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

MAY 22, 2016

*****

STRANGLER FIG
Eight fig species -- members of the genus Ficus -- are listed as native to the Yucatan, so at the Hacienda I've been waiting for a very conspicuous one next to the entry road to fruit so I could identify it. This week when suddenly this tree's branches grew animated with birds hopping from branch to branch, I was delighted, for the birds were feeding on the figs I've been waiting for. Each afternoon my 4PM walk of the garden visits this very tree because it's one of the main attractions. You can see the noble and strange species' trunk and lower limbs at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522fi.jpg

The trunk is formed from many fused-together aerial roots. A close-up showing how these individual "root-stems" intertwine, eventually grafting together and merging where they touch, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522fj.jpg

The same process taking place with larger stems and branches can been seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522fn.jpg

Remarkable as this is, several fig species produce such mutually grafting stems, so to identify this one I had to pay close attention to the leaves and fruits. A typical branch showing numerous pea-sized figs closely clustering along a stem, with mature figs turning red at maturity, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522fk.jpg

A flash-assisted shot from below shows the leaves' bases extending a little back from their points of attachment with the petioles -- the leaf bases are "chordate" -- and that the leaves' five or so pairs of veins join near the blades' margins, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522fl.jpg

Finally, a handful of the long-awaited, small, red figs is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522fm.jpg

The leaves' long petioles, the few pairs of veins (5-8), the figs' lack of any stalk, and their red color at maturity all lead to the name FICUS COTINIFOLIA. Local people tend to call our tree a Laurel, though it's not a laurel, or Alamo, which elsewhere usually means "poplar," or even Encino, though usually that means "oak." When I call it a fig tree, an higo, I lose all credibility here, so I just share my plant thoughts with visitors. In English, about the best we can do is to call our Hacienda tree a Strangler Fig, though that's a general name applied to all fig species demonstrating this tree's growth form.

By the way, how can you know that this is a fig and not a poplar, laurel or oak? Two important field marks are that the tree's leaves and stems exude milky latex when wounded, and that the woody stems are encircled by stipule scars or "rings" at every leaf node. However, at this season the main proof is that the trees are loaded with figs, and figs are such unusual fruiting bodies that they can't be confused with anything else. A cut-open fig from our Ficus cotinifolia is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522fp.jpg

The extraordinary thing about a fig is that it's not really a fruit. Rather, it's a platform, or "receptacle," bearing many mixed unisexual flowers and/or fruits on one side. The receptacle curves upon itself, forming a ±spherical "synconium," with flowers and fruits on its inside surface. Each of those grainy things inside the cut-open synconium in the above picture is a flower or true fig fruit.

Part of the amazing story of strangler figs is that fig seeds often are deposited on tree limbs well off the ground. There the seed germinates and for awhile the plant lives as an epiphyte, taking water and nutrients from what's available aboveground, like most bromeliads and many orchids and aroids. The epiphyte strangler sends slender aerial roots toward the ground. When these roots penetrate the ground and gain access to more water and nutrients, explosive growth of the plant takes place, the roots enlarge, encircle the host-tree's trunk, the fig grows above its host, overshadowing it, and slowly the strangler fig "strangles" its host by out-competing it for resources. Eventually the strangler stands where the host once stood, its trunk looking like that of a regular tree. It's an amazing story.

How does the fig seed get onto a host tree's branch? Often it's explained that seeds stick to bird beaks and when the birds fly to other trees to clean off their bills the seeds are planted then. That's probably true, but I suspect that the most common travel mode is displayed in a picture of an Elephant Ear's leaf below the Hacienda tree, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522fo.jpg

The leaf is covered with bird poop full of Ficus cotinifolia seeds, and trees and shrubs throughout the vicinity are similarly ornamented.

Ficus cotinifolia occurs throughout most of tropical, humid Mexico and continues south to Costa Rica. It occupies a variety of habitats, from pine forests to coastal dunes and mangroves, to secondary forests, and as such displays much variability in its appearance.

The figs of Ficus cotinifolia, despite how birds and other critters crave them, are so small and tasteless that people don't bother eating them. However, the tree's milky latex has been used in traditional medicine against asthma and intestinal parasites. In ancient times the Maya used the tree's soft inner bark for making "amate" paper. The Maya books burned by the invading Spaniards mostly were made from this tree.

*****

A PARK TREE FIG
A couple of weeks ago I accompanied Hacienda guests as they visited San Bernadino Convent in Valladolid about 45 minutes east of the Hacienda. With the mid-day sun bearing down very hard, our little red rental car was parked beneath a nice shade tree at the edge of the plaza in front of the convent, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522f2.jpg

While the guests toured the convent, I wandered the area looking for interesting plants. One of them was the very tree we'd parked below. It was a fig tree, but I wasn't sure which one. Fortunately, it bore figs. You can see the tree's interesting leaves, which unlike most other fig leaves gradually diminish to a point -- they're "attenuate" -- while curving under and to one side, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522f3.jpg

The figs also were a bit unusual, arising directly from the stem with no stalk, and greenish-yellow with rose-colored spots, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522f4.jpg

Eight native fig species are listed for the Yucatan, and another eight are listed as introduced ornamental or horticultural species sometimes grown in Mexico. Since I already could identify about half of those possibilities, I figured I had a good chance of identifying our street-side fig in Valladolid. Another reason for my confidence was that recently I've downloaded from the Internet the excellent "El Género FICUS L. (Moraceae) en México," a 2012 work by Guillermo Ibarra-Manríquez and others, appearing in Botanical Sciences. That work provides excellent Spanish descriptions and technical drawings of each of Mexico's 22 or so native fig species, and can be freely downloaded from http://www.scielo.org.mx/pdf/bs/v90n4/v90n4a4.pdf

However, none of the 22 native Mexican species, and none of the eight introduced species, matched our Valladolid tree...

Still, I have a strong hunch what it is, and here I'm going to file it under that name, just to see if anyone can come up with anything better.

I think it's probably one of Mexico's 22 native species, FICUS CITRIFOLIA, a widely distributed, fairly common species occupying many habitats from upland pine forests to tropical deciduous and evergreen lowland forests, to secondary growth, from Florida in the US and most of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America, through out most of tropical South America. It's known as an extremely variable species, and that's part of what bolsters my confidence in the name.

The main problem with the ID is that the figs of Ficus citrifolia are described as produced on little stalks, while our tree's figs very clearly arise directly from the woody branches. Also, most pictures show this species' figs as reddish with white spots, not yellow-green with red spots, as with ours.

However, not many species have leaves with such long-pointed tips that curl below and to one side. Also, the wrong colors for the figs and their lack of stalks may come about because they're immature. Besides, if our tree isn't Ficus citrifolia, there just doesn't seem to be another species coming close to it.

*****

PURPLE ORCHID TREE HYBRID
For over a month a Purple Orchid Tree has been blossoming prettily in the Hacienda's back lawn, easily visible from the restaurant. You can see two of its bright, rose-colored, three-inch-long flowers (8cm) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522bh.jpg

Seeing the flowers, I remembered our first encounter with Purple Orchid Trees back in Querétaro in north-central Mexico, in 2007. Purple Orchid Trees are Bauhinia viriegata of the Bean Family, and on our page for the species you can see its big, purple flower and its cow-hoof-shaped leaves -- typical of the genus Bauhinia -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/bauhin-1.htm

But, here at the Hacienda, week after week I've been watching this beautifully flowering tree, with a growing feeling that something curious was going on. You can see what struck me as strange at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522bg.jpg

Back in Querétaro orchid trees had a reputation for being very pretty during flowering season, but later when they were heavy with their crop of brown, legume-type fruits, a bit scraggly. In the above picture we see long racemes on which several flowers have opened, then fallen off, never resulting in a legume. A "normal" orchid tree having produced so many flowers by now would bear a prodigious crop of fruits. I figured I'd better check on this, so I got a picture clearly showing our Hacienda tree's leaf shape and venation, for when I "did the botany." The leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522bf.jpg

It turns out that our Hacienda tree is a sterile hybrid between two of the most planted Bauhinia trees, Bauhinia purpurea and Bauhinia variegata. The first such hybrid appeared over a hundred years ago in a garden in Hong Kong. It was cultivated in the Hong Kong Botanical Garden, and in 1908 a specimen from there was introduced to science under the name BAUHINIA x BLAKEANA, honoring Sir Henry Arthur Blake and his wife; Sir Henry was the British governor of Hong Kong from 1898 to 1903, and a supporter of the Hong Kong Botanical Garden. Soon "Blake's Hybrid Orchid Tree" was planted throughout the tropics worldwide, its main attraction being long-term flowering resulting in no messy legumes.

Both parent species of Bauhinia x blakeana are native to southeastern Asia. The gorgeous hybrid caused such a stir in Hong Kong that it was adopted as the emblem for Hong Kong, and made its way onto the Hong Kong flag. The early flag's blossom halfway looked like a Bauhinia flower but the new communist one is so stylized that it could be any number of flower types, as you can see at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Hong_Kong.

And one just wonders what chain of events and intermediaries brought the pretty little tree here to the Hacienda's backyard.

*****

HORSE BALLS TREE
This April 14th as I wandered along backroads in the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve in extreme southeastern Mexico, one of the most eye-catching plants was what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522hv.jpg

Those are paired fruits on a mostly dry-season-leafless tree about 15 feet tall (5m). I was especially glad to see these fruits because back in the mid-1970s when I served as a naturalist on Maya-ruin-visiting boat trips in Guatemala's Petén Department -- just across the Usumacinta River from where I now was in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve -- this little tree was one of the few I could identify for the tourists. And that was because of the fruits, which are about the size of eggs.

In fact, the name the backcountry Guatemalans taught me for the tree was Huevo de Caballo, translating literally to "Horse Eggs," though everyone knew to translate "eggs" to "testicles." Sometimes the tree also is called Cojones de Burro, but that just means Burro Balls, the same thing, and also there's Cojón de Gato (Cat Balls). People here just can't look at the tree without thinking "testicles." Furthermore, in this culture men don't have balls; they have eggs, and the concept is so pervasive and potent that the polite shopper doesn't walk into a shop and ask for huevos, the dictionary definition for eggs, but for blanquillos, meaning "little white things."

When you have paired capsular fruits like those in our picture, the first plant family to come to mind is the big Dogbane or Hemp Family, the Apocynaceae, and that's where the Horse Balls tree resides. It's STEMMADENIA DONNELL-SMITHII, found from southern Mexico and Belize south to Panama.

The Dogbane Family is a big one, and one feature many of its species have is that they're filled with milky white latex. Most plants exuding white latex traditionally are considered medicinal and/or poisonous, and that's the case with Stemmadenia donnell-smithii. The latex has been used to reduce swellings, cure external tumors, and in neighboring Quintana Roo people have been seen daubing the white latex over the breathing holes of parasites that burrow into the skin, suffocating them and making them easier to expel. Chemically, the tree's latex has been shown to contain a number of powerful alkaloids.

*****

YELLOW JACOBINIA
About a month ago, on April 14th, in the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve in extreme southeastern Mexico, when I entered the forest near the campground where I stayed, a shoulder-high bush occupying the forest's shadowy understory was resplendent with terminal clusters of two-inch long (5cm), yellow blossoms, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522ju.jpg

A close-up of some of its curve-tubed, two-lipped blossoms is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522jv.jpg

Each flower bore only two stamens, which were attached to the corolla tube -- not arising from below the ovary, as often is the case.

Though this was something new for me, several similar species with clusters of bright, two-lipped flowers bearing either two or four stamens instead of the expected five have been identified, so from the first it was clear that this was a member of the large, mostly tropical Acanthus Family. Such a large, showy species was bound to have been taken into cultivation, and this helped with the identification process: I just did a Google image search on the keywords "Acanthaceae yellow Mexico," and on the first one or two pages of thumbnails, there it was.

It's the Yellow Jacobinia, JUSTICIA AUREA. Earlier the species was assigned to the genus Jacobinia, which accounts for the English name. Sometimes it's also called Yellow Justicia. It's native from Mexico to Panama.

Garden shops up north market it as an evergreen shrub reaching ten feet high (3m) and blooming year-round, preferring light shade, and hardy down to the freezing point. Most Internet pictures of the species growing in gardens shows larger plants than ours, with much ltaller clusters of flowers. I guess that happens under cultivation, or maybe they're cultivars. Our Yellow Jacobinias were wild plants, though, competing with all other organisms in that environment for limited resources, so it's amazing that the plants looked as robust as they did.

*****

COCKLESHELL ORCHID
In mid April when I was in the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve in extreme southeastern Mexico, beside the informal little family campground where I pitched my tent, a Lacandon lady maintained a shady little spot where she hung orchids among tree limbs and planted colorful ornamentals. The orchids were species found in the surrounding woods. She must have sprayed the area regularly with a water hose because most of the orchids were flowering, despite its being the heart of the dry season. You can see one of the orchids growing on the trunk of a tree at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522cc.jpg

An important field mark shown in this picture is that the orchid's ten-inch-long (25cm) leaves arise from atop green, pear-shaped, somewhat flattened "pseudobulbs," which are modified stem segments. In areas with long dry seasons, orchids with pseudobulbs may lose their leaves during the dry months, its pseudobulbs storing water, and then when the rainy season comes -- or even a little before -- new leaves sprout atop the pseudobulbs. Some groups of orchids have pseudobulbs and others don't.

Up close, the flowers -- which are about three inches across (8cm) -- show themselves as not only very pretty but also unusual, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522cd.jpg

The long, slender, pale green petals and sepals are one thing to note, but in terms of normal orchid anatomy these blossoms do something special. A typical orchid blossom bears three sepals and three petals. Of the three petals, two are alike but the third usually is enlarged, forming a "lip" extending forward. The lip can be large and showy as in the ladyslippers, and some lips bear backward pointing "spurs." But the vast majority of lips arise as the flower's "chin" -- the lower part of the blossom's "face." Our Chiapas orchid has twisted its lip around so that it arises at crown, forming a colorful backdrop to the sexual parts -- the gynandrium or column -- like a decorative bonnet around a lady's face. A close-up of the gynandrium is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522ce.jpg

The gyandrium, or column, is the main distinctive feature of the Orchid Family. It consists of the flower's grown-together stigma, style and stamens. The Orchid Family is considered one of the most highly evolved, newly arisen plant families, and the gynandrium displays Nature's inexorable evolutionary trend to reduce, simplify and merge as evolution takes place.

With such distinctive features, this orchid was easy to identify as PROSTHECHEA COCHLEATA, in English sometimes known as the Cockleshell Orchid. It's native throughout Central America, the Caribbean -- including southern Florida -- and northern South America. Usually it's not listed as a Mexican species, though it's been reported as used by the Lacandon people in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve. Its use was as a soap. I've heard of people elsewhere working up a lather by beating split-open orchid pseudobulbs in water, so maybe that's what they're talking about here. In Central America it's reported that the sticky juice that can be squeezed from the pseudobulbs has been used as an adhesive.

The Cockleshell Orchid is the National Flower of Belize. Commercial orchid growers have produced several hybrids using this species.

*****

SAN ISIDRO DAY, TRIANGULATED
The Hacienda's pretty little church, built in the early 1500s, is dedicated to San Isidro, the patron saint of workers. Last Sunday was San Isidro day. The owner invited the community to come for an afternoon mass followed by the eating of a pit-roasted pig, and some Maya ceremonies, all accompanied by exploding rockets and a small band of local musicians playing traditional tunes learned from their fathers.

But, before I talk about that and show some pictures, I want to share this opinion: That life's most vivid moments usually don't take place in isolation, but rather take meaning from outside influences, and/or internal goings-on. In fact, it seems that for me last Sunday there was the event, there was an essay, and there was quantum mechanics.

The essay, from the New York Times and sent by Eric in New York, was Jon Mooallemmay's "The Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort Of) Rattled the Scientific Community." The writer describes attending a meeting of the Society, which mostly was a flop, but while sitting there letting his mind wander about the lives of those other people sitting around him, all living beneath the same sky, and how this occasioned an inexplicable rush of empathy for them. "What I felt, really, was awe: the awe that comes when you fully internalize that every stranger’s interior life is just as complicated as yours." On St. Isidro Day I was in a cloud-appreciation mood.

Eric also had sent an article from Quanta Magazine, an interview with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, on the nature of reality, as suggested by quantum mechanics. After several amazing twists and turns, the interview ends with Hoffman discounting all features of what we think of as reality, except one. And that one thing is the experiences of everyday life. What we feel and think right now make up the ultimate nature of reality. "I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world," as he put it. Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. I think that what Hoffman was saying was that everything is illusion, except what's experienced right now.

And so, with these thoughts on my mind, St. Isidro Day came along, as gently and lovely as a cloud, as elegant and unyielding as a quantum formula.

In early afternoon with considerable heat and humidity, as the crowd began gathering, local musicians mounted onto the Hacienda's veranda and began playing simple march-type tunes typical of traditional Maya events, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522i1.jpg

I knew most of the folks who were gathering beneath the big Chinese Banyan directly across from the big building, or at least I could guess which employee's family they belonged to, by their facial features. You can see one cluster at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522i2.jpg

A closer look at the statue on the alter is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522i3.jpg

I paid special attention to the banner beside the statue, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522i4.jpg

It says that it was presented by the beekeepers' association of nearby Xcalacoop. I like it because it presents one way the Maya see themselves, the planter in the cornfield, the corn plants heavy with light-green ears silking out, and topped by golden tassels of male flowers. The ground is covered with vigorous squash vines, some squash mature while others are still green, and all around the man, the dog, the corn and the squash there are flowers, even above the corn heads where morning-glory vines might mount their blossoms, flowers offering bees sweet nectar and yellow pollen. These stylized blossoms easily could be confused with butterflies, lightning bugs or blinking stars, but somehow it doesn't matter. I'm mystified by the man's clothing and what he appears to be wearing on his head. Whatever the details, it all seems a kind of paradise, yet it's exactly the way the banner maker saw things as he made the banner, a glimpse at his own ontological primitive at that exact moment of inspiration.

Somehow the crowd got organized, and the statue got lifted up for its yearly ascent to the church on the hill. You can see the parade climbing the hill amid melodies of cornet, saxophone and drum at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522i5.jpg

After the mass the roasted pig was eaten amid much talking and laughing, and then a traditional dance was performed, just for the Maya themselves, for I was the only non-local person there. In this dance the leader hopped and jumped in circles around a table -- the same hop-and-jump gait I've seen Maya shamans use during serious ceremonies -- carrying over his head a big bowl holding the pig's head with a sizable bread roll stuffed into his mouth, and surrounded by other breads. The man was followed by dancing women, a young man throwing water onto onlookers -- especially little boys who seemed to think it a great honor to be splashed -- and a couple of men carrying bright objects that needed no ontological reason to be other than to be colorful, all shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522i6.jpg

I left before the kids were let loose to batter open with sticks the candy-filled piñata dangling from the big Cedro, or Spanish Cedar tree, next to the church. This year the piñata was a little blue horse with rainbow mane and tail. He looked surreal and vulnerable dangling from the Cedro's dry-season-leafless and thus wintry looking branches, behind it looming the lichen-encrusted, dignified old church, and further beyond, a very hot, late-afternoon sky populated with broody clouds with ill-defined borders. Probably there was a message in that juxtaposition of images, but I didn't try to figure it out. You can see it exactly as it was, part of my own ontological primitive as I turned and walked away, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160522i7.jpg

The cloud essay is freely available here.

The quantum mechanics one is here.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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