JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Rancho Regenesis
in the woods ±4kms west of Ek Balam Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

October 23, 2016

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LEAPORD FROG
We've documented a species of leopard frog, Lithobates berlandieri, both in the US and Mexico, but this week I saw my first one here in the Yucatan. It's shown on a log sticking from the water of a rancho pond at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023fg.jpg

This isn't the same leopard frog species commonly seen in North America, but rather one distributed from Texas south to Costa Rica. Over that large distribution area it manifests a variety of colors and patterns, and its taxonomy isn't well understood, so it's worth documenting the variations for future researchers. You can compare this week's Yucatan frog with one presumably of the same species seen in Querétaro, north-central Mexico, at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/leopfrog.htm

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WILD TAMARIND
Back in 2007, in Querétaro, north-central Mexico, Don Gonzalo taught me how to eat tasty little beans inside semi-mature pods of a common tree there, which he called Guaje. The tree was Leucaena leucocephala of the Bean Family. In English sometimes it's called Wild Tamarind because its ferny, twice-pinnately compound leaves are similar to those of the planted Tamarind tree, which belongs to the same family. You can see Don Gonzalo nibbling on a Wild Tamarind pod at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/guaje.htm

Since 2007 I've eaten lots of Wild Tamarind beans because they make decent snacks in the field and the species is common in much of Mexico. In the arid Yucatan, where it's called Uaxim (wa-SHEEM), it may be the most abundant of all tree species. One reason for its proliferation is that it thrives in disturbed habitats. In our area often it forms almost pure stands below power lines where the vegetation periodically is chopped away, and it's a pioneer species in abandoned cornfields being invaded by woody plants. You can see a pure stand of young Wild Tamarinds along the paved road into Ek Balam town , and beneath a power line -- maybe 80% of the greenery there being Wild Tamarind -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023hu.jpg

The local Maya are surprised when I tell them they can eat Wild Tamarind beans, but not impressed. For them, the beans are too small to bother with. To the Maya, Wild Tamarind gains respect by providing nutritious leaves and young woody branches that livestock like to eat. Here at the rancho most Wild Tamarind trees have had their branches hacked off several times to provide meals for burros and cattle. When a Wild Tamarind loses its limbs it immediately begins sprouting a thick crop of new ones, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023hy.jpg

Wild Tamarind's twice-pinnately compound leaves are similar not only to those of the regular Tamarind, but also to acacia and mimosa leaves, as you can better see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023hx.jpg

The species also produces small, spherical heads of white flowers, the same as do many acacia and mimosa species, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023hv.jpg

Therefore, why isn't Wild Tamarind considered an acacia or a mimosa?

Its flowers are unlike those of acacia species because each acacia blossom bears more than ten stamens, while both Wild Tamarind and mimosa species have ten or fewer stamens. Wild Tamarind can be differentiated from species of mimosa because mimosa flowers have corollas with four corolla lobes and four sepals, while Wild Tamarind's corolla lobes and sepals number five. You can see some individual Wild Tamarind flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023hw.jpg

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RED AMARANTH
Red Amaranth, AMARANTHUS CRUENTUS, is planted here and there at the rancho. Sometimes it's also called Blood Amaranth, Purple Amaranth, Prince's Feather, and Mexican Grain Amaranth. It's late in the season for Red Amaranth, so our plants are fully grown, but most of their leaves have withered away, and most of the flowering is past, so our plants look a little scraggly. Still, with their bright red color against the usual lush green backdrop, they're a conspicuous presence, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023aa.jpg

In the nearby village of Santa Rita, where I get the bicycle fixed, some folks grow Red Amaranth as ornamental bushes. There you can see that when they're regularly watered and cared for they can look impressive, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023af.jpg

A closer look at the colorful head of dense spikes and panicles, and its long-petioled, simple, smooth-margined leaves, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023ab.jpg

Already the pistils of most flowers have matured into utricle-type fruits, an utricle being a bladdery, one-seeded fruit. Most of the bladders already have split open, releasing their single, tiny, shiny-black seeds, but if you look closely you can find seeds ready to fall from their open bladders. One is shown -- that's the top of my thumbnail across the picture's bottom giving an idea how small the seed is -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023ac.jpg

Even this late in the season, if you shake a head over your open palm, several seeds fall out, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023ad.jpg

Here at the rancho, fruiting heads of Red Amaranth are cut and hung upside-down in the chicken yard, so the hens can walk up and peck seeds out -- which they do with great relish. In fact, archaeological evidence shows that Red Amaranth was eaten by people in Mexico and Central America at least as far back as 6000 years ago -- both leaves and seeds being consumed.

Seeing how tiny the seeds are, you wonder that anyone would bother to eat them. However, the big flowering heads hold thousands of flowers, so at the peak of fruiting a good handful of seeds can be collected from each plant. Traditionally the seeds have been ground into flour, cooked into a kind of porridge, and popped like popcorn. Nowadays native people no longer gather the seeds, but the plant's leaves can be eaten like spinach. Also, the popped seeds now are used commercially to make the popular Mexican candy called alegría, an example of which is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/m/food/alegria.jpg

Often the seeds are sold in health food stores, both for adding to dishes, and for sprouting. Amaranth seeds are present in generous amounts in my daily-eaten Mexican-made granola. You can see a couple of black amaranth seeds sticking to a slice of banana in my breakfast bowl at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023ae.jpg

In the lower, right quarter of that picture, notice the many white items just a little larger than the black amaranth seeds. I think that those are popped amaranth seeds, or maybe that's how the black one look once they're cooked. I read that wild Red Amaranth seeds are black, while in the domesticated form they're white.

I've collected my own handful of seeds from the heads shown in these pictures, and have sowed them in the garden, where I hope that later I can collect the leaves for cooking -- if the leafcutter ants permit.

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NEEM LEAVES FOR FUNGAL INFECTIONS
On our Neem tree page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/neem.htm we say that "Neem is a tree native to India, and it's one of the earliest-recorded and most widely used of all medicinal plants. In Indian villages today Neem trees, AZADIRACHTA INDICA, are still thought of as the 'village pharmacy' and are used for everything from bad teeth and bedbugs to ulcers and malaria."

Here at the rancho many Neem trees have been planted and during upcoming months probably I'll report on several uses we make of them. This week both one of the burros and Chichan 'Cho' the black, hairless, edible dog turned up with fungus-infected feet, and both were treated with Neem leaves.

Many Neem products are available on the market as herbal medicines. Most seem to be based on oil from Neem seeds, but the leaves are said to contain the same medically active compounds, just in much lower concentrations. One place on the Web to read about Neem's many uses, including those of Neem leaf paste, is at http://www.discoverneem.com/neem-plant.html

Neem is known to be especially good for treating the fungal-based athlete's foot, so for the feet of the burro and Chinchan 'Cho' we made Neem leaf paste. Gonzalo, the rancho's Maya manager, set about grinding some Neem leaves the traditional Maya way, with a carved, wooden pestle in a stone mortar, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161023nm.jpg

That produced a nice, green paste, which was applied to the burro's hoof bottom, and between Chinchan 'Cho''s toes. Neat cloth boots were sowed around the feet.

In the end, the burro's hoof remained infected so a veterinarian was called, who administered regular medicine. Chinchan 'Cho' always managed to chew and pull off his boot so that the green paste immediately fell away. I experimented with grinding leaves in our hand-turned "sausage grinder," which made a finer, moister paste, to which I added mucilage from aloe leaves. This made a clay-like paste that hardened a bit when it dried. However, Chinchan 'Cho' continued to chew off his boot and what paste didn't fall away, he chewed and licked off. It's no surprise that his foot didn't get better.

However, I managed to get the beginnings of a fungal infection on my own feet, since I go barefooted on the patio where the dogs hang out. When I applied the paste with aloe juice to my own feet and did not chew and lick it away, my own problem disappeared in a couple of days.

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DOG PHILOSOPHY
To live among dogs is to participate in a cartoon about human behavior.

For example, here at the rancho three dogs run free. In a dog's life, hardly anything is more important than to be part of a pack, and to be clear as to his or her own status within the pack. From the dogs' perspective, humans are top dogs of the rancho pack, because they share their food and forcefully get their way.

Among the three dogs, the sandy-haired Katarina is the top dog. She stations herself at the entry of the hut patio where I spend most of my time and permits the black, hairless, edible Chichan 'Cho' to enter only after a certain amount of snarling, even though the two dogs are close friends and do everything together. While growling and baring her teeth at Chichan 'Cho', Katarina wags her tail. The important thing is for Chichan 'Cho' to wait long enough to enter for it to be interpreted as recognizing Katarina's dominance. Then he can slink onto the patio when Katarina turns her head.

The third dog, black, short-haired, aging Sombra, is recognized by the workers as a superb hunter, watchdog and fighter, and as very smart. One day he approached the patio, Katarina barred his way snarling, but Sombra simply put on a big smile and rushed past Katarina, leaving her looking dumbfounded, unsure whether to attack Sombra or join in the latter's good spirit. She resolved the issue by continuing to snarl while looking at the big Neem tree beside the patio. Sombra is one of those individuals for whom normal rules don't apply, and onlookers have to admire his audacity and ability to get away with nonstandard behavior.

Sombra even challenged me. One day when I wanted to pat his head he pulled away so I couldn't reach him, while blatantly stepping on my foot. For several days afterwards he ignored me completely. Then one day he was lying in the way as I approached with a wheelbarrow, refusing to move. I ran over his tail. Soon afterwards, when he got too close to my campfire meal, I jumped up, yelled, and ran after him.

After a few more such encounters, one afternoon suddenly he came onto the patio, curled up beneath my chair, and looked pleased when I patted him. Sombra hadn't been averse to recognizing me as higher ranked than he; he just needed proof that I, like other humans, could with force get my own way, and therefore ranked higher. With Sombra, I had to earn my dominance.

The good natured Chichan 'Cho' meekly accepting his lot, Katarina snarling while wagging her tail, and growling at a tree, and Sombra constantly testing his boundaries even though more often than not he ends up with a run-over tail... I can recognize all these dog moments from my own life.

The big difference is that such dog moments may pass in ten seconds, and seem to be forgotten, while a human may spend most of a life snarling at a tree, or misjudging his or her situation so badly that life becomes just one run-over tail after another.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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