JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: issued from Mahahual, Quintana Roo, MÉXICO

July 19, 2015

REDSTEM PURSLANE BY THE TENT
Once again at dawn on a peaceful Sunday morning out in the mangroves I awoke to find beside my tent a little wildflower bearing a bright blossom that hadn't been open when I'd gone to sleep. The plant was only about 2-1/3 inches tall (6cm) but the yellow blossom was about the size of a fingernail, looking large on such a small plant. You can see it in very thin soil atop limestone at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150719pu.jpg

With such a conspicuous, yellow blossom and succulent leaves, it looks very much like a purslane, but the only purslane I've seen here has been the one that's so good to eat cooked, but it has flat leaves. Maybe this was a narrow-leaved purslane species -- another member of the genus Portulaca. Looking for more Portulaca credentials, I saw that the flower bore many stamens from which a single style atop the ovary branched at its top into several curved stigmas -- exactly as in Portulaca flowers -- as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150719pw.jpg

Moreover, arising from between the leaves' petioles and the reddish stem were conspicuous white hairs, stiff and long enough to be called trichomes -- a detail I sort of remembered from the purslanes I'd eaten -- as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150719pv.jpg

Four purslane species are listed for the Yucatan Peninsula, and all four happen to be treated in the Flora of North America, so this species was easy to "key out" as the Redstem Purslane, PORTULACA RUBRICAULIS. Its main field marks -- besides the fact that it's obviously a purslane -- is that its succulent stems are rounded in cross-section, not flat like the common species, its flowers are relatively large, and it has those stiff, white trichomes between the petioles and stem. The species occurs from southern Florida through the Caribbean Area, and in South America. The Flora of North America says it inhabits coastal beaches and shell mounds. Ours was in a thin crust of soil atop limestone at the mangrove edge, which isn't beach. This caused doubt about the identification until I found Gilberto Ocampo Acosta's published notes about Redstem Purslane, when he describes as occurring throughout the northern Yucatan Peninsula, including well into the interior. His work in Spanish appears in a 2003 edition of ACTA Botánica Mexicana, freely available on the Internet, with maps and keys, here

*****

TUESDAY, JULY 14
The current wandering began Tuesday, July 14th, at the bus station in Río Lagartos, a little before dawn. A mere sliver of an almost-new moon hung near the horizon in the eastern sky, like a silvery smile.

The Noreste bus took a wandering route, first westward along the coast to San Felipe, then south to Panabá, now abandoning coastal mangroves to enter ranchland/savanna. Ranchland/savanna starts out as grassy savanna with scattered trees, largely palms, but then someone puts up fences and lets cows in, making it ranchland.

As the day's first sunlight entered the bus, people were in chatty, friendly moods. Numerous students were aboard, for in this area if anyone wants more than what we would think of as an elementary education, the student must move to a larger town, or travel a lot. The bus's route ended in Tizimín. In the second bus, still heading south, now to the much larger town of Valladolid, there still were students, but older now, and going farther away.

North of Valladolid ranchland/savanna transitioned to spiny deciduous forest, or thorn forest, for in the Yucatan Peninsula the farther south you go the less arid it becomes, and the lusher the vegetation. Southeast of Valladolid, now on an Oriente bus, we pulled into the ruins of Cobá. By now, not only had we exchanged students for international backpackers picked up in Valladolid, but also the North's scrubby forest had changed to a forest high enough for a North American or European to think of it as real forest. Many spiny, woody members of the Bean Family, like the acacias, had given way to a variety of other families and genera, such as those in the Fig Family.

At Tulum we reached the Caribbean coast. The town is famous for its major Maya ruin, and the Mayab bus picked up many more backpackers. Around noon we headed south along the coast to about ten minutes south of the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto -- which during the Caste Wars was famous as the Maya stronghold known then as Chan Santa Cruz. I exited the bus alone at a lonely crossroads where one road led to the village of Chankah, and the other to some lakes a few kms to the west.

I'd chosen this first overnight camping place using Google Earth. You can see the exact spot I exited the bus, with the trashy little concrete passenger shelter, the woods all around, and the crossroads leading east and west, by going into Google Earth, zooming in to Felipe Carilla Puerto (we're in Quintana Roo state now, no longer Yucatán) then a little south to where the road to Chankah appears, and then at the crossroads go into "street view," and you can see what I saw getting off the bus.

That area had just had a good rain and when I left the bus a light drizzle was still falling. I found a good tent spot and made my first camp of the trip. It was a good camp, like the Google Earth pictures had promised, not too swampy, and the forest wasn't so dense that there was no place to set up a tent. What a pleasure after a day of rumbling buses to lie in the tent with tall trees dripping rainwater on it, as vireos, trogons and woodpeckers called, despite it being the middle of the afternoon, when birds usually are quiet.

 

WEDNESDAY, JULY 15
Camping in drippy, wild "jungle" I'm reminded that camping is like captaining a ship: Details must be attended to, procedures followed, maintenance has to be continual. If a certain point isn't properly tied down, rainwater seeps beneath the floor and pools. If you don't pass through the door just right, mosquitoes fog in as you enter. If you don't feel out the ground area well, when you finally stretch out in the tent, your spine will be arched high and your feet and head hang low.

But, I'd gotten most of the details right and had the best night of sleep in a long time.

On Wednesday morning, in the concrete shelter for bus riders at the crossroads, I dried out the tent in intense, tropical sunlight and a stiff breeze. Before long a Mayab bus picked me up and later dropped me off at the entry road to Mahahual, which lay 58 kms eastward through mangroves and swamps.

Mahahual is a little town on the Caribbean existing mainly to serve enormous cruise ships that dock there briefly. It's much smaller than Cancún, mostly a beach-side strip of hotels, bungalows, restaurants and bars sprinkled with yoga and massage shops, snorkeling shops and the like. I was expected at the nearby subdivision for people who work in the tourist zone, but no one was at home. I'd left Rïo Lagartos before receiving their email saying that they had a tour on Wednesday and would be returning late. I spent the rest of the day on their patio. When they arrived, though they offered a bedroom, I chose to camp beneath a Capulín tree, Muntingia calabura, loaded with cherry-like fruits, of which immediately I ate many.

And I neglected to recall how at dusk certain birds visit such fruiting trees to gorge themselves, and poop on any tent that might be below the tree. It was a detail of the kind that has sunk many  ship whose captain thought they were following all the procedures just right, but at the last moment recalls a certain detail until then overlooked.

 

THURSDAY, JULY 16
What I found in Mahahual wasn't what I'd expected, yet that in itself wasn't bad or good. It was as with any wandering undertaken with the understanding that serendipity must be a prime ingredient if things are to work out.

For, that's how Nature is organized. Nature is a web of possibilities, not a string of certainties. If one strand of the web fails, a community of other strands probably will hold, though some compensatory shifting may be required among those strands, even as other shifting also take place in response to more distant failures or, maybe, serendipitous reinforcement or good luck.

A white cruise ship several stories high had docked at Mahahual on Thursday, despite this being the off season, and the tourist zone was buzzing. Golf-cart-like vehicles buzzed about everywhere, and restaurant hawkers did their best to entice customers from the street.

"Well, here we are," a flat, Midwestern accent from a lady in a flowery, billowing dress said to her portly, slightly bewildered-looking husband as they passed beneath palm trees on the sandy path into the tourist zone.

"Yup, here we are.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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