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

January 17, 2016

THE GRACEFULLY SWIRLING RAT-TAILED MAGGOT
Two or three weeks ago I stuck cut branches of Shrub Lantana and Mexican Sunflower into a jar of water, hoping the woody stems would develop roots. As days passed the stems got mushy, the water turned dark, and though the branches continued to look fresh a green, no roots formed. However, a wonderland of aquatic insect larvae spawned in the murky water. Mostly there were mosquito larvae, but also swimming, spiraling, wiggling, thrashing critters of the like I've not seen outside the tropics, and which I still can't identify and tell you about.

The most eye-catching creature, though, was something that does occur up North, but usually in such putrid, disreputable waters that most folks never see them or know about them. You can see one from the jar, floating in my hand and about 2¼ inches long (6cm), at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117rt.jpg.

A close-up of the big end shows features we've observed in grubs, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117ru.jpg.

It's a Rat-tailed Maggot, the larva of a kind of hoverfly, a hoverfly being one of those innocent little flower-visiting flies that can hover in one spot. The ones I remember most from up North were yellow- and black-banded and often landed on sweating body parts, tickling the skin as they sopped up sweat with their round-ended mouthparts. Sometimes Rat-tailed Maggots turn up in birdbaths with water that hasn't been changed for awhile, and in rain gutters where water accumulates beneath leaves. Down here we have numerous hoverfly species, but I don't know which our Rat-tailed Maggot belongs to.

Rat-tailed Maggots are famous not only for their long tails but also because they can live in very oxygen-depleted waters thick with organic matter -- even saturated manure. This talent is possible because the tail is an extensible breathing siphon -- a snorkel -- through which the grub can breathe.

In the pot often I saw grubs anchor their thick front ends on degenerating plant stems an inch or two below the water, with their siphon tips extended to the water's surface, forming tiny dimples in the water's surface where air was being taken in. Other times the grubs swam through the water with swirling and jerking motions that would have looked clumsy had not the long tails, being somewhat stiff, waved about like conductor batons.

That long tail imparts such grace to the grub's movement that one can overlook that, in the end, we're dealing with what the English language disparages as a maggot.

*****

COWFOOT FLOWERING
In our area one of the easiest kinds of tree to identify is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117bh.jpg.

The unusual leaves, shaped like the prints of cow hoofs, are distinctive. If you recognize the flowers as those of the Bean Family, or Fabaceae, the hoof shape is even more surprising and diagnostic because the vast majority of Bean Family species produce compound leaves consisting of two to many leaflets, not just one blade with a notch in it, like these.

The hoof-shaped leaves tell us that we have a member of the genus Bauhinia, of which several species are listed for the Yucatan. We've already looked at the most commonly encountered species, Bauhinia divaricata, which is practically a roadside weed, shown with its white flowers and hoof-shaped leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/bauhinia.htm.

Back in Querétaro we saw another Bauhinia, one from southern Asia planted throughout the world's tropics for its pretty flowers, which you can compare http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/bauhin-1.htm.

Our present species is BAUHINIA UNGULATA, also fairly common in our area, but not as weedy or bushy as Bauhinia divaricata. Neither species has a good English name but in Spanish both are called Pata de Vaca, or Cowfoot. Our present Bauhinia ungulata is generally distributed throughout tropical America. Most trees I see are about eight feet tall (2.5m). The binomial, Bauhinia ungulata, was first published by Linneaus himself back in 1753, in his historic Species Plantarum.

The online Atlas de las Plantas de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana reports that in central Mexico a tea is brewed from the tree's roots to deal with diarrhea, and also the species is used against intestinal worms and as a purgative.

*****

ASIAN SPIDERFLOWER
As I biked toward Pisté to buy bananas a weed beside the road caught my attention because it was the only plant growing in loose gravel dumped there just a few weeks ago when they widened the highway. With the advent of the dry season, some morning glories who had grown onto the area were dead from lack of rain, but this weed -- obviously a tough one with fast-growing, deep roots -- looked positively perky, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117cl.jpg.

Up closer the trifoliate leaves looked like they belonged in the Bean Family, and the yellow flowers at first glance could have been those of the big genus Senna, plus the slender, upward-pointing fruits could have been legumes, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117cm.jpg.

Up closer still, the bilaterally symmetrical corolla kept reminding me of Senna, but the green vegetative parts turned out to be heavily invested with sticky, gland-tipped hairs, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117cn.jpg.

Of all the Bean Family members we've run across through the years, I couldn't remember any with such sticky hairs. The side petals of a flower were removed to see what the sexual parts looked like, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117co.jpg.

Bean Family flowers often have ten stamens with their filaments united into a cylinder around the style, but this blossom contains more than ten stamens and their filaments aren't connected. Also, once I touched the plant, the air around me was suffused with a powerful medicinal odor unlike any I've encountered in the Bean Family. This was not a member of the Bean Family.

A close look at the fruits confirmed this. Bean Family legumes normally are flatish, and open along one margin to release the beans. This plant's fruits were round in cross-section and marked with many tiny ridges running its length. You can see the fruit's ridges and gland-tipped hairs at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117cp.jpg.

Once the Bean Family was rejected, I finally remembered that here we've encountered something with fruits more or less like these, the very hairy, medicinal African Spiderflower, Cleome gynandra, profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/african.htm.

Checking to see if other Cleome species were listed for the Yucatan, I was led to our plant: It's CLEOME VISCOSA, known by many names, including Asian Spiderflower, Wild Mustard, Yellow Cleome and Tickweed. Native to southeastern Asia and Africa, one reason for its many names is its large distribution area, being invasive from the US south through Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean area.

Our roadside Asian Spiderflower's strong medicinal smell had prepared me for finding that the plant is recognized worldwide for its healing properties.

In fact, in a 2004 study by RR Jane and SD Patil, entitled "Cleome viscosa: An Effective Medicinal Herb for Otitis Media," we're told that the whole herb is used in treatment of inflammation of the middle ear, or Otitis Media, and applied on wounds and ulcers. Asian Spiderflower's leaves and seeds also are used to treat infections, fever and headache. Otitis Media is recognized as the leading cause of death in critically ill patients in developing countries.

A tea of the plant is used as an expectorant and to stimulate digestion, and steam off water in which the whole plant is being boiled is inhaled to treat headaches. Other uses are described as well. The whole paper, in PDF format, can be freely downloaded on the Internet.

So, what are you to think of an aggressive weed from Asia invading our area, offering these cures in a world where most people can't afford commercial medicines?

For my part, I was glad to meet the plant and as soon as the fruits ripen I plan to collect seeds to have plants ready for my regular bouts with middle ear infections when the rainy season returns.

By the way, though most authorities refer to our plant as Cleome viscosa, the Flora of North America lists it as Arivela viscosa. It's a member of the newly erected Spiderwort Family, the Cleomaceae.

*****

URVILLEA VINE
On the highway into Pisté a vine bearing conspicuous clusters of something greenish yellow dangled in front of the red-dirt face of a roadcut. It was something I hadn't noticed before, so I circled the bike back and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117uv.jpg.

In our area, if you see a vine with compound leaves and bladdery fruits, you need to think "Soapberry Family, Sapindaceae," and we have that here. However, in the American tropics this is a fair-sized family and several genera and species are listed for the Yucatan.

With seeds suspended inside the winged bladders, we can guess that the fruit is designed for wind dissemination. A closer look at some fruits is provided at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117uw.jpg.

The main leaves, which are somewhat wilted nowadays because of the dry season's arrival, consist of three leaflets, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117ux.jpg.

The leaflets must have reminded Carl Sigismud Kunth of members of the Elm Family, the Ulmaceae, for he named this vine URVILLEA ULMACEA, and it just doesn't have a good English name, so "Urvillea Vine" is about the best we can do.

Though the species is widely distributed from southern Texas throughout Mexico and Central America into South America, and the Caribbean region as well, not much documentation is available about it. It seems to be one of those quiet little species that seldom draws attention to itself until one day one of its stems falls across the face of a red roadcut, presenting its yellowish fruits as if on a platter awaiting recognition.

*****

RED ROSE, BLUE DOOR
Having biked to Pisté to buy fruit, I decided to wander around town looking for interesting plants in people's yards. On the north side of town a long-neglected rosebush beside an abandoned building with a faded blue door caught my eye. shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117ro.jpg.

In a town where many folks live in small, unpainted cinderblock houses or huts, at one time this home with a substantial blue door and concrete balustrade must have been one of the best in town, and one wonders what its story is. Even the rosebush is something special, because roses are temperate plants, seldom seen in the tropics, except at higher, cooler elevations.

I couldn't penetrate the house's mystery, but I figured I had a chance with the rose. Who was that rose cultivar who was able to survive the Yucatan's heat and punishing dry seasons?

The single flower yielded several important field marks. First, it was fairly small, about two inches (5cm) broad, a "double" blossom in which sexual parts have developed into petals, and the color was pure "rose"color fading to white, with no hint of yellowness, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117rr.jpg.

A side view shows that the green sepals below the corolla bear long, slender tips, and are velvety-white on their inner surfaces, at shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117rq.jpg.

The smallish compound leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117rp.jpg.

There we see that the typical leaf is composed of five leaflets, with leaflet margins bearing many small teeth -- they're "finely serrate." Also, the stems are mostly smooth, lacking bristles, with only a few scattered thick-based, curved spines on the older stems. At the picture's top, a little right of center, you see the shape of another leaf's "stipules" at the base of a petiole. Among roses, stipule size, shape and margin condition -- smooth to deeply segmented -- is important for identification, and this cultivar has well formed, distinctive ones.

Another very important field mark used in technical identification of roses is whether the flower's styles -- the "necks" connecting the ovaries with the stigmas where pollen germinates -- emerge well beyond the blossom's mouth, or whether they knot together at the mouth to form a dense, head-like "stopper." Breaking apart a blossom across the mouth revealed what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117rs.jpg.

In that picture, the red, curved items are the styles, and they manifestly extend beyond the mouth, but they gather into a loose tangle instead of forming a firm, cauliflower-like column of styles as often is seen in other rose flowers. Because they're red, I'm guessing that the tangling is what happens when flowers undergo the genetic trauma associated with making them double -- turning sexual parts into petals. The red styles are tending toward red petals.

With the styles poking well beyond the mouth, the stamens with their brown anthers about the same length as the styles, the stipules looking as they do, leaves with five leaflets, and the plants growing upright instead of creeping, my old Baileys Manual of Cultivated Plants," which has a good Rose section, leads me straight to Rosa setigera. That sounds about right, because Rosa setigera, sometimes called the Prairie Rose, is an old cultivar frequently planted, and fairly tough.

Our bush's appearance differs in some points from Rosa setigera as presented on the Internet -- has much fewer spines, for example -- but  we know we have a cultivar here with its genes scrambled, because it's a "double" blossom with petals where sexual parts should be, and probably it's a hybrid, to boot, so you'd expect deviations from the standard species.

In the long run, such a pretty, red rose in front of a blue door in such an unexpected place doesn't need to have its pedigree understood to give us pleasure just in the looking at it.

*****

MORNING CAMPFIRE
In 1988 when I wrote Spring Comes to the Desert Southwest -- still online at http://www.backyardnature.net/desert/ -- I quickly learned that in the desert daytime temperatures may soar, then at dusk plummet for a really cold night. Atmospheric humidity acts as a buffer against temperature extremes.

Nowadays here in the Yucatan at the beginning of the dry season it's getting to be the same. Afternoons with temperatures in the low 90s can alternate with nights when I'm glad to have a well insulated sleeping bag. And glad, when I return from my predawn jogs, for a breakfast campfire to sit by.

For, there's something transcendent about a campfire on a chilly morning. Maybe it's because as we humans evolved we were intimately involved with campfires, the fires frightening off predators, sanitizing and making edible our food, and warming us. Moreover, for millions of years campfires were the most tangible proof we humans had that we might be something different from everything around us, for only we of all the animals of savanna and forest could domesticate fire.

In fact, sometimes I think that campfires have been so important to human evolution that maybe we're genetically predisposed to feel the special sense of ease and satisfaction that I feel on these chilly mornings next to the fire. Maybe the feeling is adaptive, to encourage us to go to the trouble of making the fires.

When a well-built campfire is burning, flames all around at the fire's edge bend inward as air sweeps in to be heated and shot upward in the fire's center, toward the pot's bottom. This in-sucking process reminds me of the Maya belief that at nightfall the many forms of energy that have collected on the land during the day begin converging on the Maya hut. As people fall asleep inside the hut, the day's gathering energies surge up the hut's walls, and the roof's sloping sides focus them at the comb. At the roof's peak the energies concentrate to such an intensity that they discharge into the sky, carrying with them the spirits of sleepers inside the hut. Our dreams are our experiences in far-away places, times and dimensions, where these wandering energies scatter us.

Maybe the well-built campfire sucking in air from all around, heating it and shooting it upward inspired this beautiful concept incorporating the hut, energy and human dreaming; maybe the campfire was the subconscious model around which the dream-travel belief formed.

If the campfire is a metaphor for the Maya belief in dream-travel, then these words and the thoughts flickering in your own mind as you digest what I'm saying and filter them through your own way of seeing things -- are metaphors of same.

In fact, the campfire frame of mind can accept that everything is a metaphor for everything else, and when you reach that insight you can just keep sitting and sitting, staring into the flames.

A picture of such a campfire moment in the hut can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160117cf.jpg.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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