JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written about 20kms (12mi) southwest of
Chichén Itzá Ruins, in
Yaxunah, Yucatán, MÉXICO

August 9, 2015

SCARLET-BUSH FOR FOOT SORES
A friend with psoriasis lesions on her feet was approached by a local Maya man saying that he knew an herbal treatment that could cure it. Interested in traditional uses of medicinal plants, my friend jumped at the opportunity to have her feet treated with a genuine Maya cure.

Next morning when the man arrived to begin treatment he brought with him parts of two plant species. One was a leafy sprig of Scarlet-Bush, Hamelia patens, a common, almost weedy roadside bush in these parts, with pretty, red flowers. Back in 2008 we profiled Scarlet-Bush at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/hamelia.htm.

Back in 2008 my camera couldn't focus very close but now we can better show some of Scarlet-Bush's field marks. For one thing, after the flowers are pollinated, the shrub's tubular, cylindrical corollas break loose, slide over the ovaries' long style, and fall to the ground. You can see a corolla that's come loose and now hangs at the style's tip at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150809ha.jpg.

In that picture notice that the ovary is mostly "inferior," with the calyx attached to the ovary's lower half. Scarlet-Bush's leaves normally arise three to a stem node, and between the leaves there are long-pointed, somewhat triangular "stipules," as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150809hb.jpg.

These features -- inferior ovaries, two or more leaves per stem node and conspicuous stipules between the leaf bases -- are field marks for members of the Coffee or Madder Family, the Rubiaceae, a big family in the world's tropics.

Back in 2008 a Maya lady who seemed to know her medicinal plants, in the little Maya village of Sabacché a bit south of Mérida, told us that Scarlet-Bush was medicinal. She'd said:

"Combine its leaves with those of Pomegranate and Guava, brew a tea from them, and you can cure skin sores by washing the skin with the tea. The tea is also good to wash around in your mouth when your mouth is inflamed and painful. And if you cut yourself, you heal better if you toast its leaves on the comal, grind them to a fine powder, and sprinkle the powder in the wound."

This local man in Yaxunah didn't bring leaves of Pomegranate and Guava to brew with the Scarlet-Bush's leaves, but rather a foot-long leaf of Aloe Vera, called Sábila here. I was surprised that his Maya cure included Aloe Vera because that species is native to Africa. The Scarlet-Bush's leaves were cut into small pieces with a pocketknife, a little water was added, and the leaves in the bowl's bottom were crushed with his finger. Then the green jelly inside the aloe leaf was scraped into the bowl and the whole thing stirred up. The resulting runny emulsion was used to wash my friend's foot sores.

After several days of daily treatment my friend didn't see any improvement. One wonders whether if Pomegranate and Guava leaves had accompanied the Scarlet-Bush's leaves the treatment would have worked.

The other day a Maya lecturer spoke to the group of US and Maya students attending the month-long ethnobotany workshop being conducted here at Yaxunah Community Center. After describing how the Maya use natural indicators to forecast the weather -- for example, how drought can be foreseen in the diminished flowering and fruiting of the Ceiba and Bec trees, and in details of the construction of the Altamira Oriole's pendulous nests -- the lecturer asked the three Maya students whether they'd been taught any of these techniques. Two students said that they'd heard nothing about them, while the third said he'd been taught some of the information, but not all.

During the following discussion of how such important knowledge is being lost, the student who'd learned a little from his family said this:

"My impression is that nowadays some of the old people in our community still know all these things. However, middle-aged people like our parents may have heard about the techniques, and sometimes try to use them, but often they get the details wrong and end up making mistakes. And then kids in our age-group hardly know any of the old knowledge."

That's what I've seen in the Maya communities I've stayed in, and maybe that explains why our Scarlet-Bush-leaf cure didn't produce the desired effects. Our volunteer healer had been middle-aged, so maybe he'd remembered that Scarlet-Bush leaves are good for skin sores, but never had learned the details that make the treatment work.

*****

WILD CASSAVA/ MANIOC/TAPIOCA/ YUCA
All those names -- Cassava, Manioc, Tapioca and Yuca (not Yucca, which is something else) -- apply to the same plant species, Manihot esculenta. Cassava, as we'll call it here, is much planted throughout the world's humid tropics for their large, fleshy, elongated, tuberous roots, which when boiled produce a starchy food similar to boiled potatoes. A plant we profiled back in 2008 shows what it looks like in a typical garden, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/manioc.htm.

This week I accompanied a field trip taken by the month-long ethnobotany workshop being conducted here at Yaxunah's Community Center. The excursion was led by specialists from CICY, Yucatán state's Center for Scientific Investigation, and during it we came upon the largest Cassava I've ever seen, a woody tree about 15 feet tall (4.5m). You can barely make out its much-branched, scraggly trunks against the forest's cluttered background at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150809mn.jpg.

A closer look at its bifurcating trunk is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150809mo.jpg.

It's hard to believe that such a large plant could be a Cassava until you see the leaves, which are typical Cassava leaves. They formed a canopy a good distance overhead, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150809mm.jpg.

Experts tell us that Cassava is native to South America, not here, but these plants definitely seemed wild. Possibly our big plant remained from years ago when the dense forest around us was a traditional milpa, or cornfield, in which Cassava was planted. However, not far away, knee-high Cassava plants were growing up, looking as if they might have spread there from seeds.

The ethnobotanist leading the workshop suggests that these plants might have been introduced into the Yucatan Peninsula many years ago, even thousands of years ago, long before Europeans arrived. Other plants such as sweet potatoes and tomatoes made long-distance journeys before Europeans invaded the continent, so it's not unreasonable to conjecture that our Cassavas might have done the same.

The CICY trip leader said he'd seen larger Cassavas, with much thicker stems, and when he showed me how large the underground tuberous root could be, it was about as wide as a car tire.

*****

SUNLIGHT SONG-SOUP
At dawn, next to my hut, the day's first sunlight filters through a big Piich's low-hanging leaflets. I'm tending a campfire with a blue, white-speckled, enameled pot suspended between three white limestone rocks. Orange flames blacken the pot's bottom, imparting to the morning soup solar energy earlier stored among bonds of complex molecules in the twigs being fed to the fire. In the soup itself, incoming energy excites molecules to such frenzied states of activity that they bounce around and break. Cell walls of plant ingredients fracture, softening the soup's hard ingredients, and juices spew from broken cells, blending flavors and creating new ones. Molecules of water knocked from the soup's surface carry with them nurturing, garlicky fragrances.

When the soup is done and poured into the big, blue mug, I sit beside the Piich tree and the hut with chopsticks retrieving chewable chunks from the soup, and drinking the rest. Here's what today's soup is made of:

A handful of Chaya leaves; half a potato; a tomato; half a carrot; half a habanero pepper; half an onion; a garlic clove -- all these chopped. Also, some salt, a little curry, and, for thickening, about half a cup of Maseca finely ground cornmeal and as much oatmeal, and then a healthy spritz of vegetable oil, and a little more than a quart (liter) of water. When the soup is hot, two eggs are dribbled into it, forming slender coagulations.

Clay-colored Robins and Melodious Blackbirds continually call, and that's punctuated here and there with the Ruddy Ground-Dove's mellow co-ooo, co-oooing, and froggy croakings of Turquoise-browed Motmots flying up from the cenote across the street, and chattering shrieks of Aztec Parakeets overhead.

This rainbow of sounds is matched by kaleidoscopic light -- not only flitting hues of birds and butterflies and a drifting ghostliness of white smoke from smoldering campfire embers but also the whole inventory of shades of green, which dance when the morning's first breeze comes along. The Piich's confetti-leaflets flutter, alternately glowing yellow and shadowy blackish, and the sunlight itself, like bubbling soup's molecules fracturing and splattering across my eyes' lenses, rays and specks, all dancing, all mingling, fragrances of life ghostly drifting.

The soup, tatters of green Chaya leaf, white onion and potato, red tomato, orange carrot, yellow egg-yolk, peacock hues of floating vegetable oil, and I'm eating all this, seeing and smelling all this, garlickiness and saltiness, all like song, this sunlight song flooding in from the east, all entering me, washing around and through me, a peaceful morning's sunlight song-soup that once was outside me, now inside me, reminding me again that it's all the same soup everywhere, all the time, inside and out, with me included as part of the song, part of the soup, our melody ghostly drifting along.

*****

STILL WITHOUT INTERNET
During these first weeks of living at Yaxunah our Internet is down. I continue writing Newsletters, but have no way to upload them to my website, short of taking a taxi or walking to Pisté 20kms to the north, since there's no bus service here.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Enchantment of Palms" from the July 24, 2011 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/110724.htm

"Ethical Living" from the July 19, 2009 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/090719.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.