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

October 11, 2015

HAIRY HUSK-TOMATO
On my last walk down the road between Yaxunah and Kancabzonot, a new-to-me species of husk tomato turned up sprawling among some hippopotamus-size limestone boulders dumped along the road. Husk tomatoes, sometimes called groundcherries, genus Physalis are an easy group to identify because of the Chinese-lantern-like items they produce on their branches. The "lanterns" consist of a pea- to golfball-size fruits suspended inside papery bladders such as those shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151011ph.jpg.

An opened-up bladder showing an immature, green-tomato-like fruit can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151011pi.jpg.

You may recognize this bladder-surrounded fruit as closely related to the Tomatillos sometimes sold in supermarkets. Tomatillos are much used in Mexican cooking, especially as the cooling-down base for green hot-sauce.

This husk-tomato species bore typical husk tomato leaves with low, widely spaced, somewhat irregular teeth, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151011pl.jpg.

When we look at the flower, however, we start seeing something a little unusual, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151011pj.jpg.

What's unusual isn't the brown spots but rather the dense covering of long, slender, straight hairs. This is a very fuzzy species. Look how the hairs cover stems lower down at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151011pk.jpg.

Thirteen husk-tomato species, genus Physalis, are listed for the Yucatan Peninsula, but the best I can tell none is as fuzzy as this one. That makes this PHYSALIS PUBESCENS, a widely distributed species from the US south through the Americas into South America. Over such a large area it goes by a number of common names, but maybe the most appropriate is Hairy Husk-tomato.

Husk-tomato fruits, as witnessed with Tomatillos, generally are edible, sometimes deliciously so. Garden-grown husk tomatoes can produce fruits the size of small apples, completely filling the husks. In northern supermarkets sometimes the husks are removed because northerners don't know how to deal with them. Husk tomato fruits are like green tomatoes because the two plants are closely related, both in the Nightshade or Tomato/Potato Family, the Solanaceae.

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BIOLOGICAL SOIL CRUST WHEN IT RAINS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/crust.htm we've looked at different kinds of "biological soil crusts," sometimes known as "biocrust," often forming atop ground that has been moist or wet for a good while. The crust is a complex community of interrelating and interdependent species of such organisms as cyanobacteria, algae, fungi, lichens, mosses, and liverworts.

Often we don't notice biocrust until we walk on it when it's dried out, and we hear it crunching beneath our feet. You can see typical dried-out crusts on our crust page.

Now during the rainy season we can see what happens to dried-out biocrust when puddles form. The organisms soak up water and become soft, even mushy, foamy or slimy, and form a floating scum like that shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151011og.jpg.

The scum's different colors and textures confirm that it's made up of different kinds of organisms. Its surface is bubbly because many of the organisms forming the covering are photosynthesizing, generously spewing oxygen into the atmosphere.

I love the way the water in these scum-topped puddles is so clear, with the floating material forming dark shadows on the mud below, like cloud shadows on Earth. I bet that a microscope would show this waterlogged biocrust teeming with creeping, sailing, spiraling microorganisms.

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I HAVE RETURNED TO HACIENDA CHICHEN
Last Tuesday I left Yaxunah and returned to the resort of Hacienda Chichen, adjacent to the ruins of Chichén Itzá. From November, 2009 until March, 2012 I lived at the Hacienda, occupying a thatch-roofed hut on the grounds, qualifying as a sort of living exhibition of someone actually living in a hut. The hut is far enough from the business area to be quiet, with forest all around providing a certain privacy, though at any time a wandering tourist might poke a head into the hut to see what's going on.

That's part of the deal, though, and I don't mind it, especially because visitors who wander around in the woods are the most interesting to me and I often invite them to sit and talk awhile. During October the hut is being featured in some kind of film, so I can't move back into it until November. Meanwhile I'm living in luxury, with indoor plumbing, closets and everything

At the Hacienda each afternoon I offer a nature-walk around the grounds, focusing on the plants, plus I teach English classes and interpret when I'm needed, as when the kitchen staff teaches Maya cooking to English-speaking guests. One of my first duties at the Hacienda was to photograph a Maya purification ritual, conducted by my old friend José, still studying to be a shaman. You can see José at work, enshrouded in clouds of copal-incense fumes and surrounded by a group from Michigan, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151011js.jpg.

Over the years I've already written about the most conspicuous plants and animals of this area, and I don't know whether I'll find enough new material to continue the Newsletter in the format used before going to Yaxunah.

Whatever the case, I appreciate being offered the opportunity to return here, am glad to see old friends and make new ones among the Maya staff, and look forward to being the 68-year-old Naturalist in Residence wandering around showing strangers what pretty and interesting plants we have.

You are welcome to come see them yourself.

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FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Beauty of the Sixth Miracle of Nature" from the March 3 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/080303.htm

"Wasp Slaughter" from the December 11, 2011 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/111211.htm

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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