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

December 4, 2016

*****

TICK "NEST" ENCOUNTER
Not long after going to sleep I awoke with my right leg burning like crazy. Burning and itching. Late that afternoon I'd taken a walk in the woods so I figured my leg had brushed against some kind of plant and now was suffering an allergic reaction. I got up and washed the leg with soap and water, hoping to remove whatever it was causing the misery, but it just got worse. With no electricity here, I was doing all this with a flashlight, so it was awhile before I noticed that tiny, black specks dotted my leg, and then it dawned on me: Ticks.

Sometimes I've seen dark-brown masses of extremely tiny ticks clumped along paths. Up North often they're called seed ticks, and hunters tell stories about brushing into such "nests," though they're not really nests, just masses, and watching hundreds if not thousands of the little monsters swarm up a leg like an expanding ink smudge. This must have happened to me on my late-afternoon walk.

I set about removing the tiny critters, but it wasn't easy. Their microscopic heads were embedded into my flesh and their bodies were too small to pluck out with tweezers, so all I could do was scratch them out with my fingernails. Usually that left a pinprick of blood oozing from the left-behind hole. Many were in places I couldn't see, so I just scratched blindly.

Eventually I remembered how I used to daub nail polish onto chiggers. That would stop up the chiggers' breathing holes, or spiracles, and the chiggers would suffocate and drop off. I didn't have nail polish or anything like that, but here at the rancho we do have lots of Aloe vera. I've always treated burns with Aloe vera's mucilaginous juice. I've read that the way the juice works is that when it dries it leaves behind a thin film that forms a barrier between the burn and the air, and somehow that keeps the burn from forming blisters, and maybe lessens the pain. Maybe that film would plug a tick's spiracles.

I whacked off an Aloe leaf and smeared its juice all over my leg. Immediately the burning and itching diminished a little, but not much. The next morning I couldn't find ticks where I'd smeared the juice, so maybe the treatment worked, or maybe I'd just done a good job scratching, which I'd done plenty of. When at dawn the Maya workers came to work I told them about my night of misery and they -- all having had their own tick experiences -- said that I had two more nights to go, because the burning and itching lasts for three days, and that's exactly the way it was. They also itched during the days, but it was the nights, about an hour after lying down, when the wretchedness reached a peak.

Well, this is all very interesting. For example, one question coming to mind is, were these minuscule ticks a certain dwarf species, or just baby ticks? Also, I wanted to see one of those brown blobs of massed-together tick bodies against which my leg must have brushed. My friend Gener told me that finding such blobs was no problem. They're all along the woodland trails they drive the cattle and burros along each morning, heading to the day's grazing grounds.

Gener took me to one such trail and about fifteen seconds after he started looking he found a blob. Gener explained that the blobs nearly always occur right along the trail, at about ankle height, at the tip of a bending-over plant stem or leaf, where they can easily board any mammalian leg happening to brush against it. You can see the blob we found, showing up as a small, brownish, egg-shaped object at the tip of the dark weed stem rising vertically a little left of the picture's center, with the pea-size "nest" midway the picture's center and the middle of its top border, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161204st.jpg

A close-up of the "nest" shows many tick bodies crammed together, each tick with its legs groping outward to be ready if anybody's leg makes itself available, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161204su.jpg

At the University of Rhode Island's TickEncounter.Org website I learn that my dust-particle-size ticks probably aren't a dwarf species, but rather immature ticks. As the site says, "All ticks come in small, medium, and large sizes; officially these life stages are termed larva, nymph and adult." Apparently the ticks in our pictures are freshly hatched larvae. Though larval ticks sometimes carry diseases, normally they do not. It's larger ticks in the later stages of development who acquire pathogens from infected hosts who pass along diseases.

Looking into the tick situation in the Yucatan I learn that here ten locally growing plants have been identified with tick-killing properties, and some of those species are common here at the ranch. The most commonly found is a foul-smelling, rank weed in the gardens, a knee-high member of the Pokeweed Family sometimes known as Guinea-hen Root or Anamú, Petiveria alliacea, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/anamu.htm

The only species name given for ticks in the Yucatan in a 2007 research paper on the matter, by Rosado Aguilar and others, is Boophilus microplus, though I can't confirm that that's what we have here.

Whatever the case, nowadays I'm at work determining whether it does any good to crush Guinea-hen Root leaves on my legs when I go hiking in tick territory. I almost wrote that that plant's odor is nearly as bad as having the ticks, but then I remember my three nights of feverish scratching, I know that no odor can be worse than that.

*****

PIGEON PEA
Here at the rancho, over the years various Bean Family species have been planted but the identities and planned uses for the various species have been forgotten or never known in the first place. That was the case with the lanky, seven-ft-tall (2m) woody shrub or small tree shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161204cj.jpg

Since my arrival here this plant has borne neither flowers nor fruits, but I knew it was a Bean Family member because its trifoliate leaves were similar to many species in that family, plus they bore conspicuous, slender stipules at their petiole bases, which is very typical of leguminous species. You can see the shrub's trifoliately compound leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161204cn.jpg

Last week the shrub began issuing flowers, so now I've identified the plant. The flowers were yellow ones that clustered at the tips of the bush's upper branches, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161204ck.jpg

They were papilionaceous blossoms, like those of most Bean Family species, meaning that of the five petals the top one, called the standard or banner, expanded above the flower; two side petals, called wings, grew at the blossoms' sides, ;and the two lower petals were united along their common margin into a scoop-shape structure, known as the keel. You can see a flower with these features at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161204cm.jpg

Though otherwise that's a typical papilionaceous flower, one distinction to notice is that its vertically rising standard's margins curl inward. Other features of the blossom aiding with identification can be seen from the flower's rear, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161204cl.jpg

The purplish-brown veins on the standard's back are eye-catching, but I read that only some cultivars of this species display such coloration. More important for identification is how the calyx's two uppermost sepals join together along their common margin, looking like one thick sepal with a notch at its tip. In the above photo this feature is nicely shown at the bottom of the open flower's standard.

Though the bush's flowers aren't unusual, the above features along with the fact that this Bean Family member forms a woody shrub or small tree with trifoliate leaves, it was easy to identify this plant as the Pigeon Pea, CAJANUS CAJAN, sometimes also called Congo Pea, Red Gram and Yellow Dahl.

Pigeon Pea is native to an area from India and Afghanistan to tropical eastern Africa, but now is widespread and cultivated throughout the world's tropics and subtropics. Mainly it's grown for its beans, for human consumption, but the plant's young stems and leaves can be fed to livestock, either fresh or dried, so for both reasons in much of the world it's considered a very important plant. Maybe one reason it was brought here was that the species is particularly well adapted to survive in regions with very long, severe dry seasons, like ours. The plant has very deep taproots.

It'll be weeks before our plant's flowers produce legumes bearing mature beans, but already I know what Pigeon Pea beans look like, because our Maya worker Juan showed me some from the bag from which earlier he'd sown the plants in our pictures. You can see that in comparison to the width of my fingers they're quite small, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161204co.jpg

Nutritionally, Pigeon Pea beans are especially good sources for vitamins B1 and C, and folate. In India, split Pigeon Peas are used for the famous dish called dal. They have a fairly high protein level and are important for vegetarian dishes. One way to eat them is as sprouts, in which the beans' nutritive value is dramatically increased, and sprouting them is precisely what I plan to do once I have enough beans.

It's a pleasure meeting these species who are so important in much of the world. Much more about Pigeon Pea can be learned on its TropicalForages.Info page at http://www.tropicalforages.info/key/Forages/Media/Html/Cajanus_cajan.htm

*****

HANGING CLOTHES TO DRY
Here I hang washed clothing in a tree to dry. While things are still wet, butterflies alight on them and sup. As the garments dry, they become lighter, and breezes off the little Papaya orchard below the hut make shirts on hangers hooked onto tree limbs twist and turn. The fresh-washed odor mingles with that of moist earth and lush vegetation, and the smell of woodsmoke from my campfire. You can see what all that looks like from the hut porch at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161204c-xjpg

During the few times of my life when I've had to dry washed clothing in a clothes drier, I felt cheated of such homey, pretty moments. The drier saved time, but always I knew that whatever it was I was saving time for wasn't as substantial and meaningful as a butterfly on a moist sock, or the fresh-washed fragrance on a peaceful afternoon's breeze.

Also, the fact can't be escaped that clothes driers use a good bit of energy, the production of which caused pollution, sometimes even radioactivity that will be a curse to the biosphere for millennia. That, when the air around us gladly dries our clothes without degrading the environment.

I know that in many places it's frowned upon or even illegal to hang clothes to dry outside -- illegal because of zoning ordinances based on the notion that hanging clothes outside is low class, thus likely to lower local property values. What a perverse way of thinking. What a shame that laws can be made against doing what's ethical, beautiful, and life affirming.

I feel lucky that I live someplace where no one would think to say anything, or even think about it, when I hang my washed clothes from tree limbs in a place where there's a nice breeze smelling fresh and pure.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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