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

February 26, 2012

LACEWING ART
We've documented lacewing insects doing interesting things before. For example, we've seen their stalked eggs at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/lacewing.jpg.

Their eggs are stalked because the predatory larvae hatching from them are such voracious predators that if they can get at unhatched siblings they'll eat them.

We've also seen how the larvae of some kinds of lacewings adorn their bodies with flecks of alga or similar trashy material, as camouflage, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/trashbug.jpg.

This week I got a good look at a lacewing itself floating on the surface of a forest pool, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226x4.jpg.

Because so many kinds of lacewing exist, and the tropical ones are so poorly known, identifying this one to species level would be very hard. However, something about this particular lacewing, being as it was, where it was, requires that it remain incognito, that we focus on its circumstances and the implications thereof, not its mere identity.

*****

ROBINS STARTING TO SING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/turdgray.htm we show what Clay-colored Robins look like and describe how during mating season individuals gather into "polygynous leks." Also, during the late dry season to early rainy season I describe how their "...pre-dawn to after-dusk, ever varying, sometimes echoic or chiming song-phrases filtered through my hut's pole walls, their notes mingling with music played on my computer, and with my own whistling."

When their singing ends in late July, it leaves such a sound vacuum that one can't help but notice, so we've documented both their singing and the end of it. However, each year its beginning is a slow-coming process that slips up on you; until now I've failed to say when the singing begins.

But, this year I'm paying full attention. A few Clay-colored Robins began their first tentative calling in early mornings and late afternoons last week. This week more birds are doing it for longer periods each morning and late afternoon, but still it's nothing like the "...shimmering musical ocean engulfing my hut-ship, texturing everything I did, thought and felt... monumental, effervescing rainbow of sound" that will come a little later in the season. This week mostly I'm hearing their catlike mews, with only a few isolated echoic or chiming song-phrases.

What a pleasure each day to pay full attention to and to anticipate the shy blossoming of this soon-to-be-gorgeous, gushing singing-time.

*****

WOODEN ROSE
You can see why the perennial, high-climbing vine sometimes called Wooden Rose has that name at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226mm.jpg.

Of course those aren't roses, in fact they aren't any kind of flower, but rather they're a vine's thin-walled, capsular fruits subtended by much enlarged, dried-out, stiff, irregularly incised sepals. Inside each egg-size capsule, four black, fuzzy seeds are suspended not touching the capsule's walls, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226mn.jpg.

Three ¾-inch (18mm), black, fuzzy seeds are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226mo.jpg.

We've seen morning-glories with fruits similar to this, for example the white-flowered Operculina pinnatifida, whose smaller fruit and sepals are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101010oq.jpg.

So, we have a morning-glory, but it's not that one, so what is it? I had to ask my morning-glory expert, Ron in New Jersey, whose online name is -- believe it or not -- Ron_Convolvulaceae (Convolvulaceae being the Morning-Glory's technical name). Ron said it looked like MERREMIA TUBEROSA. We've already examined that species, when it was loaded with interesting yellow flowers in December. Its leaves and flowers are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/merremia.htm.

Apparently, these are the fruits of the same vine!

When I was studying that vine I wondered why several of its English name referred to woody roses; now that it's fruiting, all is clear!

Why would a fruiting body evolve to look like a brown, woody rose? My guess is that its similarity to a wooden rose is incidental. Maybe the large, stiff sepals catch wind, causing the capsule to flap about on its slender stem, slinging seeds here and there. Maybe the seeds' hairs simply expose more surface area to the wind, helping the seeds sail farther.

The "wooden flowers" remain pretty for weeks. This is another species deserving to be much more widely planted in tropical gardens than it is.

*****

MAYA TEMPLE NIGHTSHADE
The Hacienda's property extends far into the surrounding forest, where hundreds of ancient Maya ruins lie moldering. Typically all you see of a ruin is a rise on the forest floor overgrown with vegetation. Only rarely do stone surfaces bearing hieroglyphics peek from among the rubble and plant cover. It was atop such a rectangular mound, which earlier surely bore a building, that a six-ft-high (1.8m) semi-shrub turned up, its big, bluntly lobed, spine-bearing leaves translucing in sunlight, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226so.jpg.

Some plant species seem to cluster around ancient ruins, so might this possibly be a relict species somehow hanging on from ancient Maya times? Also, I'd not seen this species elsewhere, so I clambered onto the mound for a closer look. Though the plant was a species I hadn't seen, it bore a few flowers structured a familiar way. See if you recognize the plant group it belongs to by looking at a flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226sp.jpg.

With its spreading, five-lobed corolla subtending five yellow anthers grown together by their margins to form a cylinder around the female pistil, it could hardly be anything other than a member of the Nightshade Family, the Solanaceae, as well as the nightshade genus, Solanum. But Solanum is one of the largest of the Earth's flowering-plant genera, holding about 1700 species, so we were still far from knowing exactly what we had.

To help with later identification I noted the plant's special features, such the dark, broad-based spines along its leaves' main veins, and how the leaves themselves were soft-fuzzy with white hairs, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226sq.jpg.

The species turned out to be SOLANUM HIRTUM, native from Mexico south into northern South America. It's a forest species that can be weedy enough to bear a Spanish name, which is Cojón de Gato, or Cat's Balls, referring to its spherical, fuzzy fruits.

The Maya also have a name for it, Put Balam, or "Jaguar Papaya." In Mayan cosmology the Jaguar is the most powerful shamanic animal, so the possibility arises that our temple-mound-growing nightshade may indeed once have been associated with Mayan rituals. It's recorded that chewing the plant's fresh leaves produces a narcotic and stimulating effect, and the fruits are used medicinally for treating angina.

*****

BUTTONWEED
Less spectacular than the nightshade but much more common in weedy areas is what's seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226sc.jpg.

A dew-drenched flower head with a slender, stigma-tipped style projecting from each four-lobed corolla is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226sd.jpg.

This is one of several weedy herbs called Buttonweeds. It's SPERMACOCE DENSIFLORA, a member of the Madder or Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae. That's a big family, with maybe 13,000 species in some 650 genera, especially well represented in the tropics. The genus Spermacoce itself contains about 50 species. Weakley's Flora of the Southeastern States lists four Spermacoce species for that region, so this is a good family and genus for wildflower lovers to know.

The Coffee Family is relatively easy to recognize by its combination of opposite leaves (two at each stem node), and prominent stipules connecting the opposite leaf bases. Our Buttonweed's long-toothed stipules, encircling the stem like a king's crown, are seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226se.jpg.

A few other plant families also feature opposite leaves with stipules connecting their bases, but Coffee Family species display a third important feature that usually separates them from those other families: Coffee Family species produce flowers with inferior ovaries. That means that the calyx, corolla and male sexual parts arise atop the ovary, not below it, as in most plants. A diagram explaining this is at http://www.backyardnature.net/inf_sup.gif.

Spermacoce densiflora occurs in weedy situations throughout the New World tropics -- the Neotropics.

*****

UMBRELLA PLANT
At the shady base of a Cecropia tree in the Hacienda's garden area you can see the umbrella-shaped plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226cy.jpg.

About knee-high, the plant's crown of widely spreading leaves arises atop a stiff, slender, leafless, green stem. Nestled in the center of the flaring leaves are hundreds of flattish flower spikelets arranged in spherical heads which themselves are held in a large, diffuse, umbel-like inflorescence. A head is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226cz.jpg.

In that picture, each flattish spikelet bears about two dozen very small flowers, each flower hidden beneath a scale. The brown, mealy items along each spikelet's sides are the flowers' male stamens and female styles emerging from behind the scales. The stamens release pollen into the air; pollen grains from other plants land on the styles' stigmatic areas and germinate.

The flowers of this plant are arranged in grasslike spikelets but the plant isn't a grass. It's a member of the Sedge Family, the Cyperaceae, which is a big family of about 100 genera and 5000 mostly herbaceous species. The flattish spikelets help us recognize the genus Cyperus, the species of which often are referred to generically as umbrella sedges. Cyperus is a big genus of over 500 mostly tropical and warm-temperate habitats. Our species is commonly grown in tropical and subtropical gardens It's CYPERUS ALTERNIFOLIUS, a native of the swamps of Madagascar.

The most famous member of the genus Cyperus is Papyrus, the plant from which ancient Egyptians made paper, the word paper itself deriving from Papyrus. Papyrus plants grow much larger than our Umbrella Plant, and Papyrus's crown leaves are much fewer and much smaller than the Umbrella Plant's.

Despite Umbrella Plant's swampy origins, it does well in drier spots, in sun or shade. Also, it's easy to reproduce. Just cut off an entire "umbrella" of flower clusters, place it upside-down in shallow water or moist soil, and when new plants emerge in a few weeks, transplant them.

*****

RED GINGER'S VEGETATIVE SHOOTS
We've seen that the very pretty Red Ginger is frequently planted around the Hacienda. It's featured at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/red-ging.htm.

Like Umbrella Plants, Red Ginger also is easy to propagate because often it produces large, ready-to- transplant, leafy shoots among its flowers, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120226al.jpg.

I established several Red Gingers outside the hut door using sprouts just like these. Just picked them off the plant, stuck them into the ground, and waited.

*****

XISCA'S BUG-EATEN LEAF AWARD
You may remember our "Bug-Eaten Leaf Award" offered to those who identify a certain number of organisms in their own neighborhoods. The concept is explained at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/.

This week Xisca in the Canary Islands off the coast of western Africa qualified for the Gold Award by sending a list of over 100 species from her area, now online at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/g-esp001.htm.

Xisca says that working for the award opened her eyes to many things. She writes, with English not being her first language, that "Each backyard is a world, and getting interested into it the way we would like to relate to our fellow humans is a great idea." She says much more on her award page.

Xisca reminds all Newsletter readers that trying for one of the three awards is a good way to sensitize yourself to, and to begin seeing differently, the place where you live. It would make a good spring project.

*****

LOOKING AT ROYAL PALMS
Each afternoon at 4PM I offer a walk around the Hacienda focusing on plants. During each walk we pause to look at the Royal Palms, featured on our page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/royal-pm.htm.

I like to consider things ecologically, so much of what I have to say about Royal Palms relates to how well adapted they are for surviving our yearly six-month dry seasons. For example, the fronds of most palm species are flat -- their leaflets, or pinnae, arise in a single plane -- but the pinnae of Royal Palm fronds stick out from the midrib in all directions. This arrangement increases the fronds' surface area exposed to moisture-laden night and morning air streaming past the frond. In the talks I tell how sometimes Royal Palm fronds wick so much humidity from the air that streamlets of water run down the trunks. I point out how smooth and corky the trees' apparently absorbent bark is, and how the trunks bulge midway up, where water is stored.

Giving the same presentation day after day, eventually, the import of what I'm saying slowly dawns on ME. In fact, over the months, gradually my mental image of the Royal Palm has come to have less to do with the tree's stateliness and its associations with old hacienda entrance lanes, than with its environmental engineering.

It's as if the Universal Creative Impulse had commissioned an engineer to come up with a tree-size organism capable of surviving six-month dry seasons, and the engineer, without reference to esthetics, produced the Royal Palm. In the Royal Palm you don't see decorative elements or superfluous add-ons. The Royal Palm is pure functionality designed for utilizing limited resources with maximum efficiency.

And yet, to the human mind, the Royal Palm is indeed beautiful.

Toying with this thought, eventually you realize that once ANYTHING gets to be known well enough, and seen in a broad-enough perspective, it also turns out to be beautiful.

Moreover, on Earth our experience is that as soon as beings arise with adequately complex minds, a sense of esthetics spontaneously comes into being. Also, it seems that such highly evolved minds automatically recognize beauty in anything that does a good job being itself.

The evolving Creation, then, presents itself as an ever-more efficiently functioning positive-feedback system, in which the final result is a unified state of self-aware beauteousness.

How delicious to find myself so vividly aware of this, and to know that despite all the inept, hurtful, destructive and stupid things I've done in this life, finally I have sense enough to look around, see what's going on, and to be stunned into a state of praise-singing by the utter wonderfulness of it all.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim