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

June 4, 2017

*****

VIREOS SINGING
Most North American birders know how in late spring and early summer Red-eyed Vireos fill shadowy forests with sweet calls so monotonously and unceasingly repeated that sometimes you almost wish they'd take a rest. This week a vireo has called like that from beside the hut, just as incessantly, just as monotonously and just as sweet as the Red-eyed Vireo's call, and almost identical to it, but not exactly the same -- not quite as "swingy," maybe you'd say. It's the Yellow-green Vireo, introduced at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/vireo-yg.htm

Yellow-green Vireos are common here during the summer rainy season, but it's hard to get good pictures of them because, like Red-eyes up North, they stick to upper tree levels and usually move among the shadows, easily heard but hard to see. This week one came closer than usual and I was able to photograph him from a different angle than the photo on our page shows. Despite the slight blurriness, the new photo better shows the bird's facial pattern and greenish-yellow underparts, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170604vr.jpg

On our page for the species we point out that "Yellow-green Vireos are among the few migratory species who arrive to nest in the Yucatan at this time of year from the south. This fall they'll return south. The species breeds during the 'summer' from southern Texas to Panama, and winters in western Amazonia in South America."

*****

ALMOST AN ANNONA
This week a ten-ft-tall tree with slender, brittle branches has been flowering beside the hut, the flowers emerging as leaves expand with the advent of this year's rainy season. You can see the handsome, greenish flowers turning burgundy as they mature, dangling like Christmas ornaments from their branch, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170604sp.jpg

These blossoms are very similar to those we looked at just two weeks ago in this Newsletter. Those were blossoms of the Sweetsop/ Saramuyo, a small tree much planted in this area for its super-sweet, juicy fruits, one of the genus Annona in the Custard-Apple/ Pawpaw Family, the Annonaceae. You can see the Saramuyo flower from two weeks ago at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170521ao.jpg

Not only are the flowers very similar but also the Saramuyo's leaves were shaped and mantled with a velum of short, dense, soft hairs just like the expanding leaves on the small tree next to the hut. You can see the hut tree's young leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170604sq.jpg

The hut tree looked like it was growing wild, not planted, plus other trees of its kind grow scattered in the surrounding woods and definitely are not planted, so -- since the cultivated Saramuyo's ancestors were tropical American -- I wondered whether the hut tree might be the Saramuyo's living ancestor. That thought was abandoned when a hut-tree blossom was broken open, revealing what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170604sr.jpg

That's not the same as can be seen inside a Saramuyo flower, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170521an.jpg

The main difference is that in the Saramuyo's flower, those green things atop the purplish bumps in the hut-tree's blossom don't exist. There's not even a hint of them in Saramuyo flowers. This was something else. I took a flowering twig to some Maya friends who were working nearby and asked what kind of fruit the hut tree produced.

"Like a cluster of grapes," Gonzalo said, "each member of the cluster also about the size of a grape.""

Fruits of the genus Annona are shaped somewhat like potatoes, so now I knew we had a genus of the Custard Apple/ Pawpaw Family I'd not encountered before.

It's SAPRANTHUS CAMPECHIANUS, native from southern Mexico to Costa Rica. It bears no commonly used English name, so we'll just call it Sapranthus here, maybe the Campeche Sapranthus.

I'm looking forward to watching this remarkable species' fruits develop, seeing how something like a cluster of grapes can develop from a single flower.

*****

DON SOLÍS' BIG BALSAM-PEARS
The other day an old rancher and friend of ours from up the road at Temozón brought us several bushels of amazing fruits for feeding to the ranch's livestock. You can see some in my hand, one broken open to reveal bright-red, slimy, bean-like seeds, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170604mm.jpg

Though I'd never seen such large fruits of this kind, immediately I recognized what they were, because a certain weedy, introduced vine often is seen around here tangled in fences and growing at the disturbed edges of woods, and it produces fruits and seeds just like this, except much, much smaller -- usually only around two inches long (5cm). A member of the Cucumber/Melon/Gourd/Pumpkin Family, the Cucurbitaceae, it's Momordica charantia, often called Balsam-Pear, though the Bangladeshi friend who introduced it to me many years ago as an important ingredient in curries and other Southeast-Asian dishes called it Bitter Gourd. Originally the plant is from India. You can see Balsam Pear vine growing wild and bearing split-open, mature fruits, along a street in Río Lagartos on the Yucatan's northern coast, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/momordic.htm

Don Solís grows one of many Balsam Pear cultivars. The cultivars differ considerably from one another, especially in terms of the fruits' shapes, sizes and bitterness. Don Solís sells Balsam Pear fruits commercially, apparently to buyers outside the Yucatan, because here few people know about it. The fruits he brought us had grown too large and bitter for human consumption, but the livestock ate them with relish. I read that in India Balsam Pear often is served with yogurt on the side to offset its bitterness. Also it's used in curry dishes, is stir-fried, is deep fried with peanuts, stuffed with spices and then cooked in oil... On and on the recipes go, which is a little surprising since even the smaller fruits normally are a little bitter. Some cultures are simply OK with a little bitterness, similar to how Mexicans spicy-hot dishes many people can't endure.

Often bitter plants are used medicinally, and that's the case here, Balsam Pear having been used in traditional medicine for centuries to treat ailments ranging from diabetes to ulcers, constipation, breathing problems and skin diseases. In fact, a 2014 study showed that Balsam Pear eaten raw or in juice form does indeed lower blood glucose levels. This and many other medicinal and culinary uses of the Balsam Pear can be reviewed on the Wikipedia page at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momordica_charantia

The seeds' red, slimy coverings are "arils." Arils are different from seedcoats since arils arise from the seed's hilum or funiculus, not from the seed's covering. The funiculus is the seed's umbilical-cord-like attachment to the fruit's interior wall, and the hilum is the scar marking the seed's point of attachment to whatever it's attached to. When you see seeds with scarlet arils contrasting shockingly with a fruit's background color you can assume that the redness attracts birds and other critters who eat them, then disseminate the seeds in their poop.

The day after receiving the fruits I planted some of the fresh, still moist seeds. They germinated nicely, producing the robust seedlings shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170604mn.jpg

*****

CASSAVA HORNWORM'S MANY FACES
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/erinnyis.htm we look at a large, juicy hornworm that in 2011 fed on the Cassava bush in front of the hut at Hacienda Chichen. Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario identified the caterpillars as Cassava Hornworms. On our Cassava Hornworm page the caterpillar is shown as almost entirely green, with pale green stripes and some vague, yellow-green blotches.

With the advent of our rainy season , the rancho's Cassava bushes are being defoliated by large, succulent hornwoms all displaying the same general form as the Cassava Hornworms back at Hacienda Chichen, but our rancho caterpillars display a bewildering variety of colors and patterns. You can see a sample in my hand, plucked from just one tattered Cassava, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170604hv.jpg

In mid-morning, the above caterpillars, having devoured the bushes' broad leaves, now congregated at the bases of the ravaged leaves' naked petioles, head-down, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170604hw.jpg

In general, the smaller, younger caterpillars are darker, like the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170604hx.jpg

These caterpillars not only attacked our Cassavas but also Chaya trees. That's not surprising, since Cassava and Chaya both belong to the Spurge/Euphorbia Family, the Euphorbiaceae. However, they also attacked our Papaya, in a whole different family. Out in the woods I see them on several wild, native plants, too.

The caterpillars' variation in appearance is so striking that I was insecure about calling them all Cassava Hornworms, so the matter was looked into on the Internet. I couldn't find much more than several authors referring to the Cassava Hornworm's great variations in color.

In the end, I'm still insecure calling them all Cassava Hornworms, though they all do share the same structure. Also, plants in the Spurge/Euphorbia Family normally contain diverse powerful toxins that keep most caterpillars from feeding on them, so that supports the idea that they are indeed all Cassava Hornworms, Erinnyins ello.

*****

PICKING UP TWIGS
Before fixing the daily campfire meal, I walk around picking up dry twigs to burn. Sometimes I reject twigs perfectly good for making a fire on the grounds that they are too thickly covered with lichens. Dry lichens burn as readily as paper, so the lichens' burnability isn't the problem. What concerns me is what I know of the lichens' complex life cycles, their importance in Nature, their beauty, and the spiritual insights that thinking about their curious way of being imparts.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/lichens.htm you can meet some of the lichen species we've met and admired over the years. You can review the lichens' amazing structure and biology at http://www.backyardnature.net/lichens.htm

It's awkward for me to talk about not wanting to burn twigs bearing lichens. For one thing, it draws attention to inconsistencies in my conduct. When I walk through the woods, I crush organisms much more sophisticated and just as beautiful as lichens, so why don't I stop walking in woods? In my vegetarian diet I eat untold numbers of plants, and fruits and seeds that could have engendered new plants, so, if this is the way I think, why not quit eating altogether?

These are points I've thought about a lot. In the past usually I got by with remembering that I'm a natural being, too, and as such have certain rights such as locomotion and feeding myself. However, over the years this argument as lost much of its logic for me. That's because -- same as an habitual criminal loses the right to participate in society -- by being so utterly destructive of the Earth's biosphere, we humans have brought into question whether we deserve the benefits of membership in that biosphere.

On another level, sometimes I remember that the Universal Creative Impulse seems to be evolving the Universe toward ever higher forms of complexity, feeling and integrated information. At least here on Earth, the pinnacle of that evolution appears to be us humans. Maybe that means that I, being very much more sophisticated and sensitive than a lichen, outrank lichens so utterly that if I destroy some while cooking my meal, it's OK.

But, then I listen to the news on shortwave, and hear the rhetoric of demagogues and zealots ever so eagerly embraced by the many, and I see that, on the average -- with important but too few exceptions -- we humans aren't so sophisticated and sensitive.

It's then that I find myself standing along trails examining each twig even more carefully than before -- not only for lichens but also for bugs at home in the twigs' hollowed-out centers, for dried-out fungi awaiting rain before coming to life again...

In fact, some days -- like this week when Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Accord -- I feel like standing there admiring twigs until it is I who disappear, not they.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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