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

June 25, 2017

*****

ARMYWORMS
In the Guazuma ulmifolia tree beside the hut's porch, a certain big, black caterpillar for several days had been a conspicuous presence, sometimes feeding but mostly just resting, sometimes atop a leaf, sometimes beneath it, sometimes like he's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625av.jpg

Among the brightly sunlit leaves his black form was so attention-getting that I wondered why the Turquoise-browed Motmots or Altamira Orioles hadn't eaten him. Figuring that volunteer bug identifier Bea in Ontario could figure out who he was I sent her the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625aw.jpg

Also, the head close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625ax.jpg

In her usual super-efficient way, before long her verdict came back: Yellowstriped Armyworm, SPODOPTERA ORNITHOGALLI.

Along with the ID came her surprising note that this was by no means a species confined to the tropics, like most queries I send. In fact, Bea had photographed Yellowstriped Armyworms at her own place, in southern Ontario! The University of Florida offers a fine page on the wide-ranging, often very destructive species at http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/veg/leaf/yellowstriped_armyworm.htm

There we learn that Yellowstriped Armyworms are distributed from southern Canada to South America, and on many Caribbean islands. Also, it's not a persnickety feeder, which I'd already concluded because I'd seen it on many kinds of plants here, and for about a week it was abundantly to be seen crossing all roads I biked down. It appeared on my cabbage, beets, onions, the Tree Cotton, roadside morning glories, on and on.

In fact, with the rainy season's advent, lately my garden has received a one-two punch from hordes of big, general-feeding caterpillars. First came the Cassava Hornworms described in our June 4th Newsletter, and then from Yellowstriped Armyworms, which appeared just as the the hornworms were fading.

Over the days, the big armyworm beside the hut porch became part of the family, and I was hoping to watch him form a pupa. However, one morning he'd disappeared, and I wondered whether the motmot or oriole finally had noticed him. More likely is that sometime during the night the caterpillar descended the tree's trunk and entered the soil, for the University of Florida page mentioned above says that that larvae pupate in the soil within a cell containing a thin lining of silk.

The pupal stage lasts from nine to 22 days,. The adult stage is a brownish gray moth nicely camouflaged for emerging from leaf litter and resting on tree trunks.

*****

VAMPIRE BATS IN CATTLE COUNTRY
Last week I visited a friend's Neem plantation between Mérida and Celestún in the western Yucatan. The friend wanted to share his discovery that his cattle do very well with an 80% Neem-leaf-and-stem diet. To show how eagerly his cattle ate Neem he filled some troughs with it, and the cattle came running, and ate it.

That was very interesting, but also I was curious about the black, vertical, splattery-looking stripes on the humps of most of his white Zebu cows. You can see this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625vb.jpg

That's blood left draining and drying after visits by nocturnal vampire bats.

*****

SNOWBERRY FLOWERING
Along the Caribbean coast we've found many Snowberry shrubs abundantly producing pea-sized fruits, the fruits looking like little white eyeballs with small dark pupils, as shown on our Snowberry page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/snowberr.htm

Though common along the coast I've rarely found Snowberries here in the more arid interior, on thin, limestone soil. That's one reason I wasn't sure what I had when last Sunday along the highway a much-branching, chest-high shrub turned up enmeshed in a roadside thicket, with loads of small, yellowish-white, bell-shaped flowers attractively dangling face-down from panicle branches, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625cc.jpg

A close-up of some of the neat little blossoms is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625cd.jpg

In that picture one feature to notice is that the calyx''s sepals appear to arise above the ovaries, so the flowers must have "inferior ovaries." Most flowers have superior ovaries, so if these really are inferior that could help a lot in identifying the species. Removing the corolla, it's easier to see that the ovary really is inferior, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625cf.jpg

A shot into the flowers, showing the white styles to be 2-lobed at their tips, and that the few stamens huddle down in the corolla tubes, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625ce.jpg

The shrub's leaves arose opposite one another on the stems -- on most plants they're alternate -- so this is another good field mark. You can see the opposite leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625cg.jpg

In the American tropics any woody plant with opposite leaves and producing inferior ovaries very often, but certainly not always, is a member of the big Coffee or Madder Family, the Rubiaceae. To confirm that you have a "Rube," look for conspicuous stipules on the stems, connecting the tops of the opposite leaves' petioles. They might look something like the ones shown on our roadside plant, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625ch.jpg

Once it was clear that our roadside bush was a Rube, finally it dawned on me that this must be a flowering Snowberry. Before now I've only noticed fruiting plants.

Henriette's Herbal Homepage, featuring home-remedy information from the 1898 publication King's American Dispensatory, tells us in an outdated kind of stiff but subjunctive-wise English that "In medium doses it augments the urinary discharge, slightly accelerates the action of the heart, and increases the peristaltic action of the bowels; and if the body be kept warm, and warm infusions be drank, instead of purging it will produce perspiration. In large doses it produces the most violent emetic and drastic effects."

It further says that the plant's use is indicated when there's "Scanty urine with a sense of fullness in the loins; edematous feet and eyelids."

You can read Henriette's entire page on Snowberry -- there referred to as Cahinca -- at http://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/kings/chiococca.html

*****

GUETTARDA FLOWERING
One of the pleasures of naturalizing in the Yucatan is that the plants and animals here aren't nearly as well documented as in North America and Europe. Up there, excellent field guides help you identify and know about nearly everything, while down here, sometimes even someone like myself operating alone can contribute new information and photos of little known organisms. You might remember how in both 2006 and 2010 I published photos of a snake that turned out to be unknown to science. In 2016 herpetologist Van Wallach first published a description of the species in a paper including my photos, naming the snake Epictia vindumi.

I wasn't thinking of such glorious doings last weekend when on my banana-buying biking trip to Temozón I noticed a large bush or small tree with hat-size leaves flowering at the forest's edge, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625gt.jpg

The big leaves with their numerous regularly spaced secondary veins connected with one another by very many short, tertiary veins, were more eye-catching than the flowers. The flowers whiteness did however show up nicely against the forest's deep green background. You can see that the flowers' corollas displayed long, slender tubes at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625gu.jpg

That picture shows the flowers' calyxes arising from atop roundish ovaries, which means that the flowers have inferior ovaries, and that's an important field mark. You can see a flower from the front, displaying six corolla lobes, and with anther heads barely reaching the tube's opening, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625gv.jpg

The inferior ovaries suggested the big Coffee or Madder Family, the Rubiaceae, so I checked to see if the leaves were opposite, and with stipules connecting the tops of the petioles. You can see that the leaves were indeed opposite, and that the tops of their petiole bases were connected by stupendous stipules, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625gw.jpg

So, it was a "Rube," and to my great pleasure it was a genus and species not well documented at all. My guess that we have GUETTARDA COOMBSII is mostly based on W.J. Hayden's pictures of that species' stipules and leaves at http://chalk.richmond.edu/flora-kaxil-kiuic/g/guettarda_coombsii.html

Hayden publishes his Flora of Kaxil-kiuic online. That location is in the eastern Yucatan, and Hayden's work has helped me with many identifications, like this one. However, so far he has no photos of flowers or fruits. Moreover, CICY, the Centro de Investicación Científica de Yucatán, in Mérida -- which provides information about the Yucatan's plants -- only mentions that members of the genus Guettarda are present in the Yucatan, but provides no information or images at all. Elsewhere on the Internet I couldn't find any flower pictures.

So, at this time, on the Internet, our roadside plant is very poorly documented, and here we may be providing pictures and information very hard to come by. That makes me feel good. Even if our plant is something other than Guettarda coombsii, at least by using that name here we're making the information findable to those searching for information about Guettarda and its species.

*****

MORINGA FRUITS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/moringa.htm we introduce Moringa as one of those supertrees offering an impressive array of nutrients as a food tree, and medicinal treatments for everything from diabetes to intestinal worms. On that page I even describe how I grated the Moringa's roots to make something very much like horseradish sauce.

In this year's March 5th Newsletter we looked at the Moringa's flowers. At that time I said that my old Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants places the Moringa Family, the Moringaceae, near the Mustard Family, the Brassicaceae. However, we saw that Moringa flowers don't look much like Mustard Family flowers, so we wondered whether the fruits might show more relationship with that family.

Now I can show you some Moringa fruits, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625mo.jpg

And they are indeed structured very much like a Mustard Family fruit, only they're much larger than any mustard fruit I've ever seen. Breaking open a pod, the seeds could as well be gigantic mustard seeds, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625mp.jpg

Both the Mustard and Moringa Families produce capsular fruits that break open, or "dehisce," for their entire lengths. One difference is that that the Mustard Family's fruits break into two sides, while the Moringa's capsules dehisce into three faces.

*****

MIXED SIGNALS FOR FOREST CLEARING
Lately it occurred to me that I've never seen so much forest in this area cut and burned than this year. You can see a typical cleared patch, as seen from the highway just north of Temozón, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170625dd.jpg

This week I asked my Maya friends if my impression was accurate, and they replied that it was.

"The government pays us to clear fields for milpas, or cornfields," one friend explained, "and a lot of people need the money. Of course that doesn't mean that a serious effort at creating a milpa is being made. The forest just has to be cut down and burned, so that when the inspector comes he can see the work, and we can get paid. Two of the five guys here at the rancho have cleared land this year."

Maybe this explained why most of this area's cornfields last year were ravaged by Tejones, or Raccoon-like Coatis, without much effort being made to defend the fields. And why many of the fields have no beans and squash planted with the corn, which is the traditional way to do it. The corn depletes the soil of nutrients, while the beans fertilize the soil with nitrogen, so the lack of beans in these fields is critical.

"On the other hand," my friend continued, "the government always comes around trying to sign us up for reforestation programs. Not many people want to do all that tree-planting, though. It's more fun to cut and burn... "

My friend was joking with the "more fun" part, but it's true that slash and burn is part of Maya culture, while tree planting is not.

*****

ELEPHANT-EAR COMMUNICATION
Last Saturday around noon I stepped from the computer at Genesis in Ek Balam, having just uploaded the week's Newsletter, and heard this: "Isn't it pretty?"

At Genesis, one side of the dining room opens onto a large garden jammed with as many ornamental tropical plants as possible. Lee, Genesis's owner, was sitting at a table next to a ten-ft-tall (3m) Elephant Ear plant. Th plant's huge, perfect, arrow-shaped leaves glowed in the midday sun, their pale vein-reticulations like embedded lace. Even so late in the day, on the leaves' waxy surfaces, silvery, thumbnail-size beads of water from the previous night's showers sparkled and shimmered.

"It makes you feel good just looking at it, doesn't it?" I said. Then Lee reminded me of studies finding that people occasionally exposed to natural environments are healthier than those without such contacts.

The Elephant Ears, just by being itself in a profoundly robust and beautiful manner, seemed to radiate composure, dignity and rootedness.

Lee and I had been discussing our President's most recent pronouncements, and the Elephant Ears had something to say about that matter, too.

"You know,"I said, "when I was a kid on the farm in Kentucky, the old farmers and their wives who were my neighbors may have agreed with most of Trump's policies, but I'm pretty sure that if a billionaire like him had come along back then with Trump's body language, facial expressions, hair-do, history, and manner of talking and dealing with other people, he'd have been laughed out of the county."

Then I wondered about the differences between rural and small town people of back then, and now. In view of the Elephant Ear's impressive presence, I decided this:

The intimacy of the old farmers and their wives with the seasonal cycles, the ways of plant and animals, rich and productive soil, their first-hand experiences with occasional bountiful harvests but more frequent floods, hailstorms, diseases, late frosts, their memories of cold, starry nights with new calves being born, of apple-picking and pig-killing times, and their certain knowledge of exactly where their food and wintertime heat came from, and all the work needed to get the food and heat from there to here... elevated those old farmers and their wives, so that they were wiser, maybe even nobler -- at least better judges of character -- than those who took their place, and have given us Donald Trump.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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