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

November 19, 2017

*****

TURMERIC HARVEST
About twenty handsome, broad-leafed CURCUMA LONGA plants in the garden were waist high and I wondered if they were ready for harvest. Curcuma longa, a member of the Ginger Family, the Zingiberaceae, is the plant producing rhizomes from which the pungent and yellow-dying spice called turmeric is made. You can see some of my plants at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119tm.jpg

When I dug up the first plant, I could hardly believe my eyes, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119tn.jpg

The orangish, toe-like things are rhizomes, and they're orangish because turmeric is the spice that gives curried dishes their golden color. Curry powder is a blend of turmeric, coriander, ginger and maybe other spices. The moment the rhizomes in the picture popped from the ground, the morning air was suffused with a strong spicy odor that instantly brought to mind my days in India when it was hard to find a meal that wasn't curried.

Some of the rhizomes were sprouting green stems. I broke them from the cluster and planted them as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119to.jpg

That plot was prepared with the long, intensely hot dry season coming up. The garden's soil has been compacted by cattle hooves for decades, and before that, depleted of organic matter by generations of Maya slash-and-burn, so first I pickaxed a trench in the brittle dirt, heaped up berms along the trench's sides, then pickaxed the trench deeper, wheelbarrowed in plenty of cow manure mixed with chopped, semi-rotted Guano-palm leaf (from rethatching a hut), and created loose, crumbly soil in which to plant the sprouting rhizomes. That's more or less how I prepared the rich, crumbly soil shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119tp.jpg

The plastic sheets covering the berms serve as mulch, to cut down on moisture loss during upcoming hot, dry months. The harvest shown in the pictures has come from plants that did most of their growing during the recent rainy season, so I'm uncertain how my luck will be with this new planting going into the dry season.

With this week's harvest, I've become a turmeric fan, wanting to know about it. I find that our Curcuma longa -- and that's a fine, old Linnaeus name -- is thought to have originated in southern Asia. None of my plants produced flowers, but when blossoms occur the resulting seeds are sterile, so plants reproduce only via their rhizomes. The species is thought to have arisen by selection and vegetative propagation of a hybrid between a wild turmeric plant and some closely related species.

In India, turmeric has been in use for at least 2500 years, and probably at first it served only as a dye, coming to be used as a condiment only later.

I read that the plant's rhizomes can be cured for use as a spice by boiling and steaming, or else by being boiled, dried, peeled and ground. However, I take a fresh, juicy piece of rhizome about as long as the last joint of my thumb, scrape it with a knife to produce something like orange, moist sawdust, and when that's added to my morning stew I can't imagine it being any better than it is. You can see some of my rhizomes cleaned and undergoing enough drying to keep them from getting fungusy during storage at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119tq.jpg

On the Internet I see a discussion about whether raw turmeric roots are toxic. I'm not eating them raw, though. In fact, I read that a little cooking, as I do with my morning stews, actually makes the spice's important compounds more available to the body.

The list of traditional medicinal uses of turmeric is so long that one starts to doubt them. However, Western science has confirmed that turmeric shows anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, plus it shows potential for anti-ulcer, wound-healing, liver protective and anti-cancer uses. You might enjoy reviewing what Dr. Edward Group writes about it at the GlobalHealingCenter.Com website.

On that page, Dr. Group writes that "Turmeric contains many antioxidant compounds, of which curcumin is the most potent. In fact, studies have found that the antioxidant activities of this compound are ten times more effective than those of resveratrol, the much-hyped antioxidant in red wine." He also asserts that turmeric promotes cardiovascular health, helps maintain the liver, and resists harmful organisms. He calls it a "legitimate superfood."

Even without all the health claims, I'd be using the rhizomes in my morning stews if only because they color the stew so nicely, and add a good taste, along with a few coriander seeds and a chopped chili. You can see my latest curried masterpiece at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119tr.jpg

*****

CLIMBING SPINACH FLOWERING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/basella.htm we've introduced Climbing Spinach, sometimes known as Malabar Spinach. At first I wondered whether the plant would survive here, but now I see that it thrives, growing like a weed. You can see a small part of my Climbing Spinach at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119cr.jpg

At first I thought the plant would climb high up a trellis, like vine beans, but they didn't twine and were always taking off across the garden. Then I planted them in beds. Very soon the stems overtook the beds, shot out across open ground to other beds, and even climbed up the chickenwire fence put around the beds to keep out dogs. Happily, I eat their leaves every day and the hotel uses quite a lot, so the rampant growth is OK.

Earlier we noted that Climbing Spinach belongs to the little-heard-of Basella Family. I've been looking forward to seeing the flowers of this unusual family, and now a few plants are hesitantly issuing slender spikes affixed with very small, whitish blossoms, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119cs.jpg

A close-up of some purplish-tipped flowers is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119ct.jpg

Interesting features of the Basella Family visible in that picture are that the flowers are subtended by two green, sharp-pointed bracts. The green calyx below the urn-shaped corolla consists of only two sepals instead of the usual five, and those may be fused with the corolla. Also, the flowers don't open up more than the one at the top, right in the picture. Cutting across one of the blossoms displays feature seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119cu.jpg

Each flower has five stamens growing from the corolla wall. They're affixed opposite the petals, instead of the usual way of alternating with them.

*****

CASSAVA FLOWERING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/manioc.htm we've noticed the important, starchy-tuber-producing crop plant variously known as Cassava, Manioc, Tapioca-Plant and Yuca. Here we grow Cassava but no one who knows how to tend them has been caring for the plants, so either they've been producing no edible tubers, or else the tubers have turned out too woody to eat. I'm experimenting with them and hope later to show you how I produced a bounteous crop, but who knows what luck I'll have. Meanwhile, my plants, which are about 12ft tall (3.7m) are flowering. You can see a few Cassava blossoms at the top of a plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119ca.jpg

Cassava belongs to the Euphorbia/ Poinsettia Family, the Euphorbiaceae, in which plants produce unisexual flowers either together on the same plant (in which case the plants are said to be monoecious) or on separate male or female plants (diocious). Cassava plants are monoecious, so each plant may bear both male and female flowers. One of my Cassavas' surprisingly handsome male flowers is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119cd.jpg

Interesting features to note incoude that there is no corolla, but rather the calyx, which is green in most flowers, is colored and assumes the role of the corolla. Also, the pollen-producing stamens are of two distinct lengths, one series with its anthers on very short filaments and arising from the inside faces of upper calyx lobes, while the others produce anthers atop long, slender filaments arising from between lobes of a reddish-orange disc in the calyx's bottom. This is very different from that of a female flower shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119cc.jpg

The white, cauliflower-like thing atop the ribbed ovary is the stigma. The ovary will ripen into a ±spherical, or "globose" capsule about half an inch across (12mm), and displaying six winged angles. In the above picture, note the milky liquid below the orange disc. It's normal for members of the Euphorbia Family to exude white or other-colored sap from its wounds.

Later I hope to show how I harvested, prepared and ate some big Cassava roots.

*****

ESTIVATING MILLIPEDE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/chichen.htm we look at a large, colorful millipede which I'm supposing to be a species narrowly endemic to our area. If it is that species, very little information is known about its life cycle, so here I'm glad to add a little. Here's my information: In our area, in mid November, if you dig into garden soil still moist from the recently ended rainy season, you may very likely see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119mp.jpg

That millipede was disturbed several inches below the soil's surface, tightly coiled in the chamber from which one of his ends emerges.

While digging a bed for this dry season's chard crop I encountered four or five such millipede-occupied chambers. I'm assuming that the species has moved into the soil while it's still moist and soft enough to burrow through, and in its subterranean chamber will "estivate" until rains return next June or so.

The New Oxford American Dictionary installed on my Kindle defines estivation as "Prolonged torpor or dormancy of an animal during a hot or dry period."

*****

AQUATIC GIANT SALVINIA
During my mid-October visit with a friend near Tepotzlán, Morelos, in the uplands just south of Mexico City, one of the most interesting finds turned up in a little fishpond with waterlilies and other aquatic plants. You can see it floating atop the pool's clear water at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119sv.jpg

This is one of those plants that if someone during your life doesn't just tell you what it is, you may never identify it on your own. That's because it doesn't flower or fruit, and the vegetative parts are simply unlike anything else. However, if you're lucky -- as I was during my visit -- and you look long enough, you may see some chain-like structures dangling into the water from beneath the floating blades, such as those shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119sx.jpg

The brown, oval items in that picture are "sporocarps," which normally contain spores or spore-cases containing spores. That explains why the plant never produces flowers or fruits, because it's a fern, and each of the green blades floating on the water is a floating frond. Many years ago in the Climatron of St. Louis's Missouri Botanical Garden, where I worked, I learned that this kind of plant belongs to the small Salvinia Family of ferns, the Salviniaceae, and that it's the genus Salvinia.

Several Salvinia species are recognized, and it can be hard to distinguish them. However, within the genus there's a cluster of closely related, very similar species referred to as the Salvinia auriculata complex, and that complex is easy to recognized because species belonging to it all have "eggbeater-shaped hairs" covering their fronds' upper surfaces. If you can't visualize eggbeater-shaped hairs, take a look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171119sw.jpg

That's a close-up of the top of one of the fronds floating in my friend's pool, so we know we have a member of the Salvinia auriculata complex, because other Salvinia species don't produce eggbeater-shaped hairs.

Species belonging to the Salvinia auriculata complex are Salvinia auriculata, S. biloba, S.herzogii and Salvinia molesta. Working with just my pictures I can't be sure which species we have here, but of those four species only Salvinia molesta is described as "notorious and widespread," and much used as an ornamental aquarium plant, so I'm guessing that that's what we have.

SALVINIA MOLESTA, then, often called Giant Salvinia, is native to southeastern Brazil and northern Argentina. The IDTools.Org page for Giant Salvinia describes it as a sterile hybrid. The online Flora of North America describes the species as of hybrid origin, and says that its sporocarps contain mostly empty sporangia, or spore cases. If present , any spores are deformed.

Therefore, Giant Salvinia reproduces vegetatively. Frond-forming buds develop at stem nodes, and stem fragments are dispersed by wind, water currents, and human activities such as boating. This vegetative reproduction is so effective that in much of the world's tropics and semi-tropics Giant Salvinia is a serious aquatic weed clogging slow-moving, nutrient-rich, freshwater ditches, canals, ponds, lakes and rivers throughout the world's tropics and semitropics. Giant Salvinia was added to the IUCN List of 100 of the World's Worse Invasive Alien Species in 2013.

I read that six-ft-deep (2m) mats of Giant Salvinia can form atop water, blocking light entering the water, and reducing the water's oxygen content, thus seriously impacting the water's native plants and animals. Fortunately, a little Salvinia-eating beetle called Cyrtobagous salviniae is used successfully in the biological control of Giant Salvinia.

*****

TURMERIC RHIZOMES IN MORNING SUNLIGHT
That morning when I dug up the Turmeric rhizomes, for a long time I stood transfixed by what I saw. The perfectly formed, golden rhizomes glistening in morning sunlight, branching, sprouting and fogging spicy scent into the moist air was like a sudden, unforeseen hallelujah in Handel's Messiah.

For, I'd grown accustomed to defeat in that garden soil, which was very fine clay compacted by generations of cattle hooves, depleted of organic matter by other generations of Maya slash-and-burn, and left hospitable only to prodigious populations of nematodes, bugs, pathogenic bacteria and fungi, and voracious mole-like pocket gophers called Tuzas.

Besides the sheer, unanticipated beauty of that cluster of Turmeric rhizomes, another reason I stood looking was that just seeing the rhizomes' vigor and visualizing their antioxidants eventually flooding through my body, somehow already I felt more robust and alive. And already I was wondering whether if I told you about that moment, as I am now, you might share in experiencing at least a little of the antioxidant-like-supercharging of spirit that was jazzing up my day.

For example, hearing how the turmeric harvest had affected me, maybe it'd remind you of those moments of your own when you've known that it's good to recognize fine music whether it's expressed in terms of musical tones or cabbages; to recognize good poetry whether it's a priest at Mass or a Coyote howling at the moon; to know vitality and good will when you see it, whether it's the Big Bang spewing out galaxies, giraffes, and quantum mechanics, or these Turmeric rhizomes in my hand...

I mean, this gardening stuff is transcendental. When you sow, sweat and are alert enough and smart enough to coax from abused and sterile soil a beautiful, soul- and body-pleasing harvest, you're doing nothing less than tapping into a stream of reality pregnant with the most lyrical of the evolving Universe's intentions -- those intentions inferred from what's observable and understandable here on the evolving Earth. And that tapping-in branches into other currents of delight, often rooted in just such barefoot-in-the-garden moments as this.

What a pleasure it was the next morning, and the next and the next, when I ground good-sized chunks of Turmeric rhizome into my morning stew, and the stew turned golden, and I ate it all in one breakfast setting, the Chachalacas cackling, and the dogs looking at me asking what that new smell was drifting from the pot.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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