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

April 23, 2017

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DUTCHMAN'S-PIPE FRUITS
It's always surprising to see how many butterfly species produce caterpillars that feed on the vine called Dutchman's-Pipe, genus Aristolochia of the Dutchman's-Pipe Family, the Aristolochiaceae. However, when I go looking for Dutchman's-Pipe, usually it's hard to find, and normally I don't find any. Even when present its twining vines are inconspicuous, despite the species' bizarre and beautiful flowers.

Nowadays at the end of the dry season when most woody plants have lost their leaves to cut down on water loss, Dutchman's-Pipe vines are leafless and flowerless, but many vines bear fruits that do catch our attention, often seen dangling from high and mid-level tree limbs. The fruit are as exotic-looking as the gaudy, saxophone-shaped flowers, looking like apple-sized Chinese lanterns, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170423as.jpg

Three Aristolochia species are listed for the Yucatan, and of those three the species with fruit pods most looking like these is ARISTOLOCHIA MAXIMA, a species distributed from southern Mexico into Central America, and South America, plus it's been introduced into Florida. In fact, in the US, wildflower books call this the Florida Dutchman's-Pipe, but of course down here that name just won't do.

The fruits in the picture are almost or entirely identical to a Dutchman's-Pipe fruit we encountered in 2008, in Chiapas, when my friend Antonio brought some stem, leaf and fruit material to my door so I could make a tea from the stem and leaves to cure my upset stomach. You can meet Antonio, see the plant and read how it may have cured me, and see how the capsule's seeds nestle into the bottom of the bowl-like opened capsule, at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/aristolo.htm

Antonio, who spoke Tzotzil, called the plant Guaco, and here in the Yucatan that's considered the Spanish name, so maybe our Chiapas plant also was Aristolochia maxima. Here in the Yucatan the Maya also regard the vine as medicinal,and, as in Chiapas, particularly good for upset stomach.

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AIR POTATO BULBILS SPROUTING
Back in November we profiled Air Potatoes growing here and there at the ranch. At that time the vines were producing potato-like "bulbils" on their twining stems, which you can see this on our Air Potato page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/air-pot.htm

I'd planned to eat some bulbils but when I cut into them they were greenish beneath their brown skin and hard all the way through. My impression was that they were immature and, since on the Internet there was some ambiguity about whether they were toxic or not, I let them pass. A few months later I cut into them again and they were still greenish and hard. Also, I assumed that the bulbils when planted would sprout and produce new vines, but I couldn't find confirmation of that, and after a few months there was no sign of sprouting. I more or less gave up on them and tossed them in a bucket of compost, thinking that either they'd sprout or become part of the compost.

Last week when I returned from the Kentucky trip I was gratified to find nearly all the bulbils sprouting, one of them shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170423ym.jpg

Not only were the bulbils sprouting, but they were doing so with vigor. Moreover, last November I'd planted some of the largest, most mature-looking ones, watered them for about three months, and when nothing developed stopped watering them. Even those, now residing in late-dry-season, hard-packed dust, were sprouting.

Therefore, now we know that Air Potato bulbils do sprout to produce new plants, but they seem to need three or four months of rest before doing so, and whether they're watered or not during their resting period doesn't seem to matter.

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ACKEE SEEDS SPROUTING
This March my friend Eric in Mérida found along a street an Ackee tree heavy with fruits and, since Ackee fruits are so unusual and are famously used in certain traditional fdishes, especially in Jamaica, several fruits were scooped up. You can meet Eric's Ackee, see the fruits, and read about their use on our Ackee page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ackee.htm

Several months earlier Eric had collected seed-bearing Ackee fruits, given them to me, and the seeds had failed to germinate. This time he got enough for both of us to try various planting techniques. And this time both of us got some Ackee seedlings. You can see a couple of mine this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170423ak.jpg

On our Ackee page you can see that leaves on mature Ackee trees are pinnately compound, with four or five pairs of leaflets, looking a little like Ash tree leaves up north. Our seedlings' leaves also are pinnately compound but bear only one pair of leaflets.

After my failure to germinate the first seeds, information on the Internet let me know that only freshly ripened seeds should be planted, so maybe that's why this planting was successful when the earlier hadn't been.

Despite the germinations, we'll still need good luck to eventually have mature trees, for our little seedlings face many future challenges. For example, in the above picture, notice the wilting stub in the pot at the lower right. That's where a rabbit had a nice Ackee meal.

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COLLECTING CILANTRO FRUITS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/cilantro.htm we look at Cilantro, also called Coriander, an herb much used in Mexican cooking. Cilantro's fruits also are used in the North as a spice in pickled dishes.

In order to have fresh Cilantro all the time, I plant small beds of it every three or four weeks. During my absence for the Kentucky trip a couple of my beds' plants dried up, but not before flowering and fruiting. You can see the top of one of those dried-up-but-fruiting Cilantro plants at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170423ci.jpg

A fruit close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170423cj.jpg

Harvesting Cilantro fruits is easy if you don't try to collect one fruit at a time. When the plants are dried out -- either after being hung to dry or after dying and drying out as they did here -- just rub the plants' fruiting heads between the palms of your hands, causing the dry parts to crumble onto a flat, clean surface you've spread below. You'll get a heap of fruits and broken stems looking something like what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170423ck.jpg

Pick out the largest stem sections, then blow away what chaff you can, and simply pour the remaining dry fruits into a jar that can be sealed against humidity and insects.

Technically, Cilantro fruits are "schizocarps," which are dry fruits that split into two halves, each half referred to as a "mericarp." Each mericarp contains one seed. Remember that Cilantro is a member of the Parsley/Carrot Family, the Umbelliferae, in which the flowers' inferior ovaries consist of two joined cells, or carpels. Each ovary matures into a fruit as each carpel matures into a mericarp.

Up north when we use "Coriander seeds," actually we're dealing with fruits. If we pick at wet Coriander fruits plucked from pickle juice, they'll break into two mericarps.

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THE DRY SEASON
Last week when I left Kentucky's lush, green, springtime freshness, I returned to the opposite of that here in the Yucatan, where we're approaching the climax of the dry season. Despite the searing heat, the forest almost looks like a northern deciduous forest in winter, because most trees have lost their leaves to cut down on water loss from the leaves' surfaces. You can see a view into the wintry-looking forest right beside my hut -- with a mid-afternoon temperature of 100° F -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170423dr.jpg

Some trees, such as the Huano Palm at the picture's left, are evergreen and others are semi-evergreen, so there's still a little greenness left. The herbaceous layer, however, is almost totally died back and crisply parched to a dull dun color. The fire risk is great.

Most of the year here in north-central Yucatan we receive enough rain to support a much lusher and more diverse ecosystem than what we have. However, in the sense that a chain only is as strong as its weakest link, these days being experienced now prevent our forest from growing as high, and hosting as many species, as forests farther south where it rains more. Any plant or animal unable to endure the stress of these dry-season days simply dies.

Species that do survive display special adaptations, such as the trees being somewhat low and scrubby, and losing their leaves when it's driest. Certain animal species "estivate," which is the summer equivalent to winter's hibernation. Herbs die back to their subterranean rhizomes, which will resprout when rain returns, or else die back completely, relying on the previous season's seeds to usher in a new generation. Insects and other small arthropods hide underground, or else die, depending on left-behind eggs to continue their species.

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NAMING BREEZES
Sometimes the late dry season's unrelenting heat and dryness are so energy-sapping that I get tilted into a kind of lethargy. However, other times it feels good getting out in it and feeling the robust forces at hand. I like feeling the full power and promise of sunlight energy that's just sailed through 93,000,000 miles of empty space to pound and sizzle my skin. I like feeling how the very air tries to suck me dry, crack my lips and crisp the moist folds of my lungs. I like watching myself passing from one moment to the other even when the body and common sense tell me I need to take it easy.

And then there are other times when I cash in on being a human able to be flexible and to choose, and to play. That's when I cloud-watch with dozing, panting dogs at my feet, and wait for breezes to stir.

Sometimes I name the breezes. One coming in from the side as I type these words I'm calling "Tit-Cooler," because I'm hunched over the keyboard with my flabby, old-man tits dangling, and that's where I feel it most. A while ago, "Fly-Chaser" turned over a leaf beside Katrina's head as she slept at my feet, and the leaf scared away a fly that'd been pestering her, walking around on her black, moist lips. The next breeze that comes along, I think I'll call "Rain-Bringer," because late-afternoon clouds back toward the east are gathering and turning slate-blue at their bottoms, and maybe if there's a breeze on the land named Rain-Bringer, the rain will know it's welcome.

But, here's what I really like about these super hot, dry times: Times like this, you see very clearly what a tenuous, unlikely spiritual presence you are among all these bumping-into-one-another, utterly impersonal coagulations of energy fields that quantum mechanics tells us about, and that focuses the mind. And then is when it's easiest to be glad for clouds and breezes, and at least the hope for rain.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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