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

May 1, 2016

*****

MAYAN BULL-HORN ACACIA
On April 13th on my walk up the little paved road leading into the Lacandon village of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve, right at the road's edge where a bridge crossed the Lacanja River on the town's north side, a four-meter-tall (13ft) bull-horn acacia turned up looking like no other acacia I'd ever seen. Its big thorns, ferny leaves and flower spikes are on display at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501ac.jpg

This is a kind of bull-horn acacia. In the Yucatan we have plenty of bull-horn acacias but the Yucatan's species produce thorns that are round in cross section, not broad-based and "winged,"like these. You can take a closer look at a pair of this tree's amazing thorns at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501ad.jpg

With such winged spines I knew we had something interesting, so I photographed other details that might be important for identification purposes. For example, there were glands along the compound leaves' rachises, maybe for the production of an edible substance for the very aggressive biting ants living in the hollow thorns -- typical for the bull-horn acacias -- and those are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501ae.jpg

Later I sent the above pictures to Dr. Wolf-Achim Roland in Solingen, Germany, who produces a fine website on the world's Acacias. We're friends despite his being one of those specialists encouraging the breakup of the old, famous genus Acacia into small, hard-to-remember genera. He quickly replied that our Chiapas tree is Vachellia mayana, which we who hesitate to abandon the noble genus Acacia still call ACACIA MAYANA. The species has no English name but I don't think anyone will object if we call it the Maya Bull-horn Acacia.

Acacia mayana is endemic just to that part of Mexico stretching from southern Veracruz State on the Gulf of Mexico, through Oaxaca and Chiapas into part of lowland northern Guatemala, the Petén area. It's described as one of the rarer ant-acacias, one specializing in lowland wet forest and forest margins. Therefore, our pictures and notes are likely to make acacia enthusiasts very happy.

One final note worth mentioning is that I read that Acacia mayana produces a large supply of Beltian bodies, which are yellow, protein-rich packets attached to leaflets, serving as ant food. They're shown and described on another bull-horn acacia page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/acacia-t.htm

The literature says that on developing leaves of Acacia mayana nearly all leaflets contain Beltian bodies, and these bodies are usually about 2 mm long and up to 0.8 mm wide, which is much larger than what we've seen on our Yucatan acacias. Our Acacia mayana was flowering in the heart of Chiapas's dry season, the tree bore no developing leaves, and none of its old ones bore Beltian bodies.

*****

BIG PICA-PICA PODS
On April 14th as I hiked small gravel backroads around Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve, one of the most eye-catching roadside plants was a dry-season-leafless vine whose foot-long pods hang on long peduncles from trees, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501mc.jpg

You can better judge how large those pods are in a close-up of one in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501md.jpg

At the very moment the above picture was snapped, behind me on the road a little Lacandon girl seemed to materialize out of nowhere, saying ""You shouldn't touch that, because it has tiny, sharp hairs that come off, stick into your skin and won't come out, so that you'll itch a lot." She's on the right, beside her little sister, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424le.jpg

The moment I heard this I realized what kind of plant we had. It's a viny member of the Bean Family, so the big fruits are legumes. Moreover, it's the genus Mucuna, whose various species often go by the name of Pica-Pica, the name based on the Spanish verb picar, of which one meaning is "to prick," as in "stick into your skin," as the little girl said. Around the hut at Hacienda Chichen in the Yucatan there lots of prickly Pica-Pica legumes hang from the trees and I'm always having to tell tourists not to touch them. I didn't recognize these Chiapan Pica-Pica legumes because they're old with most of the hairs fallen off, and they're so big. You can see the four-inch-long (10 cm) Pica-Pica pods I'm used to -- and Pica-Pica hairs sticking into my skin -- at the bottom of our Pica-Pica page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mucuna-p.htm

This big-podded Pica-Pica is MUCUNA ARGYROPHYLLA, distributed from southern Mexico -- except in the arid Yucatan -- south to Guatemala and El Salvador. It favors humid forests and disturbed areas where its woody stems climb into the tops of tall trees, sometimes covering them, like Kudzu in the US Southeast. Pica-Pica leaves are trifoliate and in fact look a bit like Kudzu leaves.

Because of its weediness, irritating (but not stinging) hairs, and reports of cattle getting sick from eating its leaves, this Pica-Pica isn't much appreciated by country folks, except those taking advantage of traditional medicine.

For the online Biblioteca Digital de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana reports that the vine's big seeds, which are a little similar to a human eye, are used to protect against the evil eye, which seems to afflict an amazing number of backcountry folks. For hemorrhoids, you need a "male" seed and a "female"one -- a concept fundamentally at odds with Western botanical concepts. To determine which seeds are of which sex, put them into water. Males float while females sink.

*****

STIZOPHYLLUM TRUMPET-FLOWER VINE
On April 14th as I wandered gravel roads around the Lacandon village of Lacanja Chansay in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve, a common woody vine, or liana, was producing conspicuous white flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501sp.jpg

You can see that the leaves are opposite -- two arising at each stem node -- and compound, each leaf consisting of two broad leaflets that are shallowly lobed at their bases. When you have a woody vine with opposite, compound leaves and large flowers with tubular corollas like these, you just have to think it's a member of the Trumpet-Creeper Family, the Bignoniaceae. A close-up of the blossom from the front is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501sq.jpg

Despite the Trumpet-Creeper Family being a large one in the humid American tropics, this vine's distinctive features made it easy to identify as STIZOPHYLLUM RIPARIUM, a fairly common species from southern Mexico through all of Central America and most of humid, lowland South America. It has no good English name so our "Stizophyllum Trumpet-Flower Fine" is a cobbled-together one, many species in the family being generally known as trumpet-flowers or trumpet-vines.

Traditionally Stizophyllum riparium has been used extensively in basket-making, the stems appreciated for having strong fibers that, when the stems are moistened, are easily extracted, and pliable.

*****

THE VENERABLE STAR BEGONIA
On the sides of weedy roadcuts around the Lacandon village of Lacanja Chansay in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve, weeds grow that you'd never see in the much more arid northern Yucatan Peninsula. One such rain-loving plant is shown in a picture taken this April 13th at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501bn.jpg

With those pinkish flowers in panicles atop a long, leafless, succulent stem, or peduncle, and lopsided leaves issuing from the peduncle's base, anyone familiar with the North's favorite potted plants will recognize this as a begonia, genus Begonia.

As begonias go, this species' big, asymmetrical, deeply lobed leaves are unusual, and distinctive. A close-up of one is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501bq.jpg

Begonias flowers are unisexual, with both sexes found on each individual plant, so begonias are "monoecious." You can see a male blossom consisting of two rounded, pinkish-white petals subtending a cluster of yellow stamens at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501bo.jpg

Our begonia keeps from pollinating itself by having its female flowers mature at a different time from its male ones. Our plant's female flowers had already shed their petals and were bearing immature fruits on slender stipes, each fruit with one of its three wings much larger than the other two, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501br.jpg

Where the panicles branched, unusually large, conspicuous, rosy-colored bracts arose, looking like a woman's painted fingernails, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501bp.jpg

With the genus Begonia holding over 1,600 recognized species, it's considered the sixth-largest genus of all flowering plants -- of all angiosperms. However, with such distinctive features, our Lacandon Begonia was easy to identify as BEGONIA HERACLEIFOLIA, at least in older literature sometimes known as the Star Begonia, because of its leaf shape. Star Begonia is native to southern Mexico and parts of Central America.

I call this the "venerable" Star Begonia because of its history as an ancestor of many important begonia cultivars commercially grown today. Among potted begonia cultivars, because of complex histories of hybridization and other horticultural tricks, many cultivars can't be recognized as having any particular wild begonia species as an ancestor. Many of those cultivars have some or a lot of our Star Begonia's genes in them. Probably one reason Star Begonias are chosen for hybridization with other species is that they are so robust, their flowering peduncles reportedly sometimes reaching 12 feet high (3.7m). Ours stood only about waist high.

The American Begonia Society's page on the species, addressing members who might want to collect seeds, advises that "...pollination is tricky as male pollen must be saved to use on the females which appear well after all the males have fallen off the cluster."

This observation is in conflict with our wild plant, which bore immature fruit at the same time it had male flowers. My guess is that Chiapas's wild plants may enjoy more than one flowering/fruiting season a year.

The Begonia Society's page also says that "All varieties of B. heracleifolia have a rest period that seems independent of any season or calendar.

The Begonia Society's Star Begonia page can be freely downloaded in PDF format at http://www.begonias.org/monthly/heracleifolia.pdf

*****

BREADNUT
In Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve, some Lacandon homes in the village of Lacanja Chansayab have Breadnut trees standing next to them. You can see their thick, leathery, deeply incised leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501bf.jpg

Late April is the heart of the dry season in Chiapas, which explains why in the picture the tree's lower leaves are turning brown and falling off. This vulnerability to drought also explains why the tree is seen only rarely in the much drier Yucatan. Toward branch tips in the above picture you can make out some very immature breadnut fruits, a close-up of a couple being at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160501bg.jpg

Breadnut fruits are spiny-looking because they're "multiple fruits," meaning that many "simple" flowers have grown together as their ovaries matured and enlarged, forming a single thing that looks like one prickly fruit. Each of the Breadnut "fruit's" many green prickles represents a single "real" Breadnut flower, of which hundreds constitute a single "multiple fruit."

Breadnut trees, ARTOCARPUS CAMANSI, are native to New Guinea and thereabouts, from which people distributed them throughout the Pacific area so that now they are planted in the humid tropics worldwide. Not only are its big, starchy fruits good to eat when roasted, baked, fried or boiled, but also its wood is strong enough for constructing buildings, and the "nuts," or seeds, are eaten roasted and in other ways {See next entry}.

Jackfruit trees, Artocarpus heterophyllus, produce somewhat similar fruits but their leaves are not deeply lobed. Breadfruit trees, Artocarpus altilis, are very similar, but the fruits are smaller and aren't as prickly looking. Some experts believe that Breadfruit may be derived from Breadnut trees.

Also, this Breadnut tree shouldn't be confused with another Breadnut, sometimes called Ramón, Bosimum alicastrum, in the same family, and which are native and common in the drier Yucatan. That Breadnut is profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ramon.htm

This is a good example of the fact that if you want to get all these names straight you just have to use the technical binomial names.

*****

BEETHOVEN BIRD
As the day's last light faded, already I was in the dark hut beneath the mosquito net drifting off. Then, just a few feet the other side of the hut's pole walls a Turdus grayi -- what we used to call the Clay-colored Robin but which new field guides usually name Clay-colored Thrush -- began calling, and of course his voice rang through the openings between wall poles. It's the time of year for Clay-colored Thrushes to call, though, and at dusk they always sing with passion. Our page on the interesting species is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/turdgray.htm

What caught my attention was that this particular bird was a virtuoso singer. He sang with extraordinary vitality and enthusiasm, his long phrases of effervescent, fluty chortlings with certain notes echoic, or pure, or bending upwards or downwards, all interspersed with saucy clicks and smacks, and some passages decidedly seeming to ask a question, while others purred in tones seeming to say, "I know... I know... "

The longer he sang, the more astonished I was that not only could he conjure prettily contrasting notes and phrases but also convey what struck me as feelings or emotional states. Once, after sounding sweetly melancholy he broke into loud disharmony, followed by what distinctly reminded me of Beethoven ending a pastoral passage with something like a tonic donkey's bray erupting into roaring, bouncing hee-haws evoking the donkey on a pogo-stick, head thrown back, ears flopping, buck-teeth un-lipped.

The next evening I paid attention to all the Clay-colored Thrushes as they sang, and was struck by how distinctive each bird's call was. Some singers were singularly unimaginative and unenthusiastic, while others were inventive but not convincing, like a kid pounding on a grand piano. Some were fairly good overall, but not spectacular. And then, at the same moment as the night before, Beethoven bird appeared again, and now, having heard such mediocrity, his artfulness was even more transfixing.

But, is it right to think of a bird as capable of artfulness? Couldn't this genius be genetically programmed, with all Clay-colored Thrushes being capable of Beethovenish outpourings, but only with practice? Maybe our Beethoven was simply the oldest bird in the community.

But, even if this genius singing is genetically coded in the species, and Beethoven Bird really feels nothing special as he sings, what about the mere fact that the genetic coding in this bird produces something that inspires a human mind, and impresses with its excellence? Doesn't that suggest something noteworthy and maybe a bit comforting about the creative but otherwise utterly impersonal impulse causing all things to be, in the first place, including us?

Beneath the mosquito net in the dark little hut I heard Clay-colored Thrushes sing and sing, and also the Turqouise-browed Motmot croaking, and Great-tailed Grackles delivering the last of their day's dissonances, and I came to no conclusion about it all, at all.

*****

VACUUM CLEANERS
On Thursday a poem drifted in from Paul in São Paulo. It was Bob Hicok's "My Most Recent Position Paper," which you can Google.

The poem suggests the possibility of applauding little specks of sunlight that succeed in fighting their way to the forest floor, and reminds us that "this is a world made by volcanoes."

The poem, and Paul's sending it to me, put me into my own poetic mood, one hitching a ride on the frame of mind from which sprang this week's Beethoven Bird piece touching on genes and feelings. On the bike ride between the laundry room of #18 where I do my Internetting and the hut, the following poem wrote itself in my mind:

I wrote her a love poem
and signed it
God. She said signing it so
was a little pretentious but
I said, no, just the other way around,
for,
this powerful feeling, this sweetness our
coming together this desire and
yearning and planning and contentedness
all is
programmed.
We beings are just vessels through which
God channels and manifests Her own
creative impulses in this world of things,
the way electricity enlivens
vacuum cleaners, and she said,
oh.

It's a fine thing, how someone can write a poem, and someone else can pass it on, maybe inspiring poetizing of some sort even someplace else, on and on.

But, does this current tendril having found its way to your screen right now cease its journey here?

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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