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

March 26, 2017

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NEEM TREES FLOWERING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/neem.htm we look at the Neem tree, a native of India but planted in the tropics worldwide because of its unparalleled medicinal value. I've been looking forward to the rancho's Neem trees flowering, to see if they look like I figure they should.

Neem trees, Azadirachra indica, belong to the tropical Mahogany Family. Up north, at least in the warmer US states, one member of the Mahogany Family many people know is the Chinaberry Tree, often standing next to people's homes and escaped as an invasive, but much appreciated for its pretty flowers, the trees' shade, and their ability to grow in disturbed sites. In other words, I wanted to see how much Neem tree flowers resemble those of Chinaberries back home.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170326nm.jpg you can see a couple of upward-projecting panicles of white Neem flowers at the rancho this week:

A flower close-up is shown http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170326nn.jpg

That shot shows one of the Mahogany Family's main field marks, which is that the flower's 8-10 stamens have their stalk-like filaments united into a tube, with the yellow, pollen-producing anthers gathered at the tube's top. In the picture, the stamen cluster looks like a daffodil's "crown," but it's formed in a completely different way. You might be interested in comparing that picture with that of a Chinaberry flower, a flower with its own conspicuous filament tube topped by anthers, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505cc.jpg

So, flowers of the Neem tree and the Chinaberry are very similar. Even leaves in the two species are similarly compound, with the leaves markedly toothed, or serrated, along their margins.

It's always a pleasure to see such shared features on closely related species with such different histories and known for such different qualities -- the "variations on a theme" thing.

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NAKED-NECK CHICKEN HATCHLINGS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/nakeneck.htm we look at the rancho's Naked-neck Chickens, a breed much seen in many of the world's tropical chicken yards. I've always wondered what a recently hatched Naked-neck looks like, and now we have some, two of which are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170326nk.jpg

These chicks are three or four days old. Interestingly, here our Muscovy Ducks are considered more dependable nesters than the hens who lay the eggs, so these chicks were incubated by a broody Muscovy. Our Muscovy page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/muscovy.htm

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MAKING TICK REPELLENT
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/anamu.htm we look at a common weed here in the Yucatan, a member of the Pokeweed Family, one with no good English name, but known technically as PETIVERIA ALLIACEA. Though someplace I've seen it called Guinea-hen Root, I'd rather refer to it as Skunk-root, since if you bruise the plant's leaves or scrape a thumbnail across its lower stem or roots, it smells strongly skunky.

The other day I ran into a PDF document on the Internet, in Spanish, entitled Uso de plantas como alternative de control de garrapatas, authored by Rodrígues Vivas and others. It lists ten plants growing in the Yucatan Peninsula that kill ticks, and can be used as a tick repellent. Petiveria alliacea is one of those ten species. In fact, it's first on the list of the five most efficacious species, the other species being Diospyros anisandra, Havardia albicans, Solanum tridynamum and Bursera simaruba.

The study tested extracts of leaves, roots and stems. I dug some Petiveria alliacea -- making the whole area smell like a skunk had walked through -- and hung them to dry. I dried them because a visitor at Ek Balam with experience in making extracts of medicinal herbs told me that normally plants are dried before making extracts. You can see my Petiveria alliacea hanging drying on the hut door at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170326pt.jpg

The research paper called its extracts extractos metanólicos. My dictionary doesn't translate metanólico but I assume that a methyl alcohol extract is being referred to. Whatever the case, once my plants were crispy dry I crumbled their leaves into a jar, scraped stem and root bark shavings over them, and poured in generic, unenlighteningly labeled alcohol bought at a local store, and now have some tick repellent to test.

Problem is, we've already seen that this local alcohol by itself kills ticks. When the solution is used as a repellent, it's hard to say whether you're not getting ticks because of the Petiveria alliacea, or residue from the alcohol.

I'm mentioning all this not because I'm excited about a solution to our bad tick problem here, but because it's been an interesting project to piddle with, and eventually we might even decide that Petiveria alliacea extract makes a fine repellent.

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SOUR POZOL
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/080421.htm I describe an awkward situation I experienced in Chiapas in 2008 when my Tzotzil-speaking hosts offered me a drink of what they called pozol agria. Their pozol agria was made by dissolving rancid masa in water. Masa is moist and dough-like, made from ground corn, or maize, and is what tortillas are made from. Traditionally the corn kernels used making masa are softened by soaking overnight, but nowadays in Mexico probably most masa is prepared from commercially packaged, dry, ground corn, in stores sold under the brand name of Maseca.

In the name pozol agria, the word agria generally means "sour," though according to my dictionary sometimes it can mean "bitter." My Chiapan pozol agria was bitter, not sour, so I came away from the experience thinking of the drink as "bitter pozol." However, a while back here on the rancho I decided to give pozol agria another chance. One day in town I bought a kilo of masa at a tortillaría, stored it in a warm to hot place for several days. After just three days of Yucatan heat, already it was tasting good, and after five or six days it seemed at its peak. In cooler areas, the masa needs more time. When my masa was ready I dissolved the resulting paste into a mug of water, I was astonished that instead of tasting bitter, it tasted a lot like buttermilk. You can see what an apple-sized hunk of masa looks like when squeezed it from its plastic bag into a mug at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170326pz.jpg

I'm unsure why my Chiapan pozol agria was bitter but my Yucatec drinks turn out sour. The Chiapan drink was ground from locally grown fresh corn and may have undergone bacterial action for a longer time than my rancho drinks, whose masa seems to be made from dried, finely ground corn freshly soaked in water and kneaded, plus I let my rancho masa sit for fewer days.

Each hot afternoon I look forward to my big mug of pozol agria. Somehow the taste hits the spot, plus -- despite knowing that it may be purely psychological -- I always feel a nice, healthy glow after drinking it.

Actually there's a reason why pozol agria might be good for us: During those days when the masa sits in its quiet, warm place, microbial action makes available certain vitamins and other nutrients not found in regular masa, or found in much smaller amounts. I think we're talking about fermentation here, and probably you've heard how fermentation makes most any food more nutritious.

So, if you're living near a tortillaría or can make your own masa from the dry powder sold in markets as Maseca, you might give pozol agria a try. When I buy it at a tortillaría -- and it's remarkably inexpensive -- they dump a kilo of paste into a plastic bag. At home I transfer the masa to a covered bowl or else put the bag into a more substantial bag before setting it aside to ferment. That's because tiny, fruit-fly-like insects attracted to sourness come out of nowhere to feed on the masa and lay eggs on it, and they can chew through the tortillaría's flimsy bag. If somehow those flies reach your masa, in a few days when you make your pozol agria you might find tiny, white maggots floating in your drink.

I pour pozol agria onto bowls of granola, and can imagine that it would make homemade bread taste as if it were made with buttermilk. I really think that pozol agria has a future as an exceptionally nutritive, not-bad-tasting, inexpensive drink among us gringos. And instead of thinking of it as "bitter pozol," we'd do better to call it "sour pozol."

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NATURE AS TEACHER
Why would Nature evolve humans so that, politically, about half of us tend toward the right while the other half tends toward the left? It's because both predispositions are adaptive for human populations. New, left-leaning ideas are needed because the world changes constantly and human society must adapt by changing. However, most new ideas are bad, since if they'd been good, they'd already be in place. Unthinking, kneee-jerk conservatism is needed to assure that only the best new ideas survive.

The uncomfortable feature of this situation is that masses of in-between people who swing right or left depending how good or at least how loud and persistent the leaders are, find themselves more and more in a constant state of confusion and uncertainty. Unrelenting claims and counterclaims merge into a bewildering clutter. What to do?

I would say, "Look to Nature." For, Nature shows how conservative and progressive philosophies can mingle to the benefit of all. And Nature has been around long enough for its way of doing things to be considered time-tested.

For example, Nature has conservatively kept certain successful ideas around for millions of years -- such as the cockroach and magnolia flower concept. At the same time, currently a mind-boggling explosion of diverse new species employing new-fangled ideas can be seen in such huge, fast-evolving, relatively recently arisen animal groups as the wood-warblers and beetles, and in plant families such as the Orchid, Grass and Composite.

Nature's models provide many such profoundly important insights. For example, throughout Nature resources are recycled at every level, wasting nothing, so we can say that "Nature teaches us not to waste resources, and to recycle."

Similarly, the evolution of Life on Earth began with one or a few simple organisms, but they and their descendants evolved until today we have thinking, feeling beings struggling toward ever higher levels of artistry, clear thinking and spirituality. Therefore, we can say that "Nature teaches us to keep trying for ever more exquisite levels of expression, of empathy with other things, and refined thought and feeling."

Some would say that such natural models are too general and vague to be useful. However, the way it works is that if Nature's general teachings are kept in mind every day as decisions are being made and things are done, the cumulative, contagious effects of even little changes in our behavior can be life changing, and for the better.

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ANOTHER RUN TO THE BORDER
It's been about six months since my six-month visa for Mexico was issued on the border with Guatemala. This week I'm taking off again, but this time in a different direction. I'm not sure I'll be able to upload the next few Newsletters at the usual time.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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