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

September 17, 2017

*****

WHITE SAILOR
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170917ws.jpg you can see the latest addition to our Butterflies of Yucatán Identification Page, which is found at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/

Usually that's known as the White Sailor. It's DYNAMINE THESEUS, distributed from southern Mexico south through Central America to northern South America, and despite occurring over such a large area not much is known about it or its caterpillars.

The "Sailor" part of the English name applies to a fair number of species in the genus Dynamine. This is the first White Sailor I've spotted, but the Mexican Sailor, Dynamine posterta, is common here, in some disturbed environments the most evident of all species. You might enjoy comparing this week's White Sailor with the common Mexican Sailor, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/butt005.jpg

Our local form of the Mexican Sailor is bluish above, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/butt006.jpg

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WINGED YAM
Last April the rancho's owner bought some tubers of a kind I hadn't seen before. I planted them and vigorously growing vines soon sprouted from them. Nowadays the vines grow over 15ft (5m) into trees at the garden's edge, and the growing season is far from over. You can see how the arrowhead-shaped leaves arrange themselves on the vines' stems at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170917di.jpg

Last November we profiled a very similar vine, the Air Potato, Dioscorea bulbifera, of the Yam Family, the Dioscoreaceae. It produced "bubiles" on its stem, looking like angular potatoes. You can compare the current species with pictures on the Air Potato page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/air-pot.htm

Notice that on our present vine the sinuses between the leaves' backward-projecting "ears" are much narrower than on Air Potato leaves. However, on the Air Potato page you can see that secondary and tertiary veins on Air Potato leaves form irregular rectangles, which is a good field mark for members of the Yam Family. Our current vine's leaves display similar veiny rectangles, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170917dk.jpg

We have another member of the Yam Family here. Besides the narrow leaf sinuses, at this stage in the vine's development, the most conspicuous difference between it and the Air Potato vine is that our current species's stems are "winged," as you can clearly see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170917dj.jpg

Air Potato vine stems don't have those curvy, purplish little outgrowths along the stems, known as wings. And those wings make our current vine easy to identify. Like the Air Potato, it's a member of the Yam Family genus Dioscorea and also originally from tropical Asia.

Our winged vine is DIOSCOREA ALATA, named in 1753 by Linnaeus himself. It's planted in the tropics worldwide for its large, edible, starchy tubers. Being so widely distributed in so many countries, it's known by many English names, including Winged Yam, White Yam, Purple Yam, Asiatic Yam, Greater Yam, Ten-months Yam Water Yam, etc.

The Maya call it Makal, which is curious because the vine couldn't look less like the other plant called Makal, traditionally grown at the edge of cornfields here. The traditional Makal looks like smaller versions of the huge, ornamental called Elephant Ears. When I mentioned this, the workers admitted that they do call both very different plants Makal. However, one of them knew that the traditional Elephant-Ear Makal is Kukut Makal, while our vine is Aak'il Makal.

I read that Winged Yam's stems can reach 30ft long (10), and that they can also bear bulbils, though not as frequently as Air Potato vines. I'm looking forward to digging up the tubers when the dry season returns and the vines die back.

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NEMATODES ON OKRA ROOTS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/okra.htm I announce that Okra can be grown during the Yucatan's rainy season, which is important because the vast majority of garden plants we'd like to introduce from the North just can't deal with this area's rainy-season insects and diseases. On our Okra page I point out that Okra's Wikipedia page says that Okra grows up to 6.6.ft tall (2m), but that here I expected much taller plants than that. With plenty of the growing season left my plants already are about 8ft tall (2.4m) and when they reach their tallest I'll show them to you.

However, now I don't think they'll ever reach the 15ft I thought we'd see. Leaves on many of my plants are dying. You can see what I saw on the roots when I pulled up a completely dead Okra plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170917nm.jpg

We've already seen knotty growths like that on dead and dying tomato plants, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/nematode.htm

The growths are caused by nematodes, which are microscopic roundworms living in the soil and attacking plant roots. A page entitled "Nematode Management in Okra" presented by the University of Florida IFAS Extension service, says "Okra is infamous for its susceptibility to root-knot nematodes; it is also extremely sensitive to sting nematodes. Because of this, okra should not be planted in land known to have severe problems with these nematodes in recent crops."

We've already seen that the rancho's soil is so rich in nematodes that they killed my entire pepper crop, which consisted of five different chili varieties, as well as my cucumbers and Zucchini. I had similar nematode problems at Chichén Itzá. With time I'm seeing that nematodes are very important to consider when gardening in the Yucatan. The best measure against them is to enrich the soil with organic matter.

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GOOD-SMELLING CORNFIELDS
Nowadays the local cornfields are flowering, and the fields smell good, like tender fresh corn, just sweeter and mellower. The farmers say the fragrance is from the corn ears forming, or maybe the pollen from the male flowers.

You can see a cornstalk's big inflorescence, or tassel, of male flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170917my.jpg

The unisexual male flowers are even handsomer up close, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170917mx.jpg

In that picture the yellowish-white items dangling like bananas on threads are the pollen-filled anthers. Each of the threads -- the stamens' filaments -- arise from inside a floret inside a spikelet. If it's time for corn's male flowers to produce pollen, then there must be female flowers nearby to receive the pollen. If you search along the stalk, in the angles along the stem where the long, hairy blades of corn arise, you can see the "silks" arising from the future ear of corn, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170917mz.jpg

The immature ear of corn is an inflorescence of unisexual female flowers. Each silk is style, a style being a kind of neck between the ovary and the stigma or stigmatic area where pollen is supposed to land. When a pollen grain germinates, it sends a root-like tube with the male sex germ down through the style to the future grain of corn, which is the ovary. For such a microscopic sex germ, that's an incredible journey to the female germ inside the future grain of corn way down below, enshrouded with the future corn husks.

It's all quite beautiful, and it's so excellent that such delicious, homey fragrance fills the air when it's all happening.

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WEEDY CORNFIELDS
Still, most of the cornfields in this area are similar to the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170917mw.jpg

That field is so weedy and the soil so thin, sterile and compact, that not much corn will be produced. This is not a traditional milpa of the kind produced by the Maya and other indigenous American groups for thousands of years. It's something you didn't see not long ago, because it's just corn and weeds, with no beans, pumpkin vines or anything else like amaranth, sweet potatoes, manioc and the like planted with the corn.

A good bet when you see such a pitiful field of corn is that the forest was cut down and burned, and corn planted widely spaced, so the landowner could receive a government subsidy for having planted something. The idea sounds good, to have people more self sufficient and to keep in practice their farming skills, but you can see what's happening.

Still, a few traditional milpas can be seen, though even most of those no longer have bean vines among with the corn and pumpkins. Bean vines are important, since they return nitrogen to the soil that the corn so hungrily removes.

From what I can see, the main beneficiaries of cornfields of the kind shown in the picture are the raccoon-like tejones, or coatis, who eat what corn nubbins are produced, and the providers of Coca-Cola, crackers, candy and the like, that the Maya crave, and on which a large percentage of the local people's income is spent.

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CHILDREN ON A SPACESHIP
Until that very moment in the child's life, it had never occurred to him that he possessed his own identity, and that time was passing. It's said that neurons in a child's brain form and interconnect at an astonishing rate, and that at certain stages of neural development connectivity reaches thresholds at which, instantly, great leaps of insight and higher consciousness flash into being. This was one of those moments.

Looking around, for the first time the child wondered why he was on an enormous spaceship with lots of other people. Why through the spaceship's portholes could stars be seen passing by, and where was the spaceship going? And, why were all the grownups aboard so endlessly and obsessively playing Monopoly, and -- of all the games that exist -- why had he been taught to play that one as soon as he could throw dice, count numbers and read the cards?

Most grownups around him were so engrossed in their playing that they didn't take time to answer the child's questions. However, a few people seemed quite certain that the Great Wahoo had made it all, that He watched over every game. And when a game player at last was decommissioned, if the Great Wahoo judged that he or she always had played according to the rules, that person's "soul" would be sent by shuttle to a certain beautiful planet. On that wonderful planet, people always felt good and happy, but if you'd ever cheated, your soul would end up someplace else where everything hurt and made you sad.

Other people said that that was correct, but that the Great Wahoo had a different name, and that the game's rules he'd dictated were different, so everyone on the ship playing by those other rules was cheating and therefore their souls were doomed to shuttle to the place of pain and sadness. In yet other parts of the ship, people said other things, and in some parts they didn't say anything about the matter at all.

When the child became a young man he worried about his intense need to know why he was on a spaceship, where the spaceship was going, and why everyone played Monopoly all the time. He was so out of step with everyone else that he thought that maybe he was crazy or too dumb to grasp what everyone else knew but wouldn't say.

One day the young man caused a big stir among family and friends by refusing to play Monopoly anymore. He simply walked away from the board and began looking more closely at the spaceship's features, gazing through the portholes, always searching for clues that might answer his questions.

For years he wandered from one end of the spaceship to the other. He saw that the spaceship was exquisitely engineered, but that people were messing it up. They did such things as hide fake Monopoly money in ventilation shafts, disrupting the ship's airflow. They overheated the computers with endless calculations about whether, for instance, it was better to buy three new houses for Baltic Avenue or a new hotel for Park Place. Worse yet, believers in different versions of the Great Wahoo made war on one another, and disrupted the oxygenation and recycling systems with seepages from putrefying unbeliever bodies, and toxic chemical weapons.

When the young man became an old man, he was lucky to find a forgotten storeroom in a distant part of the spaceship deemed unimportant by the Monopoly players. The storeroom had a computer enabling the old man to view, savor and continue wondering about the spaceship's intricate building design, and there was a porthole through which the even more majestic and mysterious passing-by Universe could be glimpsed.

And then, eventually, the circle completed itself

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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