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

December 25, 2011

TUZA
Jogging the entry road at dawn, bright moonlight revealed something hamster-size and unmoving at the road's edge. A toe-nudge found it heavy and soft. It could have been an oversized, run-over rat, but it was exactly beside a plot where they'd cut the forest back to plant Henequen, and soil between the Henequen plants was honeycombed with tunnels and much occupied with crumbly mounds of red dirt, the work of mole-like critters known locally as Tuzas. Maybe this was a dead Tuza. I've wanted to see a Tuza, which are very seldom seen because they're subterranean. I jogged back to the hut carrying the unknown animal by its short tail.

When the sun was up, I got to see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225pg.jpg.

That's what my friends had been telling me a Tuza looks like. Still, I didn't yet know what the animal would be called in English and Latin. Lots of tunneling, hamster-size mammals are similar to almost identical. However, when I flipped the body over and saw the head's bottom, I knew what a Tuza was. You can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225ph.jpg.

Tuzas are pocket-gophers. Those slits beneath the cheeks are openings to pouches into which the rodent who is foraging plant material outside its tunnel stuffs herbage. Later, protected inside its tunnel, it transfers the clipped stems and leaves from the pouch into its mouth.

We've seen a pocket-gopher before, back in highland Chiapas in 2008, when friends brought me a live one from whose pouches green, compacted balls of clipped- off leaves had tumbled when captured. You can see how similar the Chiapas species was to our Yucatán one at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/gopher.htm.

Chiapas's species was a high-elevation specialist, probably Pappogeomys bulleri, but our current lowland one appears to be ORTHOGEOMYS HISPIDUS YUCATANENSIS. The yucatenensis is the subspecies name, and that subspecies is endemic to the Yucatán. The broader species is distributed through southern lowland Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, to northwestern Honduras. Its English name is usually given as Hispid Pocket Gopher.

Tuzas are famous among Maya farmers for their ability to move into a field and kill plants by eating roots and tunneling. The Maya seldom suffer the Tuzas' presence for long, however, for they know how to drop poisoned grain down their holes. I suspect that that's exactly what had happened to our Tuza.

The jogging road's newly cleared Henequen field was a perfect place for Tuzas, for roots of trees and bushes killed and removed for the Henequen now must be decaying, soft and mushy. For someone used to eating tough roots crammed wih bitter chemicals that dissuade root-eaters, those rotting roots with their breaking-down alkaloids must seem like delicacies.

I left our Tuza in a spot where I could watch him decompose over the days, for upon death an animal becomes an ecosystem in itself, and beholding the succession of organisms who come to do their jobs is fascinating and inspiring. In fact, I became somewhat attached to the disappearing creature, before some animal carried him away on the third night. Before he was gone, however, I took a picture of his front paw, which was elegantly adapted for tunneling in earth, and poignantly evocative of a kinship I strongly feel between Tuza and me. That picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225pi.jpg.  

*****

BALCHÉ
Balché is one of the Yucatán's best known trees because a drink concocted from its soaked bark, also called balché, is much used during Maya rituals. When at the four sides of a ceremonial area a shaman pours something from his jícara cup, usually he's pouring balché. Traditionally the balché drink was slightly fermented but what I've drunk didn't seem fermented at all. It was sweetened with honey and tasted of cinnamon and woodsmoke. Over the vast Maya domain different Balché species are used for the drink.

In mid-November I photographed our local native Balché species, LONCHOCARPUS RUGOSUS, at the peak of its flowering period. You can see its flowers and leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225lk.jpg.

A pinnately compound leaf from the tree is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225lm.jpg.

The leaves are similar to the North's ash tree leaves, except that Balché leaves arise singularly at each stem node. The species name "rugosus" derives from the technical term "rugose," which means "wrinkled." In the above photo you can see how leaflet surfaces are a bit sunken above veins, or "impressed." On the leaflets' undersides veins stand above the blade surface, which is densely and roughly hairy, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225ll.jpg.

A close-up of some fully and partially open flowers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225lj.jpg.

These are classic "papilionaceous" flowers typical of the Bean Family. Note the distinctive, rusty-colored hairiness on the backs of the top petals -- the "banners."

Nowadays our trees have discarded their abundant flowers, which carpet the ground like dry, brown confetti. The vast majority of flowers produce no fruits; usually only two or three fruits result in each flower spike. You can see some broad, thin fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225lo.jpg.

Often in gardens another Lonchocarpus species is planted. It's Lonchocarpus violaceus, introduced from the Lesser Antilles and Northern South America. You can see its larger flowers and smoother leaflets at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/lonchoca.htm.

By the way, all the books I've seen use the spelling "balché," with the accented e indicating that "balché" is the Spanish rendering of the Maya word. That means that the word must be pronounced with the emphasis on the last, accented syllable. However, the shamans I know emphasize the first syllable, pronouncing it "BAL-che."

*****

"SUN-FRUIT"
On the road south of Pisté to Yaxuná a 15-ft-tall tree (5m) tree turned up bearing hand-size masses of dense, exceedingly fuzzy, yellow-green fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225hc.jpg.

I broke off a fruit, which was somewhat stiff and woody, held it before me, and beheld what's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225hd.jpg.

Though I'd never seen this before, instantly I had a good idea what it was, for the manner in which the hairs surrounding the fruit so vividly glowed in the sunlight almost shouted the tree's name. For, I had an idea which family it belonged to, and I knew of a genus name in that family perfectly describing the sun-gilt fruit in the picture: Helio for sun, carpus for fruit.

And that's what the tree turned out to be. It's a Heliocarpus, HELIOCARPUS DONNELL-SMITHII, a member of the big Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae. In the old days the genus resided in the Basswood or Linden Family, the Tiliaceae, basswoods being well known trees to northern tree-lovers. And, if you think about it, our Helipcarpus's leaf shape, the finely serrate leaf margins, and the blade's palmate veins are much like a northern Basswood's. The Basswood Family now has been sunk into the Hibiscus Family. I can't find an English name for Helipcarpus donnell-smithii so here we'll just take a cue from its Latin and call it Sun-Fruit.

Ecologically the species is known as a forest pioneer, a plant that appears after a field has been abandoned to weeds awhile and woody trees are beginning to invade. Eventually the process leads to the return of a forest, if nothing interrupts the process. Typically pioneer species are fairly common, weedy ones, but this is my first introduction to Heliocarpus donnell- smithii. Pioneer forest species normally require lots of sunlight, and our Heliocarpus was found at a sunny wood's edge.

I read that one use the tree is known for is that its inner bark can be stripped from a trunk and used as string.

The tree is found from southern Mexico to Costa Rica.

*****

LIANA WITH FAKE FLOWERS
"Liana" is a word often used in the tropics to denote woody vines as opposed to herbaceous ones. On the road south of Pisté to Yaxuná a certain liana caught my eye because about ten feet up in a tree it was producing hand-sized clusters of greenish-yellow flowers that somehow didn't look quite right -- what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225tt.jpg.

As soon as the flowers were in hand I could see what the confusion was: They weren't flowers. Where the "petals" came together there were no sexual parts -- no stamens, no pistil -- just a sort of ridge, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225tu.jpg.

I was drawing a blank on what this liana possibly could be until on a "flower's" underside I saw what's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225tv.jpg.

Those oval, brownish things are glands, two for each sepal -- though something appears to have eaten off a couple. We've seen several plants with exactly such sepal glands (most famously the highly edible, crabapple-like Barbados Cherry and Nance), so it was apparent that this curious liana was a member of the Malpighia Family, the Malpighiaceae. That's a large and important family in the tropics but hardly known in the North.

By doing an image-search on genus names I didn't recognize in the list of members of the Malphighia Family of this area it wasn't long until I got it. It's in the genus TETRAPTERIS, the name describing the fruits, "tetra" saying "four" and "pteris" meaning "wing": "Four-wing." Three mature, four-winged fruits, nicely adapted for wind dispersal, are seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225tw.jpg.

In the Yucatán we have two similar Tetrapteris species, T. seleriana and T. schiedeana, and with material available on the Internet I can't figure out which species we have.

**********

WINTER BOTANY
Down here we don't have winter, but now during the early dry season, as if it were winter, many herbs are turning brown and dying back, and deciduous trees are losing their leaves. During the dry season entire months can pass without a drop of rain. Trees bearing leaves nowadays either must have leaves that are drought resistant -- often with wax-covered cuticles that impede moisture loss -- or else the trees must drop their leaves.

A couple of our trees losing their leaves nowadays are the Frangipani, genus Plumeria, and the Amapola, Pseudobombax ellipticum. Their twig tips are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225bb.jpg.

The Frangipani is on the left, Amapola, the right.

Seeing these twigs reminds me of the fun I used to have with twigs during the winters up North, when the wintry world was so frozen and relatively lifeless that I was grateful for anything natural to look at. I'm mentioning this now for readers up North, for identifying trees by their naked twigs is a great thing to do while walking in the woods, or even along city streets. You can start out by identifying the tree by leaves and fruits lying below it, then studying the twigs. Eventually you'll get so you don't need the leaves and fruits, can just recognize the twigs.

Once you begin paying attention, there's a world of field marks to notice on any twig. For example, both Frangipani and Amapola produce very thick, semi-succulent twigs with relatively large, shield-shaped leaf scars (the pale things in the photo, where leaf petioles have broken away), so at first glance they're very similar. However, there are lots of differences between them.

For example, on the Frangipani stem at the left, inside the leaf scars, notice the U-shaped "bundle scars," which result from the breaking of the pipe-like vascular bundles (xylem and phloem) passing from the twig into the leaf's petiole. The Amapola's bundle scars are more diffuse and arrayed in a heart-shaped pattern. Atop each of the Amapola's bud scars there's a spherical, brown bud from which a leaf or stem will emerge when the rains return, but buds are completely missing above the Frangipani's leaf scars. Note that on both sides of each of the Amapola's brown buds there are winglike scars. These are stipule scars (stipules being tiny appendages at petiole bases), and you can see that they're also missing on the Frangipani stem. The big terminal bud at the top of the Amapola's twig is protected with stiff, greenish bud scales, but the Frangipani's terminal bud bears no scales.

The list of differences could go on and on, but these are the most obvious ones. We provide an illustrated page just describing variations on the leaf-scar theme at http://www.backyardnature.net/leafscar.htm.

And just as helpful as twigs when we're doing winter botany is tree bark! Our page on the many faces of bark is at http://www.backyardnature.net/treebark.htm.

Our page with links to books on "Winter Botany" is at http://www.backyardnature.net/wintrbot.htm.

*****

INSIDE A BEAN-VINE TEPEE
The Winter Solstice arrived Wednesday night, so on Thursday I celebrated the New Year. The day's most ceremonial moment was when I went to the garden, sat next to a ten-ft-tall tepee of entangled bean vines, and insinuated myself into it. I lay on the ground looking up through the vine web, harmonizing my interior self with the vines' interplay of sunlight and shadow, upward spiraling stems, leaf-halos of sunlight-in-leaf-hairs, the sound of breezes among leaves, the herby odor of green leaves on vines slightly drooped in midday sun, and the ground's dusty odor of yellow and brown, curled leaves. Silhouettes, sun-streaks, glowings, shadows, all shimmering and animated in the breeze, ants up and down stems, a katydid unmoving on a leaf, me there the same way, the same way as all.

People underestimate the beauty of yellowness. A dangling yellow leaf glowing in sunshine expresses something that a red, green or blue leaf never could. Yellowness flecked with brown is profound, especially if the flecks are angular, as they are on leaves with splotches delimited by branching leaf-veins.

There's something of a cathedral in a sun-drenched bean tepee seen from the inside. Spires, crenulations, stained glass, the iconic clump of pods hanging ready to pluck, the promise of each bean inside its pod, the breath-holding, the prayer. My stained glass with an unexpected hatching aphid (Can you see it?) is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225bv.jpg.

And my iconic clump of pods with silhouetted beans is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111225bw.jpg.

I love the way breezes move through bean tepees, rustling a leaf here, strumming a spider silk there, but mostly just moving through and out, then beyond.

But, if you stay long inside a bean tepee, ants begin biting. At first they just wander over your body but eventually one clamps down and then they all do and you can't just sit there. Even the most gentle ant-picking provokes them into emitting their formic-acid stink, the odor pooling there inside the tepee, so you're sitting there with ants biting and there's a general stinking, and it's clear that your moment of celebration had a time limit, which is natural.

You get up and look at the tepee, and see that despite all its detail and exotic interior, it's just one tepee among several, plus you could have as easily celebrated among the basil or in the banana grove, or next to the weeds, or someplace in the woods.

And off you go, celebration performed, feeling good to find yourself launched into a New Year as hungry as ever for colors, textures, odors, feelings and rambling thinking that'll be there every day and night for another year, if you can just keep quiet and pay attention.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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