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

October 24, 2010

TORTILLA COFFEE
When Luis, one of the waiters, mentioned the possibility of brewing a decent coffee concocted from roasted, ground tortillas, Marcela, a visitor from Argentina, wanted to try it. I was the only one around with an appropriate campfire, so we tried it in my hut.

I built a fire, let it burn until chunky, glowing embers formed, and atop two logs put a wire mesh with some tortillas atop it. It looked like what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024tu.jpg.

Notice that flames aren't lapping at the tortillas; heat from glowing embers is baking them.

Maya folk who do this in their homes roast their tortillas on a traditional comal, which is a flat, thin, metal disk suspended over flames on three rocks. We didn't have that, but our wire-mesh-over-coals technique seemed to work OK.

We made three tries at it. One attempt produced almost totally black tortillas. The black dust scraped from them made a flavorless brew tasting the way you'd expect charcoal and water to taste.

Another try with tortillas that turned out hard but only slightly browned produced a drink tasting like roasted tortillas, which wasn't bad, but there was no coffee flavor.

The best result was by slowly roasting tortillas until they were hard and brown, with only a little black charring. You can see part of such a tortilla at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024tv.jpg.

Such a tortilla crumbles easily into the bottom of a cup, then you can use something blunt to smash the crumbles into powder. The resulting powder can be used as if it were instant coffee. Add hot water, sweeten and add milk if you wish, and, by golly, if you get it right it actually has a robust coffee taste and you just sit there sipping, amazed that you've produced decent coffee from tortillas.

I've parched corn kernels in a similar fashion, with similar results, so if you don't have tortillas but do have loose corn kernel, try browning them over embers, then grinding them into a powder. Up North most tortillas sold in stores are wheat tortillas, not corn tortillas like ours. I don't know whether wheat tortillas would do or not. I suspect that roasted wheat tortillas might make a flavorful drink, but I doubt it'd taste as much like coffee as a properly roasted, corn-based brew.

*****

LONGTAIL SKIPPER OF UNDERSIDES
Around noon on a hot, sunny day when all the world seemed in the mood for a siesta, suddenly a nervous little packet of energy flitted by and landed upside- down beneath a Jacquemontia's blue flower, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024sk.jpg.

Before he got away I put the camera beneath the down- hanging blossom and shot skyward, hoping the camera's automatic focusing was working, and got the shot at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024sl.jpg.

We've had longtail skippers before, but this one struck me as different. You might enjoy savoring variations on a longtail skipper theme by comparing the above shot with the White-tailed Longtail shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/butt032.jpg.

Bea in Ontario pegs our new longtail skipper as the widely distributed Asine Longtail, POLYTHRIX ASINE, native from northern Mexico (rarely wandering into southern Texas) south to Perú. I read that its caterpillars eat leaves of members of the Bean Family, which are abundant here, and live in nests formed of rolled or tied-together leaves.

Also I read that adult Asine Longtails land with their wings spread across the undersides of leaves. That's exactly what I saw myself, and it's worth noting that in the picture the skipper is feeding upside-down as well. From my limited experience with this species it looks like it specializes on the undersides of things.

That's interesting, because it's a basic tenet of population ecology that two taxa can't occupy exactly the same ecological niche for long without one species eventually displacing the other. If one of two otherwise identical species visits upright flowers while the other goes to dangling ones, that's enough to maintain both species in the same area. I don't know that that's the case with the Asine Longtail and its look-alike fellow longtails, but the concept comes to mind when you see this one's passion for undersides.

*****

AFRICAN SPIDERFLOWER
Next to a stone wall along a little backstreet on Pisté's south side I spotted the curious weed shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024gn.jpg.

One curious thing about it was its long, slender fruits held more or less horizontally below the white flowers at the inflorescence's top. A fruit close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024go.jpg.

If you know your Northern wildflowers you'll recognize that the fruits are similar to the long, slender capsules often produced in the Mustard Family. However, certain features of this plant are very un- mustardy. For example, Mustard-Family fruits don't arise from such long, stiff stalks, and I don't recall any mustards with palmately compound leaves like these -- leaflets arising together at the tip of a petiole, as with Horsechestnut and Virginia Creeper leaves. Maybe you also know that the huge Mustard Family is mostly found in temperate and subarctic environments, not here in the tropics. Therefore, it looks like we have something close to a mustard, but not.

When I got off my bike and looked closely at the flowers it was clear that I had something other than a weedy mustard plant. You can see what I mean at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024gp.jpg.

The flower is bilaterally symmetrical (zygomorphic), with each flower bearing four white petals held skyward, while Mustard Family blossoms are radially symmetrical. The slender but thickened and fuzzy thing at the left in the picture is an ovary, or future fruit, which would look OK in a mustard flower, except for the fact that several matchstick-like stamens arise from the ovary's stalk (gynophore). Mustard flowers just don't do that. Stamens arising from the middle of an ovary's too-long stalk just look crazy to anyone unfamiliar with this family.

Once I'd seen the zygomorphic flowers and long gynophores I knew that we were dealing with something in the Caper Family, the Capparidaceae, very closely related to the Mustard Family. If you've ever eaten capers, you've eaten pickled flower-buds of a member of this family. However, what we had here wasn't the caper-producing species.

It was the African Spiderflower, GYNANDROPSIS GYNANDRA, an Old World species now widely distributed as a weed in the world's tropical and subtropical regions. In Africa a form of this species is cultivated as a leafy vegetable, though it needs repeated boilings to make it palatable. Sheep and goats relish it. In India the seeds are used as a substitute for mustard and yield good oil. In some parts of the world it may be a serious weed but around here I've only seen it next to that one stone wall in Pisté.

There's a second species of genus Gynandropis native to Central and South America, Gynandropsis speciosa, but that species is hairless, or "glabrous," while our Pisté plants are definitely very hairy.

*****

JAMAICA WEED
If you bag several dozen Royal Palm seedlings -- which come up like weeds around here -- and regularly water them, what kind of weeds eventually appear in the pots? Of course there's a variety, but I was surprised that the most conspicuous and luxuriant one was the springy-green annual herb shown overflowing black bags at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024nm.jpg.

At first I thought that this was Corn-Salad, Valerianella olitoria, an eminently edible Old World herb that I used to pick and eat a lot of during my Germany and Belgium salad days. However, with the appearance of the weed's white, slightly irregular (bilaterally symmetrical) flowers -- just like Valerianella's blossoms -- I had something else. Corn-Salad flowers bear the unusual number of three stamens while flowers on our pot plant bore the more typical five. You can see a 1/8-inch long (4 mm) corolla split open to reveal five stamens attached to the corolla at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024np.jpg.

A picture showing an undisturbed flower snuggled in the angle of a hairy, dividing stem is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024no.jpg.

Another feature of this plant making it unlike Corn- Salad was how it formed something like a rosette, growing outward from a central point, and keeping very close to the ground. You can see that at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024nn.jpg.

This is a widely spread tropical weed distributed from southern Florida and Texas south through here all the way to Argentina. It's NAMA JAMAICENSE, traditionally placed in the Waterleaf Family, the Hydrophyllaceae, but now many experts lump that family into the Borage or Forget-Me-Not Family, the Boraginaceae. That lumping is fine with me since I've never seen much difference between the two families. In Florida sometimes Nama jamaicense is called Jamaica Weed, and sometimes the 45 or so species in the genus are called Fiddleleafs. It's one of those cases when the English name hasn't been well agreed-on yet.

I don't find mention of Nama jamaicense's edibility, but Paul Standley reports it being used in the Yucatan as a "remedy for inflammation and blood vomit."

*****

PLUCHEA
In fact it's a pretty good time to be enjoying weeds. After the long, hot rainy season they're lush and healthy, and as we rapidly enter the dry season when most herbaceous and shrubby plants die back or lose their leaves, now they're often full of flowers and fruits. For example, along weedy roadsides around here sometimes you see an eight-ft-tall (2.5 m), much- branched shrub, a small portion of which is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024pu.jpg.

It's clear that this is a member of the Composite Family as soon as we see the pea-sized flower heads. In each head many tiny flowers are packed side by side within a goblet-shaped structure composed of numerous overlapping scales, the involucre, just as with all composite flowers. You can see some heads and a messy, fuzzy mass produced where mature heads split open and release hundreds of tiny "seeds" topped by wind-catching "parachutes" consisting of tiny, white hairs at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024pv.jpg.

This is PLUCHEA CAROLINENSIS. If you walk up to a leaf and crush it between your fingers it'll issue a strong, oily, medicinal smell. Most people say it stinks but in fresh air and dazzling sunlight I rather like its no-nonsense pungency, if only because it has character.

The species is native to tropical America and is used medicinally in the Caribbean, where one name for it is Cure For All. Its main use is for sore throats and sinus problems.

*****

WILD AGAVE ABOUT TO FLOWER
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024ag.jpg you see a wild agave on the right sending up a giant-asparagus-like flower stalk on which flower buds haven't yet developed. The inset at the left shows the same plant from a distance, with an old, dead flower stalk to its left. You can see that the flower stalk rises well above the scrubby forest around it. The stalk stands maybe 15 feet tall (nearly 5m). The picture was taken along the quiet little road about 10 km south of Pisté.

So, which agave is this?

Figuring out Mexico's agave species can be hard. One reason is that prehistoric man carried agave food and fiber, and live agave plants, all over the place. They may have carried exotic species and cultivars into our area from far away, and the descendents of those plants might be hanging on as forest-living relicts to this day. The matter is discussed a bit down the online Flora of North America page for Agave at http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=100796.

I'm not sure I could distinguish what's in the picture from Sisal or Henequen Agave, Agave sisalana, which is much planted farther west from here, around Mérida. Henequen fiber used to be a very important crop there, where it's a bit more arid than here, making it better for henequen production. However, I know the agave in the picture isn't a Sisal Agave because of what's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101024ah.jpg.

Those are old, split-open fruit capsules of the dead agave at the left of the inset in the previous picture. The capsules are well formed and look as if they've dropped a good crop of seeds. According to the Flora of North America page for the cultivated Sisal Agave, "The plant is not known from the wild... capsules and seeds of this species are unknown." So, what's in the picture isn't the Sisal Agave.

I'm supposing that the best name for the illustrated agave is AGAVE ANGUSTIFOLIA, because that species is known to live here, and our plants match pictures of that species on the Internet. However -- especially here at Chichén Itzá where once major Maya trade routes connected -- it's just no telling what curious agaves may be hanging on in local woods, relict descendents from who-knows-where?

*****

RUNNING IN STARLIGHT
I go jogging well before dawn, when stars are bright and twinkling, and grass is wet with dew. Early this week there was no Moon at dawn. It's surprising what you can see just by starlight, though.

In fact, even inside the hut where only a formless hint of a glow marks the open door, each morning I manage to get from inside the mosquito net, put on my running shoes, shorts and sweatband and do warm-up exercises, all in apparent total darkness. I know where things are, and I've learned to pay attention to sound and touch in ways that reveal a lot.

Sometimes as I run I think about how we humans deal with and judge reality based upon our senses which, in the end, are pretty limited. This insight first vividly occurred to me when I was a fifteen-year old ham radio operator, WA4PGA, back on the farm in Kentucky, talking via shortwave to people all over the world.

What struck me was that innumerable shortwave radio signals from the most exotic places were passing through our bodies all the time -- from Lars on the banana boat between Maracaibo and Stockholm, from missionary John in a hut in Tanzania -- yet we never knew about those signals unless we had a shortwave receiver tuned to the exact frequencies at the right time.

As I jog beneath Orion and his dog these early mornings sometimes I wonder this: How would my self perception and spiritual framework change if along with smelling, tasting, seeing, hearing and feeling I could detect and process the entire vast spectrum of electromagnetic emissions, such as shortwave signals, ultraviolet light and gamma rays, as they pass through my body?

What if we could sense the Earth's irregular and ever changing gravitational fields as they interrelate with fields of the Sun, the Moon, other planets and the stars? What if it turns out that life itself is something like energy or magnetism, and we could walk through the forest sensing the full diversity of lifeforms around us, feel their interactions, their blossomings, their yearnings and their dyings? What if we could see the Creator's creative impulses as they happen, not just a few of Her creations? Would that be like a rainbow, the roar of a great waterfall, a child's laughter... ?

When you think of all the goings-on in the Universe we can't detect with our five senses, and which we don't really understand with our minds, it's a good bet that we humans have a much distorted view of things, including of ourselves and our spiritual possibilities.

However -- and this is the insight I always end up with after thinking the situation through -- even if we could sense all those things and thus see the Creation much more accurately, it still wouldn't change much for us. We'd still be spiritual beings yearning to grow and know and be more, stuck in gradually decaying animal bodies.

Pat, pat, pat, running in starlight...

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net