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

July 23, 2017

*****

RINGED SNAIL-EATER
Despite not liking to look at roadkill, certain animals, especially nocturnal ones, are very seldom seen by average people other than dead along the road. Therefore, last Sunday on my banana-buying trip to Temozón, I just had to stop for a better look at the little snake shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723sn.jpg

At first I thought we'd already seen this species, the Short-faced Snail-Eater, shown -- also as roadkill -- on its page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/snaileat.htm

However, the yellowish bands on that black snake are relatively much wider than those on our Temozón snake. Sometimes regional variation accounts for such differences within a single species, so I almost didn't even photograph this new one. However, I did, even getting a close-up showing diagnostic scale patterns on the poor snake's head, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723so.jpg

And the "undivided anal plate," another important field mark -- the round-topped one in the picture's center -- shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723sp.jpg

This turned out to be a new species for us, the Ringed Snail-eater, SIBON SARTORII, distributed from central Mexico south to Nicaragua. Several species of snail-eater snakes occur in the American tropics. Mostly they're nocturnal, as you might expect of something that preys on snails, since snails like the night's moisture. Besides snails, snail-eaters feed on slugs, but little or possibly nothing else.

Most snail-eater are highly arboreal, but our Ringed species usually sticks to the ground. It's regarded as common in forested and disturbed habitats, just like what's found along the road to Temozón.

*****

SIP-CHE', MEDICINE FOR BAD WIND
At the garden's edge, in the woods, a Dogwood-size tree very prettily has been bearing pea-sized, brightly red fruits among it dense, dark-green leaves, precisely as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723bn.jpg

The fruits are slightly asymmetrical, with their pointy tops slightly off-center, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723bo.jpg

Breaking open a fruit, you find a few hard seeds taking up most of the spaces, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723bq.jpg

If you look at the calyx's sepals beneath the fruits you see a field mark shouting out that the little tree is a member of the big, mostly tropical-American Malpighia Family, the Malpighiaceae, as you can confirm at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723bp.jpg

The diagnostic field mark for flowers and fruits of the Malpighia Family is that each sepal normally bears two conspicuous glands, and those brownish, warty thing in the picture are those glands.

About three weeks ago our Sip-Che' was flowering, but I never got around to photographing it. However, its flowers are illustrated in my 101 Yucatan Trees book. From that book, a picture showing the species' yellow flowers adorning a leafy branch is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723br.jpg

From the same book, a close-up showing a flower with the swollen, yellow glands on its sepals clearly visible is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723bs.jpg

This pretty tree, without a decent English name, is very well known among the Maya, who call it Sip-Che'. It's BUNCHOSIA GLANDULOSA. The Maya have a high regard for it because it's famous for providing protection against "evil wind," or mal viento, which the Maya worry about constantly, even the more educated ones. Back in 2008 in Sabacché, Yucatán, my friend Doña Martha told me -- as recorded in the August, 18, 2008 Newsletter -- that...

"...bad winds stir at 6AM, noon, 6PM and midnight, and ... they're left behind by the passage of alux (ah-LOOSH), or gnomes, who live in sinkholes, or cenotes. Bad winds give you headaches, make you tired and unable to think well. Alux aren't really bad, but they can be very mischievous and troublemaking. You just have to know how to deal with them.

Back at Hacienda Chichen the Maya shaman regularly sent workers into the forest to retrieve branches of Sip-Che' for use in cleansing rituals. When I asked my Maya friend Gonzalo here at the rancho if he knew about Sip-Che', at first he said he didn't, but then he asked me if I might be talking about Sipi-Che', used against mal viento. That shows how the Maya language shifts a little as you travel from place to place, as well as the fact that Sip-Che' is the cure for bad winds. Gonzalo told me this story:

"A while back a cat here at the rancho began acting funny, could hardly take a few steps without falling to the side, as if it were drunk or suffering from vertigo. We felt that this was caused by mal viento, because animals can get it, too. We agreed that a Sip-Che' cleansing ritual was needed. We knew where to find Sip-Che' trees, but we didn't know the ritual words used during cleansings. Juan decided that the situation was bad enough to try it without the chanting, so he went into the forest, came back with some branches of Sip-Che', and shook the branches up and down the cat's body just like they do when people are cleansed."

"And before long the cat got up and walked away, healed," Gonzalo concluded.

Despite Sip-Che''s fame for treating evil wind, no studies confirm that it has medicinal value in terms of Western healing.

*****

FLOWERING PENTALINON
A fairly common vine here producing attractive, yellow flowers nowadays is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723pt.jpg

Anytime you see a plant with fair-sized flowers shaped like that, and thick, glossy leaves arising opposite one another on the stem, you need to make a little tear in a leaf to see if a milky-white latex oozes out. If so, it's surely a member of the big Dogbane/ Oleander Family, the Apocynaceae. This vine's injured leaves do bleed white latex, and it's truly of that family. A close-up of the flower from the front doesn't reveal much, other than its radial symmetry, and that's also right for the Dogbane Family -- as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723pu.jpg

Breaking the corolla apart lengthwise you see other field marks confirming the Dogbane Family, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723ps.jpg

There you see five stamens inserted on the corolla tubes, the stamens' pollen-filled anthers yellow and arrow-shaped, and bearing at their tips long, slender, string-like appendages.

We've seen a vine with leaves and flowers a lot like this, growing rampantly in a garden beside the Caribbean. You can see how similar our present vine is -- but our present one's leaves and flowers both are a little more slender -- on the page for the Caribbean garden one's at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/yellvine.htm

The vine along the Caribbean was Pentalinon luteum, frequently planted in tropical gardens because they're so robust and pretty. Our present, more slender wild species belongs to the same genus. It's PENTALINON ANDRIEUXII, found in southern Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. It has no established English name, but in Spanish it's often called Contrayerba, which is a name applied to a number of plants believed to be of exceptional medicinal value.

In fact, if you do a Web search on the name Pentalinon andrieuxii, you'll find few pictures and very little general information about the plant, but numerous pages informing us that its root extract is effective in treating the disease known as leishmaniansis. Leishmaniansis manifests as localized skin lesions that can lead to significant tissue damage and disfigurement. Over 12 million people are said to suffer from the disease, with about two million new case turning up each year. The disease is considered "a major global health problem and a neglected disease." This information and much more on the research is available on the Web for free at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4136428/

*****

GOOD-SMELLING MARGARITOPSIS
For several days an exceptionally pleasant, spicy fragrance hinting of freshly grounds cinnamon and nutmeg suffused the air around the hut, but I couldn't find its source. A small tree or bush with small, white flowers was blossoming nearby, but I didn't even consider it as the source because its blossoms were so small. However, one day I took a closer look at that small tree, just to confirm that it was what I thought it was, and its little flowers were the source after all. You can see a little of the plant, which otherwise was solidly embedded and mostly obscured in a wall of lush vegetation, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723mg.jpg

I'd assumed that the bush was a member of the large Coffee or Madder Family, the Rubiaceae -- whose field marks include opposite leaves connected at their bases by conspicuous stipules, and flowers with inferior ovaries. First I looked for those "interpetiolar stipules," and found some classic ones, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723mj.jpg

Now I checked for the inferior ovaries, and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723mi.jpg

Inferior ovaries are those situated beneath the calyx. In the above picture you see what looks like calyx sepals atop spherical, green ovaries, which would make the ovary inferior. However, look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723mh.jpg

That picture shows a very typical Coffee-Family corolla, but, what in the last picture looked like green calyxes atop a spherical ovary turn out to be mostly empty, goblet-shaped calyxes. The ovaries lie in the goblets' bottoms and the corolla arises from atop that ovary, so it's still an inferior ovary, just inferior in a curious way. In botanical terms, such a goblet-shaped calyx is said to be "crateriform." The fragrant shrub wasn't what I thought it was, which was some kind of Psychotria; I'd not seen anything like this before.

It was MARGARITOPSIS MICRODON, found in disturbed areas, dry forests an thickets from southern Mexico and the Caribbean area south to northern South America. It has no good English name, though in Spanish often it's called Crucetillo. However, that name is applied to so many different kinds of plants that it's a shame to use it.

This was a fine discovery -- a genus I'd never encountered, and a species that's memorable if only because of its wonderful odor.

*****

CLEANING NEEM SEEDS
In the July 9th Newsletter we looked at how we're collecting Neem seeds here at the rancho. Since people in the tropics worldwide are experimenting with harvesting enough seeds to do things with on a small scale like we are, I'm glad to share the following information on we did it.

When Neem fruits drop and dry out, their skin and thin layer of pulp dry into a leathery, almost woody covering, that's hard to remove. At first we picked off the covering of each fruit with our fingers, but that was so slow and time consuming that it wasn't worth it. I experimented with several approaches and decided that -- at least on our small scale -- it was best to collect the fruits every few days, before the skin and pulp dried out. Last year they'd waited until most of the fruits had fallen, and collected them all at once, by which time the seeds were encased in their dried-out covering.

Collecting them every few days provides some fruits that have just fallen, some that have lain for a few days, and some that may have begun drying out, depending on the weather. A harvest of fruits in various stages of drying out can be poured into a container holding water. The fruits float and easily can be gathered between one's hands and rubbed briskly, so that seeds squirt from their coverings, or at least part of the coverings come off. Maya ladies hired to "wash the seeds" in this manner have plenty of practice with such hand motion, preparing masa for tortillas, and do a good job. Our ladies decided it was best to use a three-bucket approach, with the help of a strainer. You can see what that looked like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723nt.jpg

Each time the floating mass of skin, pulp and seeds was transferred to the next bucket, as much skin and pulp was removed as possible and thrown away, leaving seeds floating. Another shot of the process is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723nu.jpg

Once the seeds are washed and cleaned, they need to be dried out. Though Neem products are said to be anti-fungal, we've found that if the leaves and seeds remain moist long they get fungusy. You can see Neem seeds being dried by fan at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723ns.jpg

Hopefully, before long I can report on what we've done with those seeds.

*****

CHOPPED OKRA
An early afternoon storm 's first thunder was just starting up as I sat beside the campfire slicing okra pods. You can see some of my slices on the chopping block at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170723ok.jpg

There were beautiful. I sat awhile just looking at them, wondering why the Universe was configured so that it hides beauty inside okra pods.

But, consensus among philosophers seems to be that "beauty" doesn't exist until someone comes along to notice it. "Beauty," like anger and being bashful, is in the beholder's head, so the Universe isn't hiding anything; I needed to rephrase the question to, "What does it mean that I personally find okra slices beautiful?

My first thought was that maybe the okra sections were beautiful because each was so neatly divided into pie-slice-shaped, green-walled compartments, and each compartment held a white ball, the future seed. In other words, maybe geometric orderliness lies at the heart of beauty.

It's true that people often find six-sided quartz crystals, intricately veined insect wings, diatoms floating in water, the structure of classic Greek buildings and other such geometrically orderly things beautiful. However, billowing, white cumulus clouds in summery blue skies are beautiful without geometric orderliness, and the geometric orderliness of Hitler's Nazi architecture was ponderous and oppressive, so geometric orderliness isn't at the heart of beauty.

In fact, the more I thought about it, and the more theories I proposed and then shot down as with "geometric orderliness," the clearer it grew that to answer my question I needed to change gears in thinking. Instead of sorting out the qualities of what I thought were beautiful things, and looking for revealing patterns, I needed to think cosmically. I needed once again to rephrase and refine the question to, "Why is the Universe ordered in such a way that I find slices of okra beautiful?"

A good-feeling answer immediately offered itself:

Beauty is the Universal Creative Impulse's way of letting each of us sentient, feeling beings in the Universe -- in a heartfelt, one-on-one communication -- know that we're on the right track. If this afternoon I think that an okra pod's cross section is beautiful, then the Universal Creative Impulse is encouraging me through the process of positive reinforcement -- because beauty feels good -- to keep gardening and growing okra, to keep snipping those pods into my hermit stews, to keep making campfires to cook the stew as tropical afternoon storms materialize....

A corollary of the above insight is that a life starved of beauty is a life on the wrong track.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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