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

August 16, 2015

VELVET-LEAF VINE
Yaxunah's street sides are weedier than normal, but it's not the kind of weediness seen closer to big towns and important roads. A lot of the weeds -- sometimes I think most of them -- are useful plants, which Yaxunah's plant-savvy population is too well informed to remove. Such a common weed is the vine shown growing up through the petioles of a Mexican Palmetto (one of the Huano thatch palms, so probably the severed petiole is from someone patching their roof with a frond from this tree) along a street at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150816cs.jpg.

The heart-shaped leaves with several conspicuous veins arising from the blades' bases well could be those of a morning-glory. However, the leaves' covering of dense, soft hairs give a soft, fuzzy feeling, and that's a field mark I don't recall for any morning-glory species. Also, those clusters of pale green items -- looking a little like upside-down pagodas -- aren't found on any kind of morning-glory. A closer look at a cluster is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150816ct.jpg.

You might guess that the dangling clusters are composed of bracts, and normally at the base of such bracts flowers arise. In this vine's case the flowers are tiny, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150816cu.jpg.

The arrangement of these flowers was hard to interpret. I couldn't figure out what was going on until the plant was identified and a botanical manual described how the family arranged its flowers. The family is the Moonseed Family, the Menispermaceae, which produces unisexual flowers on separate male and female plants (the plants thus "dioecious"). The tiny flowers in our picture are all female ones, and are arranged in few-flowered clusters at the base of each bract, with each flower normally bearing 3-6 separate pistils.

Therefore, in the above picture, each item that looks like a hairy, pear-shaped ovary with three or so blackish styles is actually a single female flower bearing three or so separate, one-styled pistils crammed so close together that they look like one ovary with three or so styles. A diagram of such a single flower with several pistils -- which will develop into an "aggregate fruit" such as a blackberry -- is shown on our Aggregate Fruit Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/frt_aggr.htm.

So, our fuzzy-feeling vine, which grows from a woody base and reaches 16 feet high (5m), is CISSAMPELOS PAREIRA, sometimes in English known as Velvet-leaf, along with several other unrelated plants also with soft-hairy leaves. In Maya Velvet-leaf Vine is called X-peteltun, and I suspect that one reason it's so commonly occurring along Yaxunah's streets is that it's a well known medicinal plant.

Locally the vine's fresh leaves are boiled in water to brew a tea for treating diarrhea, while dried leaves are boiled to make a tea for stomach ache. Elsewhere in Mexico the plant is used especially for problems of the urinary tract, particularly distention of the bladder, as well as for other ailments such as what used to be known as rheumatism, jaundice, and dropsy.

Velvet-leaf Vine grows from Mexico south to Panama.

*****

TWO BROTHERS BUILDING A WALL
Just down the street from Yaxunah Community Center, for several days two men worked building a stone wall. In this area stone walls often separate people's homes from one another, the resulting enclosure normally containing the house and maybe some outbuildings, several trees, and odds and ends such as barrels of rainwater, a chicken roost, a pigpen, and maybe a little garden or at least some sprawling squash vines and pepper bushes. Certainly there are rocks aplenty in this area where at the earth's surface there's about as much exposed limestone bedrock as soil.

After a few days of watching the new wall come up I just had to go meet the fellows doing the work. You can see them and their wall at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150816wl.jpg.

In that picture, up front is Don Nicanor, and in the back with the red cap is Don Estanislao. I'd been afraid that they'd be bothered by a nosy gringo interrupting their work, but they seemed pleased with my interest. They're brothers from here in Yaxunah. They don't think of themselves as professional stone-wall builders, but if someone in town wants a substantial stone wall built, and built well, often these two brothers get the job. In the picture, notice that Don Nicanor is hammering a rock on the ground, knocking off edges so it'll fit better in the space under consideration. You can see how rocks in a finished part of the wall fit together at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150816wm.jpg.

In this area I think it must be especially hard to build good rock walls because the limestone bedrock is hard and massive. It's not noticeably layered and natural fractures don't extend very far, so you can't pry apart layers or work a chisel into a fracture to extend it. Sledgehammers just bounce off, scattering a little powder or knocking off small chips.

*****

AMPHIBIANS & REPTILES OF CENTRAL YUCATÁN STATE
Fifteen years after its year-2000 publication date, I've finally gained access to Julian C. Lee's wonderful A Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Maya World/ The Lowlands of Mexico, Northern Guatemala, and Belize, published by Cornell University Press. I'm still digesting the book's contents, and have made certain updates on my web pages dealing with Yucatan herps -- "herps" being the collective term for amphibians and reptiles.

Meanwhile, using Lee's species distribution maps, I've begun focusing on herps around Yaxunah -- and therefore the Chichén Itzá area and central Yucatán State in general -- by compiling a list of species possibly found here. In the following list, names preceded by a "?" indicate that in our area the species is at the edge of its distribution area, or just beyond, so its presence here might be questionable.

SALAMANDERS

LUNGLESS SALAMANDER FAMILY, the Plethodontidae Yucatan

TOADS & FROGS

BURROWING TOAD FAMILY, the Rhinophrynidae

ROBBER FROG FAMILY, the Leptodactylidae

TOAD FAMILY, the Bufonidae

TREE FROG FAMILY, the Hylidae

NARROWMOUTH TOAD FAMILY, the Microhylidae

TRUE FROG FAMILY, the Ranidae

TURTLES

MUD & MUSK TURTLE FAMILY, the Kinosternidae

BOX TURTLE FAMILY, the Emydidae

LIZARDS

BANDED GECKO FAMILY, the Gekkonidae

BASILISK FAMILY, the Corytophanidae

IGUANA FAMILY, the Iguanidae

SPINY LIZARD FAMILY, the Phrynosomatidae

ANOLE FAMILY, the Polychrotidae

SKINK FAMILY, the Scincidae

RACERUNNER FAMILY, the Teiidae

SNAKES

BLIND SNAKE FAMILY, the Typhlopidae

BOA FAMILY, the Boidae

COLUBRID SNAKE FAMILY, the Colubridae

CORAL SNAKE FAMILY, the Elaphidae

VIPER FAMILY, the Viperidae

*****

A PUFF OF COLD AIR
I was helping a local Maya man build a step at Yaxunah Community Center when he asked to borrow some money. He said he hadn't been able to work lately and had fallen behind with his bills.

"I was cleaning a temple at the ruin," he said, referring to Yaxanah Ruins just north of town. "I was assigned the lower level, so I was down low digging around when suddenly a puff of cold air swept over my arms. My hands and arms became so cold I couldn't move them, and my feet, too. I couldn't work then, and as the days passed the problem continued."

He related all this with an expression indicating awe, confusion and helplessness.

"Finally I had blood work done, but it came back just perfect, no problem there, no cholesterol, no anything. Then my wife said I needed to visit the curandero, the local healer. The curandero told me it'd happened because before we began the cleaning operation we hadn't conducted the proper ceremonies asking permission to work there. And I'd had the luck to be assigned the lower level, where the ancients had made their sacrifices, and that's why I was affected and not the others."

The man paused awhile, maybe visualizing the cold puff of air issuing from some kind of spell put in place centuries ago by his ancestors, a spell that all those years lay dormant in the soil at the temple's lower level, just waiting for him to come along with his usual bad luck.

"But we'd already made the mistake and that couldn't be undone, and I had these cold, numb hands that couldn't work. Eventually I brought my problem before my fellow church members and they prayed. Then the problem began going away, and now here I am working again."

I gave the man 50 pesos -- not as a loan, but rather as advance payment for a week's supply of tortillas to be patted out by his wife each day atop the family's comal, the tortillas made from corn from the man's own cornfield.

*****

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:

"Two Years of Mail" from the June 16, 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/080616.htm

"Venus & Jupiter" from the March 18, 2012 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/120318.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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