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

February 12, 2012

LUBBER GRASSHOPPER
The other day on a lichen-splattered leaf in a mostly shaded and damp thicket near the hut I saw what's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212gh.jpg.

That smallish grasshopper with such bulging eyes and massive back-legs is one of the most unusual I've seen. You want to call it a frog-grasshopper. A shot from the front shows a face that somehow looks a bit primitive and slow-witted. You can see what I mean at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212gi.jpg.

Despite the face, when the critter got enough of my botherings, his decisive, leaf-thumping leap came with impressive power and quickness.

Like me, volunteer identifier Bea in Canada hadn't seen anything like this, so she shipped the image to her grasshopper expert, Dave J. Ferguson, Contributing Editor at Bugguide.net. Dave studied the matter a few days before deciding that it looked like CRISTOBALINA SELLATA, a member either of the family Acrididae or the Romaleidae, depending on whether the latter family is separated from the former.

The Internet turns up almost nothing about this species. However, one paper says that members of the family Romaleidae are known as Lubber Grasshoppers. That fine word "lubber" is applied to clumsy people such as awkward sailors who are landlubbers. The term derives from the Middle English "lobur," meaning "lazy lout," and came into English from Scandinavian languages spoken by the Vikings who invaded and occupied England so successfully that English was changed and enriched forever.

Anyway, members of the Romaleidae are described as "often sluggish, have chemical defenses, are highly diverse, and found throughout the New World."

What a pleasure to document this obscure, curious-looking little creature here in the Yucatán!

*****

LADY OF THE NIGHT
On a late Sunday morning in backstreet Pisté I biked by the plain-looking, dense, shrubby tree neatly trimmed with a gated arch through it shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212ce.jpg.

I'd not seen such a planting before so I circled back, parked the bike, looked up, and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212cf.jpg.

The leaves were about 2.4 inches long (6cm) and the flowers about ¾ inch long (2cm). Dissecting a flower I found five stamens attached near the mouth of the corolla tube's throat, with an expanded stigma atop a long, slender style, as a longitudinal section shows at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212cg.jpg.

The blossom was structured like a Tobacco flower, or even a Pepper flower, so I began suspecting that we had a member of, the Nightshade Family, or Solanaceae. That suspicion grew when I saw the fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212ch.jpg.

The fruits were like seedy little tomatoes, and the Tomato plant also belongs to the Nightshade Family.

After I'd "done my botany" awhile I started feeling watched. I looked up and at the thatch-roofed hut next door sat two middle-aged ladies with more babies and starved dogs around them than I could register, wide-eyed and smiling broadly. I laughed, explained that this sure was an interesting tree, and asked if they had a name for it:

"Galán de Noche," they said in unison, a galán being a dashing lover or wooer and noche being night: "Night Lover." The ladies approached and the one with missing front teeth said:

"In the night, all up and down this street... " she gestured down the potholed lane with kids here and there peeping over stone walls and around house corners, and I could visualize what it must be like in the night, the huts' one-lightbulb lights, the barking dogs, the odors of wood fires and dog and baby poop... "... the perfume... " she continued, clutching at her heart and theatrically rolling her eyes up in her head.

And then I smelled it, too, even then in late morning with the tree downwind, yes, sweeter and more dizzying than orange blossoms or honeysuckles, a kind of fragrance that flips the guts and reminds you that you have to die and then there won't be fragrances like this...

On the Internet the small tree was easy to identify because the species is famous and much planted in the world tropics precisely because it smells so good in the night. It's CESTRUM NOCTURNUM, and that's an old Linnaeus name, so it's been called that that for a long time, and since nocturnum means the night, you know that even stodgy Linnaeus when he named it back in 1753 knew about the special coupling of night and fragrance the lady had just told me about.

Cestrum nocturnum goes by lots of English names such as Night Blooming Jasmine, Queen of the Night, Night Jessamine, Lady of the Night and Bastard Jasmine. Despite all the references to Jasmine, Jasmine is something else entirely, in the Olive Family not the Nightshade. I've settled on the name Lady of the Night just because that's the mood you get in when you smell it.

Lady of the Night is native to the American tropics, including the Yucatán, though I've never seen it growing wild. In the Old World they grow it, too. In India and elsewhere in South Asia they use it for perfumery, medicinal applications and in religious ceremonies, though some parts of the plant are poisonous.

How amazing that an old codger can first experience such things in a town he's been through so many times without ever having noticed it!

*****

FLOWERING SWEET POTATO VINE
A few streets down from the Lady of the Night a tree overgrown with flowering vines caught my eye, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212ip.jpg.

A closer look at the vine's flowers and leaves is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212it.jpg.

I used to grow sweet potatoes back in Kentucky and Mississippi, so I recognized this as a Sweet Potato vine. Notice how some of the leaves are slightly lobed at their bases, and that the flowers' mostly white but purple-eyed corollas have especially broad tubes, plus notice the curious way the corolla rim folds back on itself. Most flowers in this family emerge in a twisting manner (they're "convolute" in the bud), and you can see the resulting flower's pleats and indications of its earlier twistiness, but these flowers open like lips that are made to pooch out into a pout. That's a little unusual.

Sweet Potato vines are IPOMOEA BATATAS, and are genuine morning-glories. Ipomoea is the morning-glory genus in the Morning-Glory Family. Knowing that the stigmas of Ipomoeas are spherical instead of elongated like in many other Morning-Glory Family genera, I opened a flower to confirm the ID, and saw what's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212iq.jpg.

Those erect stamens of varying lengths look very morning-gloryish, but where are the female stigma, style and ovary? Several blossoms showed the same thing. Finally I dug way down into some stamen bases and found the quarter-inch thing (5mm) shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212ir.jpg.

Those are shriveled up, undeveloped female parts. The stunted stigma is at the top, left, the curly stem is a not-fully-formed style, and the greenish item at the lower right is an aborted ovary.

Then it dawned on me that the Sweet Potato plant has been selectively bred for so long that, like many important horticultural plants, it's lost some or all of its ability to reproduce sexually.

Moreover, this much-flowering Sweet Potato vine was clearly different from the tuber-producing vine I'd grown up North, which seldom flowered at all, and their leaf bases were much more likely to be angularly lobed. This was surely a cultivar developed for flowering, not producing big, sweet tubers.

In fact, on the Internet you can find plenty of pictures of gorgeously flowering Sweet Potato vines by searching on "flowering sweet potato." The most famous flower cultivar appears to be 'Blackie,' with very dark leaves and dark, somber flowers. I read that flowering sweet potatoes typically are sterile. The stunted female parts found in our blossoms are completely to be expected.

*****

INDIAN CORAL TREE FLOWERING
Two Novembers ago we looked at an Indian Coral Tree with its large, spectacularly yellow-striped, trifoliate leaves, much planted in the world's tropics for its bright foliage. One in Pisté is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/erythrin.htm.

When writing that I said I'd never seen one flowering. Now I have, on a tree in Pisté, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212er.jpg.

Indian Coral Tree is a member of the Bean Family, so those 2½-inch-long flowers (8cm) are typical bean-type blossoms (papilionaceous), except that the top petal, the "standard" is much oversized relative to the lower petals -- the "wings" and "keel."

Below the photographed tree, discarded red standards are both messy and photogenic, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212es.jpg.

*****

BAKERIDESIA TREE, BY GAUMER
Just two weeks ago we featured a pretty, blue-flowered skullcap, a member of the Mint Family, named after George Franklin Gaumer, who discovered it for science. Gaumer discovered a lot of the Yucatán's endemic plants. All I know about him is online at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120129.htm.

Nowadays a ten-ft-tall tree (3m), a member the Hibiscus Family, is abloom with 1½-inch-wide (3.8cm), yellow flowers, and it' also named after Gaumer. It's BAKERIDESIA GAUMERI, known only from the Yucatan Peninsula and a single collection in Honduras. Really this Gaumer business is fascinating. If anyone out there with an historical bent wants to write something about George Franklin Gaumer (1850-1929), I'll publish it on the web.

Anyway, leaves and flowers of "Gaumer's Bakeridesia" are at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212bk.jpg.

A flower close-up showing many stamens clustered around the base of the five-parted style is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212bl.jpg.

Since this is such a little-known species, it's worth documenting the flower's bowl-shaped calyx atop a short pedicle, all densely hairy with branched hairs, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212bm.jpg.

These features indicate that Gaumer's Bakeridesia is a member of the Hibiscus Family. In that family often fruit structure is more useful for identification than flower structure. An immature fruit, unusually hairy and divided into ten sections, or carpels, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212bn.jpg.

Flowers of Bakeridesia gaumeri -- which has no English name -- usually are completely orangish-yellow, as in the above pictures, but sometimes, right next to all-yellow-flowered ones, there are red-eyed ones, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212bo.jpg.

"Gaumer's Bakeridesia" is nearly entirely restricted to the northern Yucatán, with few collections from outside Yucatán State. The species seems exquisitely adapted just for our rather dry, scrubby forests, and disappear from the landscape when the forest grows only a little more lush and moist.

The genus Bakeridesia is a small, mostly unknown one. This plant is pretty enough and long-flowering enough to be planted as an ornamental. It's a species just waiting to be noticed by someone who'll introduce it to the gardening world.

*****

STRATUS OPACUS CLOUDS
That early morning a heavy fog enshrouded the landscape. As I biked through it, water droplets condensed in my beard and on the hairs of my arms and legs, thrilling me both with the shock of their coldness and the pure delight of being so alive, experiencing it all.

By the time I was well up the little road north of Pisté the fog literally had "lifted," rising from off the land into the air, forming a low overcast. You can see that cloud cover over a fallowing Maya cornfield at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212c1.jpg.

The cloud is blanket-like, so it's stratus. I know it's low, so it's not altostratus, and it's not lumpy enough to be stratocumulus. There's no rain associated with it so it's not nimbostratus. It's just plain stratus.

Of the kinds of stratus recognized by the World Meteorological Organization, this is the one that's fairly uniform in texture and so dense that it obscures the sun or moon. It's STRATUS OPACUS. If the sun or moon could be seen through it, it'd be Stratus translucidus. If it were more wavy and undulating, it'd be Stratus undulatus. If it were more uniform and foglike in texture -- and maybe 15 minutes earlier it'd been like that -- it'd be Stratus nebulosus.

But it was none of those things. It was just sun-blotting Stratus opacus.

*****

STRATUS FRACTUS CLOUDS
What began as a fog and then lifted, first becoming uniform-textured Stratus nebulosus clouds, then lumpy Stratus opacus, by mid morning had thinned so that the sun showed through as a silvery orb, so by then the layer had become Stratus translucidus. Finally late in the morning the Stratus translucidus started breaking up, showing ever more blue sky between cloud patches. So close to the ground the cloud patches seemed to move faster than the morning's calmness would allow.

Of the stratus clouds recognized by the World Meteorological Organization, this is the one described as being ragged shreds of stratus clouds. It's STRATUS FRACTUS. You can see some above a forest clearing at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120212c2.jpg.

Often when it rains, those low, raggedy-edged clouds that scud well beneath the rain clouds are Stratus fractus, too.

*****

PRECLASSIC, CLASSIC & POSTCLASSIC
Often the histories of civilizations are divided into preclassic, classic and postclassic periods. With a little practice anyone can usually recognize Maya society's preclassic, classic and postclassic art styles.

For example, preclassic Maya pottery (±2000 BC-AD 250) is utilitarian and ornamented with reserve, if at all. Classic (±250-1000 AD) pottery often is painted with more than one color (polychrome), vessel walls are thinner, shapes are more streamlined, and hieroglyphic text may be worked into the design. Texts typically deal with events of war and religion. Postclassic (±1000-conquest) vessels often bear a glassy finish from higher kiln temperatures, and figures and hieroglyphics on them are executed with flair, with quick brushstrokes, sometimes appearing to have been mass produced.

From what I've seen, all complex, evolving systems develop along similar lines. People are complex, evolving systems, so do humans pass through preclassic, classic and postclassic periods? When I think about it, I see lots of analogies.

A problem with the notion is that the word "classic" suggests the maximum expression of something, so that "postclassic" automatically takes on the aura of being a lesser time, one of degeneration. Everyone wants to be "classic," not "postclassic."

But, if you pay attention to history, it's clear that postclassic periods aren't so bad. A postclassic society may have lost its military and economic domination, and its religious zeal, but, really, is that so bad? I'm not the only one to wonder whether ancient Maya civilization "collapsed" not because of a particular war, famine, disease, hurricane, or soil depletion, or any other of the usual suspects, but from this: In their postclassic/old-age wisdom, maybe people just finally figured out that it was silly to keep supporting all those wars the politicians got them into, and to keep building temples and delivering sacrificial victims to their ever-more-extreme but obviously powerless priestly class.

I find lots of older folks coming to the same conclusions about their own postclassic lives, and I regard that as enlightenment, not degeneration.

Maybe one reason people hesitate to think of their own lives in terms of preclassic, classic and postclassic periods is the thought of what comes when the postclassic ends.

The Maya say that when one cycle ends, another begins, so they're not too worried about it. I'm not, either.

In fact, I rather like contemplating the end of my own postclassic period... the very moment when old beliefs fall away but new ones haven't formed yet. The moment of purified being, and nothing more.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim