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

October 25, 2015

MAYA CHIVES -- CEBOLLÍN
Among the traditional Maya crops grown at Hacienda Chichen for use in the kitchen is what the Maya gardeners call Cebollín, which I've always thought of as a kind of chives. In Mexico, several different onion-type plants are called Cebollín. Our local Cebollín is much more robust than the North's chives, and I've often wanted to see some flowers so I could identify the plant's species. However, among the thousands of Cebollines in our garden, normally there's not a single flower. You can see what Maya Cebollín looks like in a traditional Maya, stone-framed "era" at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151025ch.jpg.

If you separate out an individual stem you see that the leaves are narrowly cylindrical, as they should be as chives. However, the leaves are flattish, while leaves of Northern chives are roundish/cylindrical, and hollow inside. You can see a Maya Chives leaf cross section at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151025ci.jpg.

This week one plant among several thousand turned up flowering, so this was my big chance to get an ID. You can see the pretty umbel of white blossoms, typical of onions, or the genus Allium, arising atop a stem and subtended by a semitransparent, onion-skin spathe at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151025cj.jpg.

The flowers are pretty enough for a close look, provided at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151025cl.jpg.

As is perfectly right for the onion genus Allium, there are six stamens arising from the bases of six white, petal-like "tepals," and the spherical ovary is topped with a slender style.

This week not only was a plant flowering, but also another one bore several capsule-type fruits, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151025ck.jpg.

Most of the flowers in this cluster appear to have withered without producing fruits, and the fruits themselves look curiously empty, almost bladder-like. Three of them, however, seemed to contain seeds in at least one of their three chambers, which turned out to be the case when I pinched off a couple of fruit tops, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151025cm.jpg.

In that picture the center fruit shows a white, aborted ovary at the bottom, left. That flower's seed is broken open revealing white endosperm inside the black seed coat.

So, with all these details surely a good ID should be forthcoming. But, still I've had problems pegging it. Reader Mark in England who knows his garden plants suggested Allium tuberosum, often known in the North as Garlic or Chinese Chives. Our Maya plants are certainly close to that species. A distinguishing feature of Allium tuberosum is that its bulbs arise from underground horizontal rhizomes, and that's the case with our plant. On one of our Maya plants you can see a short section of rhizome exiting the base of a bulb's roots, looking like a brown worm, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151025co.jpg.

However, we've seen Allium tuberosum in Texas, and those plants were a little different from these Maya ones, especially with the Texas plants having broader, less stiff leaves and not being as densely bushy as the Maya ones. Also, the Texas ones flowered and produced seeds very readily. It seems to me that our present Maya plants are almost Allium tuberosum but not quite. You can compare them with the Texas plants at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/garlchiv.htm.

A webpage in Spanish produced by UADY, the Autonomous University of Yucatán, describing plants found in Maya milpas, or cornfields, mentions Cebollina, which may be the same as our Cebollín, and of all the plants listed on that page, that's the only one identified only to genus level -- as Allium sp.

Since the vast majority of Cebollín plants never produce flowers, and most flowers in an umbel never set fruit, and in those few fruits examined, all contained only one seed instead of the expected three, it may be that Cebollín is a kind of hybrid or mutation with its genes so scrambled by human selective breeding that at this point in its evolutionary history most plants can't reproduce sexually, instead depending on humans to spread around their vegetative clumps, which the Maya clearly have been doing for a long time.

That's not to say that Cebollín is definitely a Maya creation, for we've found crops here introduced from other parts of the world perhaps as early as 500 years ago. During five centuries the Maya have had time to produce their own special crop races and varieties adapted to the Yucatan. That seems to have been the case with the Maya Cucumber we examined at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/pepino.htm.

So, all this sleuthing just accomplished reaching the same conclusion that we started out with before seeing flowers and fruits: That here the Maya are growing some kind of onion for which the best technical name may be ALLIUM sp. and Mark in England has shown us that they're very close to Allium tuberosum.

*****

THREELEAF CHASTETREE
After getting a new six-month visa for Mexico by visiting Belize and walking across a bridge back into Mexico, last Tuesday morning I was in a weedy park in front of the ADO bus station in Chetumal, killing time until my 11PM bus left. Among the park's ornamental plantings was a dense, much-branched shrub about ten feet tall (3m) bearing panicles of pale blue flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151025vx.jpg.

Mostly the bush's leaves were compound, divided into three leaflets, but some consisted of only one blade, and a few had two leaflets. Leaves arose two per stem node, opposite one another, and the flowers up close were "irregular," showing bilateral and not radial symmetry, each blossom with four stamens and a forked style, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151025vz.jpg.

Notice how these flowers nicely accommodate their pollinators by having their lower lips enlarged into a landing pad with downy hairs arising in the landing zone for the pollinators to hang on to. It's not all floristic altruism, though, for you can see how the style reaches out with its Y-shaped stigmas to receive pollen arriving on any pollinator's body. The bushes also bore clusters of drupe-type fruits, each containing four seeds, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151025vy.jpg.

The opposite leaves with divisions held like fingers on a hand (digitately compound), bilaterally symmetrical flower structure and those blackish fruits subtended by large, papery calyxes covering most of the fruits' bottom halves are all good field marks for the Vervain or Verbena Family, the Verbenaceae. And recently we've seen species with very similar features: In Texas we saw the Hemptree, profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/vitex.htm.

And here in the Yucatan we have a wild tree sometimes called the Fiddlewood, displaying its similar flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/vitex.htm.

Both of these species belong to the genus Vitex, so it was easy to figure out that here we had VITEX TRIFOLIA, sometimes called the Threeleaf Chastetree. The "chaste" part of the name arises from the story told on the page for our Texas Hemptree, about that plant traditionally being considered an anaphrodisiac, which is the opposite of being an aphrodisiac.

Our Chetumal park Vitex wasn't known to be anaphrodisiacal, but in the part of the world where it naturally occurs -- southeastern Asia, Australia, Madagascar and thereabouts -- its dried leaves are known to repel mosquitoes when burned, and oils from its leaves are thought to offer a potential as a botanical pesticide. Various cultures use the plant medicinally, leaf poultices being employed to treat rheumatism, swollen testicles and such. In Malaysia teas from the fruits are used against intestinal worms, while in Vietnam the same teas are thought to cure common colds, headaches and watery eyes. The list of uses goes on and on. Compounds in the plant must be powerful ones because gardeners who prune the plants sometimes suffer from sneezing, coughing, dizziness, headaches, and nausea.

In this part of the world, however, these effects aren't known, since the plant isn't native. Apparently it was planted in this little park in Chetumal just because it's a pretty tree that seems to keep its flowers for a long time.

*****

LITTLE GIRL IN A BUS STATION
Last Monday I traveled to Belize by bus so I could reenter Mexico with an updated six-month visa. A little before noon on Wednesday, with a new visa in hand as my bus approached home at Hacienda Chichen, I thought about the trip's adventures and impressions. What I decided was that of everything I'd seen and lived through during the past 2½ days, the most memorable wasn't the epic battle fought with voraciously corrupt border officials, or the flooding besetting southeastern Yucatan, but rather what I'd seen of a little two-year-old girl the previous night, in the ADO bus station of the border town of Chetumal, as I'd awaited the departure of my 11PM bus for Cancún.

The large, hangar-like bus station was equipped with rows of metal benches where ticket holders waited for their buses. The benches were made of thin sheets of metal so densely perforated that they formed a webbing consisting more of open spaces than metal. The benches' webbing and wire arm-rests were painted with a glossy, smooth, bright red paint, and styled into artful curves that left naked edges and sharp points bent away from human contact. Seats were tilted so that one's butt scooted backwards and down into a comfortable cavity. I got to watch the little girl discover these benches.

She'd lift up her shirt, exposing her bare belly and chest, run toward the benches and plop face-down onto the seats, and with her arms and legs spread like a sky-diver's squirm back and forth feeling the metal's coolness, smoothness and weird webbed feeling. She'd stand in the seat leaning against the back and slide downward until her spine was bent into a C while her head remained erect, and she could see her legs projecting into the waiting-room's vast openness. The view seemed to astonish her. Again and again she'd stand, slide down, and look surprised to find her legs jutting into the big room's glaring light and echoing bus-departure announcements.

She straddled the arm rests, facing both backwards and forwards. She got under the bench and for a long time stared upward through the webbing at lights hanging on long wires dangling from the high ceiling. She stuck one leg through the narrow space separating two seat bottoms, and then the other leg, her thrashing feet never reaching the tiled floor. The benches were of just the right height so that the fuzzy-socked feet of her year-old brother on her mother's lap next to her rested on her mother's knees where the little girl could stand barefooted on the cold floor and bury her face in pink, woolly sock-fuzz.

Nothing seemed to delight the little girl more than lying on her back on the seats with her arms and legs spread wide apart, gazing upward into the network of long-dangling, glaring ceiling lights. She writhed like a psyched-up snake, shrieking and flapping her arms and legs as if in anticipation of embracing the whole Universe with its gorgeous rainbow of textures, odors and colors, as if wanting to match those universal feelings with her own and unrestrainedly multiply them and send them forth anew like her own screeching laughter echoing among the ceiling's glaring points of light and emptiness.

On Wednesday morning as I descended from the Oriente bus in downtown Pisté, I thought how I'd like to experience my walk to the Hacienda just as the little girl had the bus station's benches. First I'd visit the frutaría with its fragrant bins filled with green cabbage, orange oranges and yellow bananas, then I'd hike out of town into the ruin zone with its streaming lines of international visitors, idling tour buses and of course the mind-bending ruins themselves, and finally I'd reach the quiet, shadowy world of the Hacienda.

In fact, it was a good walk. I saw Melodious Blackbirds stealing corn from fields next to the road, and summery white cumulus clouds in a blue sky, and my sweating skin was cooled by a fresh breeze from the west. When I hiked by the vast Pyramid of Kukulcán I thought about a certain curvature of the Mayas' history, their jungle origin, their defeat and enslavement by Cross-bearing Spaniards, and the subsequent mingling of the two cultures, leading to today's thatch-roof huts equipped with satellite dishes.

And as I walked into the Hacienda's quiet shadiness I thought of my own attempts to put together a life consisting of 68 years of memories, built-up opinions and vestiges of programming both genetic and societal, and I saw myself squirming on a seat's bottom formed for something much larger than myself, gazing into a vastness almost blinding with uninterpretable points of light and shifting zones of glare.

And then I wondered: At that very moment might there be a higher form of something watching me and my existential squirmings, enjoying Herself enormously, exactly as I had watched the little girl?

And I wondered whether it might be that the whole Universe with all its joyfully and sufferingly evolving things constitutes a kind of squirming-while-gazing-upward. Could it be that the little girl, and my watching and having feelings for the little girl, and the thing maybe watching me and having feelings as I watched the little girl... all somehow on some level of reality might resolve into what anyone could identify as childlike laughter lighting up a Universe with its ricocheting echoes and ever-outward proliferation?

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Mustard-Green Spaceships" from the September 5, 2004 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/040905c.htm

"Dove Hunting Season Opens" from the September 7, 2003 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/030907b.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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