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

June 18, 2017

*****

"LITTLE GUAVA" FLOWERING
Last year as soon as I moved to the rancho, beside the entrance gate a certain tree caught my eye because of its eucalyptus-like trunk -- mottled gray and brown -- and fluted like a muscular arm, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618py.jpg

I couldn't identify it, so I've been waiting for it to flower. This week one morning at dawn during my pre-jog stretching next to the gate the loud buzzing of many nectar-gathering bees above me announced that the mystery tree at least was abloom. You can see its glossy leaves and white flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618ps.jpg

At first glance I thought the white, puffball-like affairs were clusters of many tiny white flowers with their stamens extended, like those of acacia trees, of the Bean Family, but up close it was clear that each white item was is a single blossom with many stamens. You can see this in a side viewa blossom from the side, showing stamens spreading in all directions from where the scoop-shaped petals' bases unite, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618pv.jpg

The many stamens arise from a "disk" at the base of a slender, white, fingerlike, stigma-tipped style. That's the style pointing toward the picture's top, right corner at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618pw.jpg

Some of the tree's branches bore old flowers from which the stamens and petals had fallen, or were about to fall, but with the styles still attached, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618px.jpg

That image clearly shows that the flowers have "inferior ovaries" -- ovaries from the tops of which the petals and stamens emerge. Flowers in most plant families produce superior ovaries, so these inferior ones help a lot in figuring out the tree's identity.

The trees leaves were opposite one another on the twigs, and that's another good field mark, since most leaves alternate with one another. You can see the green bases of two leaf petioles, with buds in the angle formed between the petioles and the stem, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618pt.jpg

In the American tropics, when you have a woody plant bearing flowers with inferior ovaries and opposite leaves, the first plant family coming to mind is the big Coffee or Madder Family, the Rubiaceae. To confirm that you have a "Rube," you check to see that stipules arise on the twigs between the opposite leaf petioles. When the "interfoliar stipules" were sought on this tree, as seen in the above photo, they were NOT present, so our mystery tree was not a member of the Coffee Family. Besides, Coffee Family flower don't bear more than five stamens, so it couldn't have been that family, anyway.

Continuing "doing the botany," I recalled that the trunk was similar to that of a Eucalyptus. Eucalyptus belongs to the Myrtle Family, the Myrtaceae, plus flowers in the Myrtle Family produce many stamens atop each inferior ovary, just like our flowers. Remembering that not only menthol-smelling Eucalyptus belongs to the Myrtle Family but also the Allspice Tree and the fragrant Myrtle of the Mediterranean region, I crushed our mystery tree's leaves and was delighted with the resulting sweet-spicy odor, a little like cinnamon or nutmeg. Just to be sure of our mystery trees membership in the Myrtle Family, I held a leaf between my eye and the sun, looked closely, and saw many tiny, fragrant-oil-bearing "pellucid" dots -- a feature of leaves of the Myrtle family, like those shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618pu.jpg

Once our tree was recognized as a member of the Myrtle Family, it was easy to figure out that we had PSIDIUM SARTORIANUM, distributed from Mexico and Cuba south through Central America to northern South America. Here it grows in thin soil atop limestone.

Something else interesting about Psidium sartorianum is that the genus Psidium is home to Psidium guajava, the Guava tree whose sweet, musky-smelling fruits are much eaten in the tropics. Psidium sartorianum is described as producing fruits up to an inch in diameter (2.5cm) -- much smaller than the cultivated Guava -- but tasting something like regular guava fruits.

The tree doesn't have a commonly used English name, but in much of Mexico it's called Guayabillo, which is close enough to "Little Guava," so that's how we'll call it here. The Maya call it Niedenzu and Pichi' Che'. Reportedly the Maya traditionally used the odoriferous crushed leaves to treat cuts, stop bleeding, and promote healing. In other cultures traditional medicinal uses of different parts of Little Guava include treatments for diabetes, diarrhea, cough, pain, sores, lung problems, and more.

*****

GOLDEN DEWDROP FLOWER
For several weeks a large bush or much-branched small tree has been issuing flowers. You can see a branch bearing both flowers and fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618la.jpg

In that picture, the long, dangling items are what's left of flower clusters, or inflorescences. Despite the plants many flowers, apparently most flowers simply fall off, setting to fruits, leaving behind only the flowers' short pedicels. A close up of some flowers is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618lc.jpg

There you can see smallish corollas that are lilac in color and arranged in slender racemes, their narrow corolla tubes topped with five abruptly spread corolla lobes. The corolla tubes are curved, so the blossoms are bilaterally symmetrical, not radially. A close-up of the orangish fruits is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618lb.jpg

All these details suggest the Verbena Family, the Verbenaceae. Once the family is recognized, it's easy to establish that this is DURANTA ERECTA, in English variously known as Golden Dewdrop, Pigeon Berry, Skyflower and other names. It's native from Mexico and the Caribbean south to South America. It's various English names reflect the fact that it's pretty enough to be cultivated as an ornamental in tropical and subtropical garden throughout the world.

In fact, in many parts of the world Golden Dewdrop has escaped from gardens and become an invasive species. In Australia it's ranked as one of the most invasive of weeds. It's hard to be sure whether plants found here are planted or natural. Probably we have both.

*****

DZUDZUC THE LADDER TREE
The rancho's Maya crew is underpinning the part of the hut I live in, the porch of which partly extends over a deep pit. For a couple of weeks they've been digging away crumbly limestone below the porch, to make way for a concrete column. The resulting limestone rubble on the pit's floor was shoveled into discarded livestock-feedsacks, which were slung over the shoulders, and carried outside the pit, using a homemade ladder. The strength and endurance of the Maya crew was impressive, but also was the flimsy-looking ladder, which didn't at all look capable of bearing all that weight. You can see the ladder at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618ld.jpg

The metal ladder, part of which is visible at the picture's lower, left corner, appeared only when the concrete-pouring crew arrived.

I asked my Maya friends what tree they'd made the ladder from. "Dzudzuc," they replied, and everyone had a story about how strong and resistant to decay Dzudzuc wood is. When I asked Juan if he could show me a Dzudzuc tree he instantly steeped into the woods, grabbed a young tree's trunk, and declared it a Dzudzuc. Dzudzuc is very common here, at least in the thin soil atop the limestone mound on which I live.

In this Newsletter, we've already met Dzudzuc. You can review its page where it's identified as Diphysa carthagenensis, a member of the Bean Family and producing strangely inflated, bladder-like legumes, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/diphysa.htm

That page mentions several traditional medicinal uses for the species. Now we know that it's also a fine tree for making ladders.

*****

CREPE-MYRTLES VS POMEGRANATES
Last week we looked at white-flowered Crepe-Myrtles commonly seen planted here in the Yucatan. Our page showing its flowers and leaves is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/crepe-my.htm

This week the rancho's Crepe-Myrtles are even fuller of blossoms than last week, as shown by a tree next to the garden at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618cm.jpg

Before the rancho's Crepe-Myrtles issued their flowers, I asked the Maya workers here what tree it was. Granada, I was told: Pomegranate. That sounded OK to me, because the leaves looked like Pomegranate leaves, though the tree seemed larger than Pomegranate trees I'd seen. Our Pomegranate page where you can compare the leaves is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/punica.htm

On that page you see that Pomegranate flowers are large, reddish, leathery-looking ones that do not gather in large clusters the way Crepe-Myrtle flowers do.

Despite the big differences between Crepe-Myrtle and Pomegranate flowers, this week I've learned that not only the rancho's Maya workers but everyone in the area calls our white-flowered Crepe-Myrtles Granadas, or Pomegranates. Lee, the rancho's owner, tells me that when she bought our Crepe-Myrtles at a nursery, they were labeled as Granadas.

*****

SAPRANTHUS FLOWER UPDATE
A couple of weeks ago we looked at the unusual Sapranthus tree, a member of the Custard Apple/ Anona Family, which produces fruits very unlike custard apples or anonas. Namely, they end up "clustered like grapes," as my Maya friends described it. Our Sapranthis page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/sapranth.htm

Now Sapranthus flowers' petals and stamens have fallen off, leaving behind large, green sepals framing a cluster of fuzzy pistils -- the female parts -- as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618sp.jpg

Earlier I wrote that it'd be interesting to watch how a single flower can mature into a something like a cluster of grapes. Now we're seeing how it might be possible.

*****

GRID-LOOKING
The rancho owner became concerned that the dogs and I might some night take a wrong step and plunge into the deep pit beside and partially underlying the hut's "porch." A wire fence was erected at the porch's edge. The fence's crisscrossing wires, six inches from one another (15cm), formed a visual grid through which I could view the world beyond from my desk. You can see the effect at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170618_g.jpg

That picture bears numbers and letters along the side so I can draw attention to specific parts of the picture framed by the fence's wire grid. For example, the face of the black dog, Chichan 'Cho', appears in block e-2.

It seemed a good idea to label the grid squares because as soon as the fence was set up and I began seeing things through the gridwork, I was powerfully struck by this fact: Every block in the grid was worth studying in detail. In fact, any block turned out to be more interesting and of greater aesthetic value as the whole scene itself.

Chichan 'Cho''s alert face at e-2 is worth admiring. He's just heard another dog down below bark and he's wondering whether he needs to start barking himself. Just look at his tail so utterly at attention at d-2. Katrina's face at f-3 is just as much focused on her flea situation, as she nibbles at a shoulder. But, these dog features might even be noticed without the grid. The grid is especially good for focusing us on parts of the scene that normally the eye passes by, and the mind ignores.

For example, just look at the lush, green foliage at d-1. That block of visual details is a symphony of a forest being itself, busy at work photosynthesizing carbohydrate for itself as it blesses the biosphere with pure, breathable oxygen. What's missing in that block view is the leaves' animation as a light breeze passes through the forest. And the calls of the Melodious Blackbirds, Turquoise-browed Motmot and White-tipped Dove that at that moment happened to be filtering through those very leaves. After my mind has inhabited D-1 awhile, I feel at peace, I feel that things here are doing fine, everything is in order, even when I know that the larger scene gives a very different impression.

The blocks around D-1 also show forest, but each one is a little different, maybe with a tree trunk cutting through it, or maybe the block is more or less shaded, or displays some kind of disruptive element. The process of slowly, deliberately moving the mind from one surrounding block to the next produces the effect of there being a forest symphony progressing over time, a sharp or a flat here or there, sometimes a little discordance or surprising chords, fortes and diminuendos, all so very agreeable.

C-4 is a study of the pit's geology. I've studied the pit's walls for hours, for in some places the wall was clearly cut through limestone deposited millions of years ago at the bottom of a shallow sea, but in other places you see mixed rocks and dirt, as is the case with C-4. My guess is that the ancient Maya leveled the top of the mound the hut sits on, and C-4 shows rubble they carried up here. We're only about 5kms from the important ruins of Ek Balam, so it's to be assumed that building occurred here, and we know the Maya liked to place their huts atop mounds.

But, even without the archaeological angle, on at aesthetic level, C-4 is simply a pleasure to look at, an abstraction conveying a certain feeling, sensations based on rocks being angular, not rounded, on their being of different sizes, not all the same, on speculation about the slightly reddish hue at the block's bottom, on and on.

So, our human minds are configured so that most, maybe nearly all, of what we sense is ignored, and this is good. It's one of the mind's most striking and useful features, an adaptation enabling us to focus on the scorpion at our feet without being distracted by the rustling of each and every leaf in the forest.

Still, grid-looking suggests that sometimes it's good to pay attention to what the mind is programmed to overlook. Grid-looking reminds us that the way we feel and behave is based on what we notice of the world around us, and we do have the power -- and maybe the responsibility -- to choose which of the world's vivid details we notice.

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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