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

November 27, 2011

MANIOC THIEF
One morning this week at dawn I was surveying the plantings in front of the hut when I noticed several new leaves missing from my eight-ft-high Manioc plant. The long, stiff, reddish petioles were still there but the deeply palmate-divided blades had been snipped off! Moreover, the thief still lurked in plain view though well camouflaged. You can see it all at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127ch.jpg.

In that picture the culprit is seen in the lower, left corner. A close-up of the same is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127ci.jpg.

That critter is about four inches long (10cm). He's holding completely still, even though I had to bend the branch down for a good view. He was using the old "If-I-don't-move-he-won't-see-me trick," and it almost worked. Notice the stubby appendage at the tail end (the right). It's like a hornworm's tail without the "horn," or spine.

I couldn't have been more tickled with the ID sent me by volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario when she came up with this: It's the Cassava Hornworm, which metamorphoses into the Ello Sphinx Moth, ERINNYIS ELLO. The neat thing is that Cassava is another name for my Manioc. This caterpillar was exactly where his name said he ought to be. When you run into such instances, you get a feeling that Nature knows what She's doing. There's only three or four Cassava plants in the area, and the mama sphinx moth had found one.

On the Internet Bill Oehlke is king of sphinx moths. His page showing several moths and caterpillars, accompanied by a version of It's a Beautiful World, is at http://www.silkmoths.bizland.com/eello.htm.

There Bill says that the species is distributed pretty much throughout tropical America, including southern Florida. He also says that the hornworms feed mainly on members of the Euphorbia/Poinsettia Family, of which Manioc/Cassava is a member, but also Papayas and Guavas and a few other hosts not in the Euphorbia Family. Apparently one reason the species enjoys a wide distribution is its wide range of host foods.

A neat close-up of the head area is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127cj.jpg.

*****

A SQUARE-STEMMED MISTLETOE
Here in the past we've run into species of "tropical mistletoes" with surprisingly large, red flowers, as well as one with tiny flowers, thus very much like the North's mistletoe -- except that it was much bigger, hippopotamus-size. Here at the Hacienda there's a second North-America-type mistletoe, an unusual one because its stems are squared. You can see a cluster, mostly leafless now at the start of the dry season, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127ph.jpg.

In that picture, notice that the part of the host tree's limb (It's a Frangipani) from which the mistletoe's stems emerge is abnormally swollen. The tree bore several such colonies and wherever mistletoe stems arose there was considerable swelling. Though several Frangipanis grew in the immediate area, only this one tree bore mistletoe.

A shot better showing the Mistletoe's leaves and fruit is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127pj.jpg.

A close-up highlighting the squared stems is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127pi.jpg.

This is PHORADENDRON MUCRONATUM, sometimes referred to in English as Needletip Mistletoe, the needletip referring to the tiny, sharp but very short, single spines at the tips of some leaves. The species occurs from southern Mexico through Central America into tropical South America.

Mistletoes are "semi-parasitic" on trees; only "semi" because possessing their own green leaves and stems they photosynthesize carbohydrates for themselves, robbing from the host tree only water and nutrients.

While looking for information on this species I ran into the online "Biblioteca Digital de La Medicina Tradicional Mexicana" (Digital Library of Traditional Mexican Medicine). It claims that an important traditional medicinal use of the closely related Phoradendron quadrangulare in Mexico is for the treatment of Herpes zoster, better known as shingles. Shingles is a painful, blistering skin rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. You apply to the sores a powder from the mistletoe's ground-up leaf, then atop this secure an entire leaf with a bandage.

The page also says that the same treatment can relieve general muscle pain. My friend José the shaman has told me the same about local mistletoes he knows.

The above-mentioned "Biblioteca Digital" is great to browse through if you read Spanish. It's at http://www.medicinatradicionalmexicana.unam.mx/index.php.

The search window at that address doesn't function on my computer but you can find plants for which there's information -- and there's a lot of them -- by looking for them alphabetically using the Índice Alfabético.

*****

ZARZABACOA
Nowadays along roadsides and in abandoned fields there's an abundance of ten-ft-tall plants (3m) with trifoliate leaves and diffuse inflorescences of tiny flowers, and flat, waferish fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127ds.jpg.

This weed's general appearance will remind Northerners familiar with their local weeds of the tick trefoils, genus Desmodium, in the enormous Bean Family. Its tiny, rosy flowers, which display the "butterfly-like" or papilionaceous structure typical of Bean Family blossoms, seem to confirm this, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127dt.jpg.

In that picture the blossom on the right has had its "keel" -- its two lower petals fused at their common borders -- pulled down, revealing how the stamens' filaments unite into a white cylinder surrounding the ovary's long, slender style. That's typical of such Bean Family flowers.

But then, the plant's nonconformist fruit is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127du.jpg.

All tick trefoil fruits I've ever seen were longish and consisted of several sections divided from one another by deep indentations of the lower margin. Also, they were always densely invested with long, stiff, hooked hairs that caught onto animal fur and cloth, giving the fruits free rides to new homes. But this fruit bears a single bean, and its hairs aren't in the least long, stiff and hooked.

Nonetheless, we do indeed have a tick trefoil here, a very unusual one because of those fruits and the tininess of the flowers. It's DESMODIUM GLABRUM, native to most of tropical America, including the Caribbean. The most commonly appearing common name for it is Zarzabacoa Dulce.

"Dulce" means "sweet" in Spanish, and the word "zarza" denotes any kind of stickery bramble. The name zarzabacoa is applied to tick-trefoils in the genus Desmodium in general, so this is the sweet one. The only thing I can find sweet about it is that it's nice enough to not stick its fruits to my clothes and hairy arms and legs as I pass by.

In recently abandoned places this species sometimes forms pure stands. I'll be watching to see if birds eat the mature beans. If they do, Zarzabacoa Dulce will have to be considered a major contributor to seed-eating birds in this area.

*****

BITTER/SOUR ORANGE
Down here it's exactly the time to enjoy eating oranges because trees in orchards are loaded with them. Fresh oranges right off the tree are sooooo sweet. People in villages generally have their own trees next to their houses and folks in larger towns often have kinfolk out in the country supplying them, so in the frutería I visit each weekend in Pisté the cost is right. I buy as many as will fit into my bags.

What I buy in Pisté is the "sweet orange," which people here call "Chinas." But right below the frutería's China bin there's a pile of what in English we call bitter or sour oranges, and sometimes I think the locals consume them even more than the sweet ones. Bitter oranges make great lemonade, plus it's nothing to see a Mexican cut one in half, salt it generously, sprinkle hot-chili powder over it, and eat it. Gringos find that remarkable because sour oranges are as sour as chili peppers are hot.

Sweet and Sour Orange trees are not just varieties of the same species; they're entirely different species. Sweet Orange is Citrus sinensis (which agrees with the local name "China," since "sinensis" means "Chinese), and Bitter Orange is CITRUS AURANTIUM. I find nothing bitter about bitter oranges, but my impression is that up North bitter orange is a commoner name than sour orange. Sour oranges also are called Seville oranges. Here the locals call them naranjas agrias, naranja meaning orange and agria meaning sour.

You can see a couple of sour orange at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127nj.jpg.

A cut-open sour orange from that tree, displaying a thicker rind than most of us are accustomed to seeing on sweet oranges, and very many more and larger seeds, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127nl.jpg.

A picture focusing on the "winged petioles" of our Sour Orange tee's leaves, typical of citrus plants, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127nk.jpg.

Sour Orange is native to southeastern Asia. Arabs in Arabia had it by the 9th Century. It was reported in Sicily as early as 1002, and then for 500 years it was the only orange known to Europeans. It was recorded growing here in Mexico as early as 1568. I'll bet that the Sour Oranges found in little Maya villages around us are uncontaminated by genes of later-developed varieties. I'm thinking that here we have Sour Oranges as they were 500 years ago in Europe, "the real thing."

Lots of South Orange varieties have been produced through selective breeding. In Japan and China they produce a "Daidai" variety prized for its flower buds, which are dried and mixed with tea for their scent. The "Paraguay" has sweet flesh. The "Vermilion Globe" is grown for its vigorous rootstock onto which sweet oranges are grafted. The "Oklawaha" produces large fruits rich in pectin and exceptionally good in marmalades. The "Bouquet" grows to only about ten feet tall (3m), produces small, brightly orange fruits, and is grown as an ornamental.

Despite the many uses of Sour Orange trees, nowadays the species is grown mainly for its rootstock onto which sprouts of other even more commercially important citrus crops are grafted. Sour Orange trees produce very vigorous root systems that do well over a wide range of soil conditions.

Until early 2011 most experts thought that Sour Orange trees constituted a regular species. However, in January, 2011 Chinese researchers who did gene sequencing studies showed that Sour Oranges, like Sweet Oranges, are hybrids of Tangerine (also called Mandarin), Citrus reticulata, and Pummelo, Citrus grandis. Since the species is a hybrid the "x" needs to be present in the binomial. You can review that paper, which also reveals the ancestry of other citrus species, here.

Good cooks are discovering Bitter Orange more every day. On a Purdue University page there's a fine survey of its uses under the heading "Food Uses" at http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/sour_orange.html.

*****

BAMBOO PALM
Just inside a stone fence in Pisté grew the palm shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127xt.jpg.

It was fruiting in a rather colorful way, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127xu.jpg.

When you see smallish, feather-fronded palms with relatively narrow, stiff but not spiny frond segments like these growing in dense clumps and with flowers and fruits in such inflorescences as the thick-stemmed, orange one in the picture, in our part of the world you should think "genus Chamaedorea." If you're into ornamental palms that's an important genus to know because it contains several species sold commercially on a very grand scale as "parlor palms" suitable for growing in pots up north. Walk into almost any gringo mall and there'll be parlor palms everywhere, though seldom as large as in the picture.

The species shown is known as Bamboo Palm or Reed Palm. It's CHAMAEDOREA SEIFRIZII, a native to southern Mexico and Central America, where it thrives as an understory species in the shade. A Chamaedorea species grows in our local woods, especially around old ruins, but so far all I've found have been too young to flower, so I can't confirm their identity. However, Chamaedorea seifrizii is the only Chamaedorea species I find listed for this area. The Maya call it Xyaat. I suspect that I find only immature plants because people rob larger ones, same as they do orchids and parrots.

In fact, back during my days in the Petén of northern Guatemala, in the 1970s, the forest floor in many areas was well populated with various Chamaedorea species, but already they were disappearing. People cut them and air-shipped them north in bundles to serve as non-wilting greenery in floral arrangements. At least back then a funeral wasn't a funeral without Chamaedorea fronds forming a background for flowers. The Petén's species were different from ours, though: They were C. elegans, C. ernesti-augustii, and C. oblongata.

People back in Guatemala called their Chamaedoreas Shate (SHA-teh), written in the Maya way as Xate, which is close to our Xyaat. Men who collected Shate were known as shateros. The immature, unopened inflorescences of shate species, known as pacayas, were rather like small ears of corn in green husks and were collected, boiled and eaten. Often pacayas were sold in traditional markets. The Maya here at the hotel haven't heard of eating the immature inflorescences of C. seifrizii, and I suspect that if they were good, our Maya would know about it. One Internet page declares that the species' mature fruits are very toxic.

*****

"FIREBRAND"
You can see one of the plants that visitors to the Hacienda most consistently get excited about at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127cd.jpg.

The magical thing about this plant is that very often the pinkish purple upper leaves appear to glow with a bright inner light. Even when the lower leaves and pot are hardly visible in deep shadows, those fiery upper leaves are just incandescent.

Despite being such a fine plant, there seems to be no generally accepted English name for it. It's a native to Southeast Asia, south and east through parts of Polynesia into northeastern Australia and a bit into the Indian Ocean, but early on it was introduced into Hawaii, where soon it became one of the best known of Hawaiian plants. Now it's grown in tropical gardens worldwide. Among English names applied to it are Cabbage Palm, Good Luck Plant, Palm Lily, Hawaiian Ti and Ti Plant. It's CORDYLINE FRUTICOSA.

Originally it spread from its homeland because of its edible starchy rhizomes. Also it was regarded as medicinal, and its leaves were used in thatch roofing. But now mostly its dozens of bright-leafed cultivars are planted. I'm guessing that the name of our cultivar is "Firebrand," but after seeing how many similar ones there are, I can't be sure. You might enjoy browsing the International Cordyline Society's "Photo Gallery," accessible in the Main Menu at the left, at http://cordyline.org/.

*****

MACHO FLOWERS
My friend Victor mentioned the concept of "flores machos," or "male flowers," on plant species whose flowers I knew to bear flowers with both male and female parts. This needed some digging into.

The plants with macho flowers, according to Victor's estimation, include Basil, Rosemary, Common Rue and four other such fragrant herbs, coming to seven species, the number seven in various cultures often turning up as sacred. We were talking about flores machos because healers make little whiskbrooms of fresh branches of them, with which they ceremoniously brush patients to "cleanse their auras." This makes the healing process easier, plus shaking the aromatic stems so violently suffuses the air all around with the fragrance of the plants' crushed herbage.

The botanical feature causing these plants' flowers to be "macho," Victor says, is that the flowers outright produce seeds, not fruits as with most flowers.

In fact, if you look at the fruits of Basil, Rosemary and Common Rue fruits they do look like seeds. However, science says that actually they're fruits, or parts of fruits, with the seeds inside them so thinly and tightly invested with flesh that the fruits just look like fleshless seeds.

But, basic botany still is this: Flower ovaries with ovules inside them mature into fruits with seeds inside; among flowering plants, seeds occur inside fruits. If they were seeds produced without a covering they'd be gymnosperms, not flowering plants.

It's interesting that such a characteristically Maya concept is applied to plant species that were introduced here by the Spanish during the 1500s. Rue is thought to have arisen in southern Europe, Rosemary is from the Mediterranean region, and Basil is from tropical Asia, Africa and some Pacific islands.

I'd like to have seen the looks on the faces of the Maya who were first introduced to these wonderfully odoriferous plants with such strange macho flowers. No wonder the Maya immediately set to work incorporating them into their belief system.

*****

REVOLUTION DAY IN PISTÉ
Last Sunday when I biked into Pisté to roam backstreets looking for interesting plants and to buy fruit I found a big parade taking place: It was November 20th, Día de la Revolución, Revolution Day, commemorating the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. You can see my tourist snapshot of kids dressed up as revolutionaries, the boys with drawn-on moustaches and even the girls brandishing toy rifles, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111127__.jpg.

It seemed to me that the parade less celebrated revolution than it did the kids. A few were dressed in fancy costumes and performed skits from time to time (the ones in the picture suddenly formed two groups, attacked one another, and everyone died on the street), but more typical was the group in which each walker simply carried two red-painted jícaras (traditional bowls made from gourdlike fruits of the Calabash tree) which they clacked together on cue. Not much was expected of anybody, just walk and do the little thing you'd been told to do, and family and neighbors watching along the street couldn't look prouder or more pleased.

It's amazing how expressive kids' faces are. As these kids passed I almost felt that each one's whole future was written in his or her face. I even saw myself out there, a real fat little guy as I was back around 1957, with an expression saying, "I'll be so glad when I don't have to do all this kid stuff anymore... "

Seeing myself out there with that look, I almost wanted to go tell the kid that I understood, but that, really, he needed to lighten up. He had something good going for him right then, his mom still alive, healthy and happy right beside him, and not really any big heartbreaks in life yet, no real big failures, yet...

And that got me thinking about how we tend to underestimate kids. I think that as a kid already I understood the big things I still think of as big. For example, even back then I think I had it figured out that in our world there's a great deal of silliness and waste of human potential, largely because people aren't properly amazed at and humbled by everyday realities, by one another, and by the fact that they are alive on Planet Earth, right now.

At that point, leaning against a telephone pole watching it all, I almost forgot about the parade, getting lost in philosophizing, in head-talk. It was the fat kid when he looked over and saw his mom, and smiled real big, who pulled me out of it.

It was nice seeing those kids last Sunday. I hope their revolution works out.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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