet high (60cm). The robust shrub next to Edgar, despite its odor, use and the name we give it, certainly isn't what Northerners call Oregano. So, what is it? You can have a closer look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101017lo.jpg.

The leaves look minty and are opposite as they are in the Mint Family, but the stems aren't square in cross section. Let's take a closer look at the tiny flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101017lp.jpg.

We saw little dog-faced flowers similar to these just last month on a Lantana. Those flowers are still shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100926lo.jpg.

Last month's Lantana, instead of being a mint like Northern oregano, was a member of the Vervain Family, the Verbenaceae, and so is our Orégano. Our Orégano is LIPPIA GRAVEOLENS, native to the US Southwest, Mexico and Central America as far south as Nicaragua. It's such an important culinary plant that it's also planted outside its area. It goes by numerous English names such as Mexican Oregano, Scented Lippia, Scented Matgrass and Redbrush Lippia.

Its fragrant flowers appear throughout the year, especially after rains.

*****

GLOBE AMARANTH
In Hacienda Chichén's garden a pretty, two-ft-high herb with interesting flowers is blooming, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101017gg.jpg.

The colorful heads look like those of clover, but the leaves are very different. If you break open a head you find the flowers well camouflaged, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101017gh.jpg.

This is Globe Amaranth, sometimes known as Bachelor's Buttons, though that name is better applied to a very different plant. Globe Amaranth is GOMPHRENA GLOBOSA, a member of the Amaranth Family, the Amaranthaceae.

In the last picture the flower is the vertical, cylindrical thing at the right. It appears to have white fuzz growing up its right side, but the fuzz grows on the rose-colored perianth, a perianth being what the structure is called when the calyx and corolla are indistinguishable, or fused together.

More interesting is the flower's jagged, white-tipped orifice. The white tips are anthers releasing whitish pollen. A typical stamen's baglike anther resides atop a slender, usually white, matchstick-like stem. Here the rose-colored filaments of five anthers have grown together forming a closed cylinder surrounding the female pistil -- the stigmas, deeply split style and ovary. If you count more than five anthers its because there's an extra filament "tooth" or lobe beside each anther, plus each of the stigmas also are white.

Then to top it all off, at the base of each flower arise three rose-colored, jagged-edged scales, two of them overtopping the flowers. When you look at the "globe" from a distance, mainly you're seeing rose-colored scales.

Those scales constitute one of the distinguishing features of the Amaranth Family. Usually in this family you have to search among the scales to find the inconspicuous flowers. Since the scales often are colorful and don't wilt easily, many members of the family are known as an "everlasting" -- good for indoor bouquets because they retain their shape and color after drying.

Globe Amaranths are thought to be native to the American tropics. Heads of the wild species are magenta, but cultivars have been developed with other colors, including purple, red, white, pink and lilac.

*****

CHEWSTICK
Nowadays here and there at woods edges along roads you see a vigorous liana, or woody vine, ascending into the trees, then its limber branches cascading down toward the road, ending in finger-thick, four-inch-long (10 cm) racemes of white flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101017gn.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101017go.jpg a close-up shows the 1/10th-inch-wide (3mm) flowers, and a feature rather peculiar for the species -- a simple tendril arising in the inflorescence, or flower head. Usually tendrils arise on stems well below inflorescences.

In Jamaica where this liana also occurs the species is called Chewstick, and books say the Yucatan Maya call it Xomak. It's GOUANIA LUPULOIDES of the Buckthorn Family, the Rhamnaceae. My Maya friends here don't seem to know about it. Sometimes it's like that, in one area people being very familiar with a plant, but then not far away it's unknown.

In the last picture you probably noticed the flowers' unusual appearance, like shallow, ten-lobed bowls. The deal is that the flowers' five sepals (calyx segments) and five petals are white, about the same length, and alternate with one another. Another curious feature is how the petals partially enwrap the stamens. Chewstick's flowers are relatively relaxed about their sex. Most blossoms bear both male and female sexual parts, but sometimes they're functionally male or female, with one set of sexual parts being reduced and sterile.

Maximino Martínez's Las Plantas Medicinales de México says that the cooked plant is used to harden the gums, and that the plant's dried stems, when ground, produce a powder that has been exported to Europe as a dentifrice. On the Wikipedia page for this species I read that "To clean one's teeth ... one cuts off a portion of the vine, peels off the bark and chews the tip. The tip becomes fibrous and frothy. Chewstick tastes slightly bitter but not unpleasant."

Elsewhere I read that a medicinal tea from the plant has a pleasant but bitter flavor and can be used as a bitter substitute for hops in ginger-beer.

Chewstick is native to a large area, from Mexico through all of Central America to northern South America, plus the West Indies.

*****

SELF INDULGENCE & THE SIXTH MIRACLE
Last week's look at food waste got me to thinking about self discipline in general.

On the one hand, a lack of self discipline turned me into a very fat kid who was miserable with that fat, so I associate indiscipline with a whole range of physical and emotional miseries. On the other hand, some of the most valued and spiritually enlightening moments of my life have come about during times of extended, unrestrained self-indulgence -- with women, while traveling, in backpacking in extraordinary places, etc.

This week I've developed a coherent attitude about the matter, with the help of the Six Miracles of Nature.

Remember that the Sixth Miracle enables us to think rationally, in ways not dictated or influenced by our genes. The wonders of science, the sense of esthetics, spirituality (not religiosity) -- all are expressions of the Sixth Miracle. The Six Miracles are outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/.

I think about it this way: The first Five Miracles set up a Universe in which the Creator appears to be "pushing" creation -- all new things and all evolution an outgrowth or continuation of the Big Bang. Even our instinct-driven behavior is rooted in information encoded on DNA molecules, and those molecules are made of atoms generated either with the Big Bang or later in supernovae that exploded, so in that sense even human lust and the drive for possessions can be traced back to the Big Bang.

However, with the Sixth Miracle -- with rational thought, esthetics and spirituality -- something has arisen that doesn't seem linked to the physical Universe. Inspired thought and feeling arise from... what?

If during the first five Miracles the Creator was "pushing" Her creation forward, with the Sixth She begins "pulling" our mental notions toward... what? A guess would be that it's toward beholding and perhaps eventually melding with the Universal Consciousness, or Unity.

The thing is that self discipline is a pure product of the Sixth Miracle. It's as if the Creator "wants" us later-day creations to discipline ourselves so that we can rationally take or leave the urges set upon us by our genes.

So, this week I've come to the same conclusion I nearly always come to when systematically and honestly thinking about something. Here's that conclusion:

Follow the Middle Path.

And this is remembering that the Middle Path is by no means a mere compromise or averaging out of impulses. The Middle Path is its own thing.

One indication that the Sixth Miracle directs us toward the Middle Path is that it takes much more Sixth-Miracle-bestowed brainwork to recognize and follow the Middle Path than it does to embrace an extreme point of view, and live according to that view's simplistic dogma.

The Fifth Miracle's greatest promise isn't that someday we may completely overcome our genetic programming. Rather, it's that someday we may acquire the wisdom and will-power not only to live sustainably but also artfully, spiritually awakened and at least moderately lustily.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim