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

November 29, 2015

WITCH'S BUTTER
Here at the end of the rainy season, on wet ground in shady spots, sometimes you find the mysterious-looking organism shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129ns.jpg.

In southwestern Texas we found what looks like the same thing, similarly on ground that during most of the year was hard, hot and very dry, but which for brief periods became sodden with rainwater. We identified that organism as Nostoc commune, a very primitive photosynthetic bacterium known as a cyanobacterium, and in English sometimes known as Witch's Butter. You can see the Texas population, as well as a microscopic view of chains of Nostoc cells enmeshed in gelatinous material, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/nostoc.htm.

On that Texas page I talk about the cellular structure of Nostoc, its ability to "fix" atmospheric nitrogen, and I mention the profound influence cyanobacteria have had on the evolution of Life on Earth. Down here, I went to my Maya friend Paulino and asked what the Maya think about Nostoc.

Paulino told me that in Maya it's called Táak-chak, which sort of embarrassed him, since the name means "rain-poop," chak being the word for rain and táak referring to excrement. In Maya, when a word has "áa" in it, it means that there's a sort of hitch or hard stop after the first a, and that the a sound is pronounced longer than in words with only one a.

Paulino told me that medicinally Táak-chak is important to the Maya. We've spoken before about the powerful influence in this culture of the ojo malo or evil eye. If a drunk or someone who's worked all day under the sun building up energy in his body, or maybe a curandero (witch doctor) with bad intentions, looks at anyone the wrong way, especially a baby or young person, it'll make that person sick, and a curandero has to undo the damage.

Táak-chak isn't for that kind of evil eye, but rather it's for a similar kind of evil eye the rain has, and the rain's eye can do evil-eye stuff to babies. To cure chak-ojo, or rain-eye, you soak Táak-chak in a baby's wash water, and when the organism's influences are soaked into the water, wash the baby with it.

I started to tell Paulino how important cyanobacteria such as Nostoc are, but before I could get into it's evolutionary effect on Life on Earth, he'd already agreed that it was very important, but he was thinking of washing little Maya babies with it, when they got the chak-ojo.

*****

TROPICAL WHITE POLYPORE FUNGUS
The present late rainy-season sogginess also brings forth fungi not seen during the rest of the year, such as the soft-fleshed, white ones issuing from the cut face of a log stacked near the hut, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129pp.jpg.

In that picture the smaller, white items populating another log at the right of the picture is a colony of slime mold, which we've already looked at, in 2012. An important field mark to note on the larger mushrooms on the cut log is that they have stalks, unlike many shelf-type mushrooms that grow from vertical wood faces. Also, the stalks arise at the cap's side, not in the cap's center, as with most stalked mushrooms. You can see a shot from beneath a cap at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129pr.jpg.

In this species, spores fall not from thin, flat gills on the cap's undersurface, as in the case of the best-known mushrooms, but rather from pores. The pores' honeycombed appearance is distinctive because usually pores are much smaller and with round, not elongated, openings. Also notice the hairs at the cap's edge, for most mushroom caps are hairless.

Sometimes the margins of this singular-looking mushroom's mature caps curve upward into a cup shape, providing another view of the curious pores, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129pq.jpg.

In that picture the black items nestled among the pores are insects feeding on the fungus's flesh.

Usually there's little point to try to identify a mushroom without determining its spore color, but in this case the species is so unusual, and so relatively few mushroom species are known to occur in this part of the Yucatan, that I had hope for discovering its name without taking the time to make a spore print.

Fortunately, a Google image search on the keywords "fungus white pores tropical" sufficed to quickly bring up identified images of our fungus, which were labeled as the Tropical White Polypore, FAVOLUS TENUICULUS. Until recently the species was assigned to the genus Polyporus -- thus the Polypore in the English name -- but now that huge, easy-to-recognize genus has been split into smaller, less distinctive genera, such as the current Favolus.

There's little information about Tropical White Polypores on the Internet, other than that the species is generally distributed from the Deep South part of the US southeastern states, south throughout the humid American tropics.

Also, the species is edible, though not flavorful. People add it to soups or maybe saute it with other things with more taste. The ones next to my hut were populated by so many insects that the persnickety might not want to bother nibbling on them.

*****

MAIDENHAIR SERJANIA
Nowadays treetops in this area occasinally are overgrown with a prodigiously white-flowering vine called Serjania. You can see the effect and read about the species at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/serjana.htm.

On that page you can see that the vines' twice-compound leaves are about the size of a hand. This week a vine turned up with leaves, flowers and fruits all structured much like the Serjania profiled above, and definitely a member of the genus Serjania, but this vine's features were all tiny in comparison with those of the one shown above. Look at the size of this week's Serjania compared to my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129sj.jpg.

The vine created a dense, dark clump on a roadside wall of shrubs and small trees and hardly grew head high. At first I thought it was a deformed individual of the usual Serjania, maybe suffering from witch's-broom disease, which produces too many branches too stunted to function right. However, the tiny flowers seemed to be fully functional, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129sl.jpg.

In fact, already some typical and healthy looking Serjania three-winged fruits were forming, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129sk.jpg.

And the leaves, though small, showed no deformation, as typically is the case with witch's-broom-infected plants, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129sm.jpg.

I was eager to go online to visit the Flora de la Peninsula de Yucatán to see whether such a dwarf-type Serjania might be listed. Their Serjania page lists ten Serjania species. My eye was drawn to the first on the list, SERJANIA ADIANTOIDES, because that species name adiantoides translates to "shaped liked a maidenhair fern," and with my first glance at this small Serjania's leaves, I'd thought of the maidenhair fern. You can see the frond of a maidenhair fern called Venus's-Hair at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/adiantu2.htm.

In the end, that's what our little vine proved to be, Serjania adiantoides, a species endemic just to the Yucatan Peninsula and adjacent Guatemala. It has no established English name, but both its Latin name and its appearance cries out for the name Maidenhair Serjania.

The Maya call it Buy-ak, and it's reported to be used medicinally for eye diseases.

*****

YUCATAN NAKEDWOOD FLOWERING
Back in 2010 we profiled the weak-stemmed bush or small tree called Nakedwood, COLUBRINA YUCATANENSIS, which at that time was laden with curious fruits looking like little black heads wearing low-pulled hats, as can be reviewed at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/colubrina.htm.

In 2010 the shrub was noticed too late in the season to photograph its flowers -- it was January -- but now in November I find Nakedwood producing small, dense panicles of greenish flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129cb.jpg.

Up close the individual flowers prove to be strange and beautiful, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129cc.jpg.

There you see two flowers, the lower one older than the top one. The flowers' triangular, green, petal-like appendages are sepals, or divisions of the calyxes. Between the sepal bases the stamens with their brown, pollen-filled anthers are nestled within scoop-shaped, green petals. Notice that on the lower flower the petals and stamens bend backwards but on the younger top flower they are erect, with the petals practically surrounding the stamens. The story here is that as the flowers mature, they first keep their stamens upright and hidden/protected by the scoop-shaped petals, but when the flowers are mature, the stamens bend over the flower's side and separate from the petals. This action not only shields the stamens until they are ready to shed pollen, but also puts the anthers in a position so that the pollen doesn't fall uselessly into the center of the flower.

In the top flower the golden-colored ring is a fleshy disc, typical of the Buckthorn Family, the Rhamnaceae, to which Nakedwood belongs. In the more mature lower flower I think the brown blotches are where an insect has nibbled at the disc.

On the same bush a few fruits already were maturing, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129cd.jpg.

The species Colubrina yucatanensis, wasn't recognized when I first profiled it in 2010. Since then, in 2013, Guy Nesom published "Taxonomic Notes on Colubrina (Rhamnaceae)" in the journal Phytoneuron, in which Colubrina yucatensis was raised to species level from being a mere variety of Colubrina greggii.

Our Yucatan Nakedwood as now conceived is endemic just to the Yucatan Peninsula and northern Guatemala. The "type specimen" -- the plant from which the species originally was described for science, was collected just a few hundred feet from the hut, beside the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá.

*****

COW-ITCH'S MALE FLOWERS
Back in 2009 we profiled Cow-Itch, URERA BACCIFERA, a stinging bush of the Nettle Family, the Urticaceae, growing next to the hut. You can see its big, easy-to-recognize leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129ur.jpg.

Cow-Itch is "dioecious," meaning that it comes in all-male and all-female plants. In 2009 I didn't notice any male plants, but this year there's one leaning into a trail I walk down almost daily, and its flowers are tiny and elegant, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129us.jpg.

In that picture, the five purple, scoop-shaped items are calyx lobes, or sepals, and each sepal has a stamen rising at its base. Notice how the stamens' filaments are almost transparent, and gracefully curve over the top of sepals' tops. By bending over the calyx the filaments keep pollen from the white anthers from falling inside the calyx-cup, where it would do no good. The flower wants its pollen to be scattered afar.

One of Cow-Itchs sharp, broad-based, stinging spines is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129ut.jpg.

Notice that spine's tip is transparent. Sometimes spine tips are transparent because they're hollow, containing irritating substances that make the spines sting. I'm only guessing that that's the case here.

The plants around the hut grow in a moist, shadowy spot, but I read that normally the species is intolerant of shade and dies back once taller trees grow over it. In fact, I've not seen it in more mature forest. I think that these next to the hut must be relics from when this area was cleared a few years ago, and they may be on the verge of dying back as the forest returns.

Cow-Itch is especially adapted for invading areas disturbed by fire, so it can be thought of as one of "Nature's first responders" after fire damage. Sometimes, I read, large areas of burned land is covered almost exculsively with Cow-Itch, in which case its fruits become an important food for wildlife such as small birds.

*****

PLUM LEAVES
Sometimes I sit in a rocking chair behind the hut reading beneath the plum tree. It's not a plum like we have up North, a member of the Rose Family, but rather a "Spanish Plum" of the Cashew or Sumac Family. Its leaves are pinnately compound, like a sumac's, with oblong leaflets about the size of peanut shells. It's a big tree and this week its yellow, dried-up leaves have been falling. You can see leaflets that fell onto a rocking chair vacated for just a few minutes at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/151129pl.jpg.

I'm unsure whether the leaflets are falling because the rainy season draws near or because every leaflet is infected with a leafspot fungus forming one or two brown spots fringed with green on the yellow leaflet surfaces. Mainly, it's afternoon breezes that make the leaflets shower, and when it happens you have to stop reading, look up, and watch.

In mid afternoon with the sun behind the tree, sunbeams fan down through mostly leafless, interlacing branches creating a special sense of three-dimensionality. Leaflets falling through those sunbeams compound the feeling. Gazing up through the falling leaflets, I seem to be sailing through space with stars passing all around.

Up North, lying beneath deciduous trees on sunny days in late October, I've experienced this sensation before. Nowadays, beneath the Spanish Plum, there's an added thought:

The spores in the infections on the falling leaflets are little more than hard shells protecting the fungus's genetic material. That genetic material bears encoded instructions on how the spore is to germinate and produce a new generation of leafspot fungus that will grow and infect next season's plum leaflets.

Of course, that's the way it is with all living things; we're all constructed according to instructions inherited in our genes.

Thinking about this, here's a point my mind catches on: That we living things are ephemeral, one-time phenomena who die after passing the age of reproduction, while the genetic information carried in the genes we pass along during reproduction goes on and on, ever replicating, steadily evolving and refining.

It almost seems unfair for the Universal Creative Impulse to treat genetic information as if it's sacred, while we living things are left to deal with such indignities as tooth decay, noisy neighbors, and dying. After all, the information can't even survive if we living things don't reproduce. Genetic information and living things are equal partners in this deal...

So, in a spiritual sense, what does all this mean? Should one focus on the majesty of the Universe and the beauty of life in general, or be angry about being an awareness with feelings inside a biological body programmed to deteriorate and die?

Beneath the plum tree, it seems that all kinds of opinions are valid, and in turn I've held many of them. And as falling leaves add an extra dimension to sunbeams filtering through tree branches, my sixty-eight years of experience texture the reply I have nowadays to, "What does all this mean... "

My reply today is to sit and rock a little bit longer.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Maya Energy," from the November 7, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/101107.htm

"Thinking about The New Year," from the December 27, 2009 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/091227.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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