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

September 24, 2017

*****

BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUIT'S HEAD-FIRST DIVE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/blueblak.htm we've admired the Blue-black Grassquit, a common species here in weedy, grassy fields, and one with an unforgettable behavior: The males when calling perch atop conspicuous bushes or fences repeatedly flying straight up a foot or two, then just as suddenly returning to their perches, or maybe to a spot nearby, and then within seconds, repeating the flight. Usually as they jump upward they issue a short, sharp call.

At the bottom of his page there's a photo of him returning to his perch in a head-first dive. Often I've tried to catch him in return flight again, to confirm that he habitually dives head-first. This week I got the picture -- the bird blurry as in the first case because he's plunging so fast -- as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924gq.jpg

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PAPER WASP NEST LOOKING OMINOUS
In our August 20th Newsletter we looked at a paper wasp nest dangling ten feet up (3m) exactly in front of the hut's door. The page showing that is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/wasp1.htm

There we see a wasp nest that at the time seemed like something I could live with. But look at now, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924wp.jpg

The nest is very much larger bearing very many more wasps than before, and is much heavier so that it dangles much lower . So far when my bald head passes below they don't seem the least concerned. However, up North as fall approaches, I've seen paper wasps who have been peaceful all summer turn irascible as the days got shorter, the nights cooler, and winter approaches -- when the wasp sisters die.

Here there's much less difference in day length between summer and winter, and it doesn't get cold enough to kill wasps, though the dry season will come in November or so. I just don't know what will happen with these wasps...

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BOOB, THE "GRAPE TREE"
It's a special pleasure to meet a new tree. This week I found one I've been wanting to see for a long time, so it's a double pleasure. It grew so enmeshed with other trees and vines at a forest edge that it was impossible to see whether it was a tree or a woody vine, but I knew from the literature that it can grow to 100ft (30m).

The tree is especially striking now because it's bearing its fruits. You can see a branch with its large, broad, leathery leaves and long clusters of grape-like fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924cc.jpg

A closer look at a fruit cluster is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924cd.jpg

This is COCCOLOBA SPICATA, with no good English or Spanish name. The tree is so special it deserves some kind of handle, so I've learned its Maya name, which is Boob. Using the Maya name is appropriate because it occurs only in the Maya area -- the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize and part of Guatemala.

If you've seen Sea-Grapes along tropical America's sandy beaches, from southern Florida to South America, you've encountered a close relative of Boob. Sea-Grapes is Coccoloba uvifera, so Boob is a species in the same genus as Sea-Grapes. You might enjoy comparing our Boob pictures with those of Sea-Grapes on our page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/seagrape.htm

The genus Coccoloba resides in the Buckwheat or Knotweed Family, the Polygonaceae. A distinctive field mark of members of that family consists of the conspicuous stipules that commonly form a collar-like sheath, or "ocrea," around the stem at the point of petiole attachment. The ocrea encircling the stems of Boob are especially worth noticing, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924ce.jpg

In that picture the ocreae are green at their bases and brown and tattered at their tops.

Despite this being my first time to see Boob fruiting, the plant is common here. A 15ft-tall (4.5m) Boob stands exactly in front of the hut's porch, beside the wasp nest, and a smaller one grows to the side. I've seen hundreds around knee to shoulder high. They're very conspicuous because of the leaves' large size and shiny, leathery surface. But all those encounters have been with non-flowering, non-fruiting plants. Why are flowering/fruiting Boob trees so rare? I asked my Maya friends about it.

They say it's because the Boob is so useful -- people cut down the larger ones, the trunks being used as thatch supports for the thatch roofs on their traditional huts. Far from the roads, they tell me, you can still see plenty of mature Boob trees flowering and fruiting.

Also they say that when they can't find banana leaves in which to wrap their tamales, they look for Boob leaves, which are so leathery that they make good wrappers. A study of the medicinal flora of Oxtankah, just north of Chetumal on the Yucatan's southern Caribbean coast, found Boob traditionally used for treating asthma

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HETEROPTERYS VINE FLOWERING
About 15ft (4.5m) above the rancho's entry gate a woody vine reaches into open space, looking for something to twine on, but finds nothing. You can see its curling and twisting, seemingly expressing its frustration, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924he.jpg

Notice at the picture's right the large cluster of small, pinkish blossoms. A closer look at a dangling branch's flowers and rough, leathery leaves arising in pairs along the stem is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924hf.jpg

Up closer still, the flowers show some interesting field marks, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924hg.jpg

Five pink petals narrowed to "claws" at their bases, stamen filaments united at their bases... but the feature telling us what family the vine belongs to appears on the unopened flowers at the picture's top, right corner. Do you see those peanut-shaped, yellowish, shiny items on the sepals' undersides? Those are glands, two per sepal, and whenever you see flowers with sepals bearing such paired glands you need to think "Malpighia Family, Malpighiaceae."

Members of the Malpighia Family overwhelmingly occur in the American tropics, so you can be a fairly good temperate zone naturalist and never have heard of this family. The Barbados-Cherry with its good tasting fruits may be the best known family member.

We've already met this vine, though during that earlier encounter, in January of 2011, it bore winged, samara-type fruits similar to maple fruits up north. You can review what the fruiting vine looks like in dry-season January at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109st.jpg

This is HETEROPTERYS BRACHIATA, with no good English name, distributed from Mexico through Central America to northeastern South America.

The Heteropterys brachiata page at the MedicinaTradicionalMexicana website sponsored by UNAM, the Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, tells us that in Mexico a medicine from the vine is used to calm the nerves, and to deal with fury and craziness.

Maybe one day centuries ago a shaman someplace in Mexico saw the vine as pictured above, frustrated in its efforts to seek support, contorting its limbs into various kinks and knots, and the shaman thought: "That vine is trying to tell me that it's good for shot nerves... "

*****

"WILD SAGE" FLOWERING
Each morning at the turn-around of my jogging run I like to pinch a leaf from a certain semi-woody, much-branched, 7ft tall (2m) bush, crush the leaf as I begin running back, and smell it. The odor is vaguely like sage or oregano, though a bit musky and not as appetizing. Still, it's a good smell on a warm morning wet from the previous afternoon's storm, and the night's fog and dew. You can see a flowering branch tip at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924lt.jpg

The small flowers are strongly "irregular," or bilaterally symmetrical, like little dog heads, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924lv.jpg

The very distinctive flowering head is shown viewed from the side at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924lu.jpg

We've seen flowers and flowering heads like this before. The similarly strong-scented Lantana, a commonly planted garden flower often escaped and growing wild in warmer areas up north and throughout Mexico, is very like the current species, except that the garden one has colored flowers while the current one's are white. You can review the garden Lantana at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/lantana2.htm

That's Lantana camara, and our white-flowered one, also a Lantana, often is classified as LANTANA HIRTA. I'm hedging about the name because the taxonomic classification of this commonly occurring plant in years past has been very confused, just as it has with the even more familiar Lantana camara.

The Lantana hirta page at the freely accessible Biblioteca Digital de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana website says that in Mexico people grow the plant in family gardens, and though no studies have found a basis for medicinal use of the plant, traditionally the plant has served to control vaginal hemorrhages, dysentery, and to deal with spells that have been put on you by dead people -- "hechizo de difunto," as they call it here.

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LITTLEWOMAN, THE MINT
Days are getting shorter now, and somehow the air seems clearer and shadows blacker and more sharply defined than earlier. Maybe that has something to do with the reason why in disturbed areas, as along trails and roads, so many little herbs with bluish flowers are showing up, blue being a short-wavelength color that has an easier time penetrating the late rainy season's dense foliage.

Among the most commonly encountered blue-flowered herbs are Dayflowers (Commelina erecta>, Wild Petunias ( Ruellia nudiflora), Cat's-Tongue (Priva lappulacea) and Brazilian Tea (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis). Another blue-flowered herb, specializing in trail edges in especially shady, moist woods, is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924sa.jpg

To many wildflower lovers the plant's sawtoothed leaf margins, the leaves arising opposite one another along the stem, and the dog-faced, strongly bilaterally symmetrical corollas, mean that this well may be a member of the Mint Family, the Lamiaceae. A closer look at some flowers shows typical mint blossoms, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924sb.jpg

Closer up still, a blossom shows how nicely designed it is to accommodate pollinators, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924sc.jpg

The pollinator, probably a bee, lands on the ±horizontally held lower lip. White lines serve as "nectar guides" to direct the visitor into the corolla's throat where nectar is available. When the pollinator enters the corolla tube the two stamens held against the tube's ceiling are fixed so that as the pollinator pushes inward a kind of lever is pushed so that the stamens tilt downward, dousing the pollinator's back with pollen. You can see the two stamens arising with the purple-tipped, curved style between them, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924sf.jpg

Finally, if you need absolute proof that you have a Mint Family member, you can break open a calyx from which the corolla has fallen after pollination, and see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170924se.jpg

Ovaries in the Mint Family normally are at least somewhat divided into four parts, and in many species the parts are separate, forming four "nutlets," as shown above. Each nutlet contains a seed.

Despite this plant's common occurrence and distinctive features, I'm unsure which name to give it. The plant nicely matches what CICY, the "Center for Scientific Investigation" in Mérida, calls Salvia fernaldii. CICY, which usually is very up-to-date, considers Salvia fernaldii to be endemic only to the Yucatan Peninsula, and therefore worthy of attention for conservation purposes. However, most authors regard Salvia fernaldii as merely a synonym for SALVIA SEROTINA, which is much more widely distributed, from Florida and the Caribbean area south through Mexico into Panama.

Whatever its taxonomic status, in English sometimes it's known as Littlewoman, surely because of its elegant blossoms.

On the Web, Littlewoman's leaves are said to be aromatic. They do smell a little but I'd not call them aromatic. In the Bahamas, Littlewomen is used to treat gastrointestinal problems, colds and fevers, and dermatological problems.

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MELODIOUS BLACKBIRD AT DAWN
The same impulse that sets me to examining so closely the natural world around me, sends me looking ever harder at myself. Human animals are natural, too, evolving by the same natural processes as all other living things, and subject to the same natural laws as everything else. And, I'm as good an example of the human element of Nature as anyone.

Among earthly living things we humans are especially interesting because our mentality represents the most sophisticated end-result of eons of Earthly evolution. Therefore, in studying myself, my own thinking and feeling is especially interesting. Here's a report on one of my studies of a corner of my own mentality:

Normally each morning I awaken beneath the mosquito net a little before dawn and lie savoring the moment's peacefulness, until it's light enough to go jogging. Lately I've been focusing more attention to that "glowing presence with undefined borders, suspended in nothingness" that sometimes I sense, feel, or maybe imagine inside myself during meditation. I spoke about it a while back in the "Fabre's The Life of the Spider" essay. The radiant presence being referred to might be cartoonized as something spherical and silvery glowing with light and energy, with no other feature other than its solid "is-ness."

So, each morning in pre-dawn quietness I approach my interior glowing presence by shutting out as many thoughts and distractions as possible. When I'm well focused on the presence, it seems to welcome me by drawing me closer. However, even on the quietest mornings it's hard to subdue random thoughts, for the brain spontaneously effervesces all kinds of mental exercises, from rerunning old conversations to imagining adventures a more dynamic me might experience. I'm lucky if I can draw near the interior radiance for more than a few seconds a time.

When morning's first hint of light washes the eastern horizon, the Melodious Blackbird is the first to call with his liquid, playful-seeming what-chew, what-chew?. The song's distraction shatters my reverie, yanking me away from the interior radiance. But, that's OK, because something interesting happens:

During those first moments after leaving the radiance, the Melodious Blackbird's call thrills and evokes empathy in me much more intensely than it ever does in everyday life. It's as if being close to the glowing presence, even for a second or two, supercharges my sensitivities and capacity to feel as nothing else does.

I'm taking this as an indication that I'm on the right track with my studies of myself.

Moreover, this Melodious Blackbird experience has encouraged me to try another experiment: While walking around during the day, I try to summon my interior glowing presence and hold it awhile, wanting to see what it would be like with supercharged senses and feelings while experiencing the everyday world.

Really I can't do it yet but, sometimes, very briefly, I glimpse what it might be like -- to find Melodious-Blackbird delight in everything.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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