JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Rancho Regenesis
in the woods near Ek Balam Ruins north of Valladolid in
Yucatán, MÉXICO

November 20, 2016

*****

A DIFFERENT KIND OF ELEPHANT EAR
Throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, around people's houses, along stone fences -- wherever people have planted anything -- often we see impressive cluster of very large, glossy, semi-succulent, arrowhead-shaped leaves. Usually in English we call these Elephant Ears, though several species -- all with large, glossy, arrowhead-shaped leaves -- bear that name. You can see the species of Elephant Ears so commonly planted here, and which sometimes escape into the wild, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/elephant.htm

Once you grow accustomed to that Elephant Ears' general appearance, you begin noticing that occasionally a very similar plant turns up, except that this one tends to be a little smaller, a bit more compact, its leaf margins are a little more wavy, and -- most different -- its leaves generally point skyward, while the regular Elephant Ears' blades hang downward. You can see the smaller, rarer species with its upward-directed leaves along a stone wall before the house of my bicycle repairman in Santa Rita at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120aa.jpg

Another less noticeable but more diagnostic anatomical feature distinguishing the Santa Rita Elephant Ears from the common one is the way the petiole connects with the blade. You can see the way it's done in the common Elephant Ears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111120xo.jpg

Now look at the same part of the blade of our Santa Rita plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120ab.jpg

Our Santa Rita Elephant Ears' petioles are scoop-shaped at their bases, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120ac.jpg

Our Santa Rita Elephant Ears is ALOCASIA MACRORRHIZOS, sometimes called Elephant-Ear Taro or Giant Taro. It's not to be confused with the Taro producing large underground tubers that provide a starchy food to people in much of the world's humid tropics. Our Santa Rita plant is "Giant Taro," not "Taro." Giant Taro is a native of India and Malaya.

We've run into this same species before, back at Chichén Itzá, but what we had then was a much-different-looking ornamental cultivar with dark purplish petioles and veins. In fact, Alocasia macrorrhizos is such an important food crop that numerous cultivars have been developed from it. Our purplish Chichén Itzá ornamental is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100103ee.jpg

Although Alocasia macrorrhizos, Giant Taro, isn't the famous food-producing Taro, it does produce large rhizomes up to a foot long and half a foot thick that can be eaten. However, Giant Taro's rhizomes contain such high concentrations of calcium oxalate that they burn the skin when improperly handled, and are very painful in the mouth. The roots must be cooked before eaten. Once the calcium oxalate is broken down, the roots are potato-like. You can read more about Giant Taro's edibility, and see why they're called "Giant" Taro, on Green Deane's well-illustrated "Eat the Weeds" web page at http://www.eattheweeds.com/giant-taro/

*****

COWPEAS
At the rancho, another vining bean plant has turned up whose name and purpose for being planted have long been forgotten. You can see it growing among the Papayas, where it displays typical garden-bean leaves and an especially pretty flower, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120vg.jpg

The blossoms, typical of the Bean Family, display five petals arrayed in a particular asymmetric manner known as being "papilionaceous." In papilionaceous flowers the top petal, often known as the "standard," rises above the blossom, attracting pollinators. A shot of one of our vine's flower faces displaying a particularly well developed "standard," one with yellowish spots and dark purple "nectar guides" directing visiting pollinators toward the nectar, appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120vh.jpg

A side-view of the flower showing how the two side petals, the "wings," fold together to form a landing pad for pollinators is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120vi.jpg

While identifying this vine I needed to know whether the style of the flower's pistil bore hairs or not. It did. You can see the pistil's upward-curving style, quite shaggy along its back side, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120vm.jpg

Another diagnostic feature is that its calyx is indented between its sepals for much less than the calyx's entire length, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120vn.jpg

Yet another interesting feature of this bean vine is that its leaves' petioles bear joints with glands that exude some kind of ant-attracting liquid, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120vj.jpg

The vine "wants" ants on it in case a vine-eating herbivore comes along. If the critter disturbs the vine, ants will bite it.

Nowadays our plants are just beginning to produce handsome, bean-filled, legume-type fruits, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120vk.jpg

Inside the pods numerous shiny, black beans cradle next to one another, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120vl.jpg

All these features identified our vine as the common Cowpea, VIGNA UNGUICULATA, sometimes also known as Southern Pea or Blackeye Pea, though the Blackeye Peas I've grown up North produced much larger beans, and the beans were of a different color. This isn't a problem with the identification, though, since this species is a very important food crop, and one from which many forms and different cultivars have been developed. When the black beans in the photograph are cooked, their general blackness fades a little, leaving a "black eye" exactly where it should be in a typical Blackeye Pea. The beans I've planted in the north were mainly tan colored, with a black eye, but also they can be clay colored, white, maroon or purplish.

In 2013, in Texas, we ran into this same bean species, but up there we called it the Yardlong Bean, because the vine produced extremely long legumes. You can see them on our Yardlong Bean page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/yardlong.htm

Yardlong Beans are the same species as what we have here, but they're a different subspecies. They're Vigna unguiculata ssp. sesquipedalis, while the usual subspecies is Vigna unguiculata ssp. unguiculata.

The beans of our local Cowpea race to be too small for eating the way I do regular Blackeye Peas up North, but they're perfect for making bean sprouts. I describe one method for sprouting them at http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/alf-spr.htm

Cowpea sprouts have a good Blackeye Pea taste.

*****

LIVING IN A CASTLE TOWER
When I first arrived at the rancho I figured I'd settle in an abandoned van pulled deep into the forest and live as I did as a hermit for several years in Mississippi. However, Lee, the owner, understandably preferred for me to live nearer the front gate where I could watch over things at night. Since arriving I've lived in a stonewalled hut beside the tool shed and burro corral.

This week I moved into what might become my permanent home, an unfinished, thatch-roofed, stone-walled "hut" that, as you approach it, looks remarkably like a European castle's tower next to a mote. You can see a visitor's first view at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120hu.jpg

In that picture the black dog up front is Chichan 'Cho' the Mexican hairless, edible dog; on the "mote's" opposite side directly above Chichan 'Cho' in the picture is Katarina, who as she snarls at other dogs to maintain her alpha status in the pack, wags her tail. Originally the "mote" was intended as a kind of root cellar where the ranch's produce would be stored, but the project was abandoned before a roof was put on. Despite appearances, it's just a deep pit on one side of the hut. Another view of the hut shows where I am writing these words, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161120ht.jpg

The hut lies about a minute of walking from the original hut I lived in, along a narrow, twisty trail through the woods. The "Castle Tower Hut" is the same size and shape as the one I occupied at Chichén Itzá, but with a concrete floor, stone walls, and a substantial glass door. Each day I prepare my meals over a campfire on the gravel at the right of the red table. Soon I'll have running water and a composting toilet. The view as I work at the red table is toward the east, where each morning the Sun rises above a Papaya planting in a depression below the hut. The hut stands on the highest mound in the area and enjoys a nice breeze most of the time.

It's all much more comfortable than I'd anticipated. And somehow it's just quirky enough, and pretty, and isolated enough, to make me feel lucky at the moment, and I'm enjoying it enormously.

*****

GARDENING IN DYSTOPIA

Dystopia: n. an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one

Neither up North nor here in Mexico do we have dystopias, but there are signs of a dystopic future. When I work in the garden, the garden seems to have something to say on the matter.

For, how will an average citizen deal with living in a dystopia? If you oppose the dictator, the dictator's thugs will kill you, or you'll go to prison as a risk to national security. If the Earth's biosphere, or the part of it you inhabit, is utterly polluted, the soil eroded away, and most natural things are dead, you can't escape the fact that you're a biological being needing clean water and air, wholesome food and -- for your sanity -- a tree or butterfly here and there.

The garden says, as I work in it while thinking on the matter, that proper first aid for living in a dystopia is... to work in a garden.

The gardener knows how to mix sterile dirt with compost to make rich soil food can grow in. Just seeing healthy plants with sunlight filtering among leaves, flowers and fruits makes the hopeless feel better. The gardener who gardens for a whole season or more is uplifted by seeing the promise of seeds fulfilled with a harvest. In any present or future dystopia where beauty and magnanimity have been extinguished, by working in the garden, beauty and magnanimity can be reclaimed.

Today, already many people live where gardening is out of the question, plus in the Temperate Zone nowadays it's too cold to plant a traditional garden. Still, just having a potted Christmas Cactus or flowering begonia in the house can be cheering, and represent to the depressed and oppressed nothing less than a gesture of defiance against a dystopic future. Even sprouting seeds to produce nourishing, good tasting sprouts can put us in touch with the gardening essence. Our Sprouts Page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/alf-spr.htm

As signs of a dystopic future become ever more apparent, to gather seeds and take up shovel and hoe in the garden is nothing less than to take up arms against those forces gathering now to herd us toward Dystopia.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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