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

December 3, 2017

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DIGGING JÍCAMA TUBERS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/jicama.htm we've do documented the gathering and planting of seeds from the Jícama vine, and the production of healthy-looking Jicama seedlings. Now those seedlings have matured, produced another crop of seed-bearing legumes, and in the ground, a fine crop of Jícama tubers, of which people in the tropics worldwide eat a great deal.

But first, take a look at the dried-up Jicama vines in my garden after a full rainy season of vigorous growth, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203ji.jpg

Instead of building a trellis for the vines to climb, I took advantage of a 30-ft-long Male Bamboo stem from our bamboo grove, positioning it atop several tripods constructed of poles from the woods. Atop the bamboo stem I hung cut, upside-down, dried-out, leafless bushes and tree limbs with their branch tips touching the ground, for the vines to climb into. The system was easy and fast to construct, and it worked, as you can see from a vine's tubers, which formed close to the soil's surface, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203jj.jpg

That dug-up tuber is seen in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203jk.jpg

My Maya friends tell me that my crop has done OK, though I've seen larger Jícama tubers for sale in local frutarías. Certainly my plants did better than the plants from which last year I gathered the seeds, for they had not been cared for, and the tubers remained small, knotty and woody. Before planting my seedlings, I pickaxed the hard soil, mixed in manure, and watered assiduously.

Here the Maya and I eat Jícama tubers raw. They taste a bit like old potatoes -- starchy with little taste -- though their texture is harder and crisper than a fresh potato. The tubers are washed, peeled and sliced, and eaten without any seasoning, though when they're willing to take the time my Maya friends like to add salt and chili powder, and spritz them with lime juice.

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"RABBIT JÍCAMA"
I have no idea why such interesting plants populate the rim of the deep pit beside the hut. For whatever reason, twining up the stem of the pagoda-shaped tick-trefoil recently considered, a delicate vine this week has begun issuing pretty yellow flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203co.jpg

Even at that distance we can see that the yellow blossoms are typical of the Bean Family, the Fabaceae, plus the pinnately compound leaves are just what we'd expect of that family. A leaf close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203cs.jpg

The flowers are structured like those on a garden bean vine, so they're "papilionaceous" with a top petal, the banner, expanded to attract pollinators with its color, two side petals known as wings, and the corolla's two bottom petals fused along their common margins to form a scoop-shaped "keel," all seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203cq.jpg

The banner bends backwards exceptionally far, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203cp.jpg

In that photo notice the vegetative parts' covering of short, dense, soft hairs. The leaves are similarly soft-hairy, or "velutinous." Also, see how the flower arises from a slender, twining vine.

Since quite a number of Bean Family vines occur here, I thought that identification of this species might prove to b hard, so the corolla's wings and keel were removed to reveal the sexual parts, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203cr.jpg

In fact, identifying the species was a challenge. Of all the Yucatan's Bean Family members it seems best to match COURSETIA CARIBAEA, with no good English name, but in Spanish often called Jícama de Conejo, or "Rabbit Jícama," so I think of it as that. The species in distributed generally from Mexico south into South America.

The problem is that all pictures of Coursetia caribaea seen on the Internet show corollas that are much paler than our vividly yellow ones -- almost white -- and that worries me. However, the species is known to be very variable; three or four subspecies are recognized, the "type" form being documented for the Yucatan, so our plant's full name is Coursetia caribaea ssp. caribaea. The compound leaves of other subspecies tend to produce considerably more than five leaflets.

So, I'm filing this page under "cf. Coursetia caribaea," the "cf." meaning "confirm." That's the standard way to say that I have my doubts about the identification, but feel that it's worth filing the plant under this name, anyway.

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RINGWORM
If you've never experienced a rainy season in the tropic, it may be hard for you to visualize just how humid it gets. Books and clothing mildews, fungus cover's binocular lenses, and garden seed don't germinate because of a buildup of pathogenic fungi. This year, toward the rainy season's end, even my skin got fungusy. I got ringworm, which isn't caused by a worm at all, but rather a fungus. You can see a classic ringworm lesion on my leg at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203rw.jpg

On the Internet many pages deal with how you contract and rid yourself of ringworm, but here I'm more interested in the fungus causing it. Or, rather, fungi. I read that about 40 kinds of fungus cause ringworm, especially species of the genera Trichophyton, Microsporum and Epidermophyton. Ringworm isn't an uncommon problem; up to 20% of the population can be infected by ringworm fungi at any given time. A more technical name for ringworm is dermatophytosis.

With 40 kinds of dermatophytosis-causing fungus in three different genera, it's hard to say exactly what my own ringworm fungus has done to my skin. However, on the Internet I tried to get a good idea by looking up life-cycle details of one of the genera, Trichophyton.

On Wikipedia's Trichophyton page I read that that parasitic fungus produces hyphae like other fungi -- slender, threadlike strands that grow through their environment, in this case, my skin. When the hyphae burrow into the skin they release enzymes that digest keratin, which is a protein providing skin structure. This can irritate nerve endings, causing itching. When the itch is scratched, the fungus and dead skin particles infested with the fungus are transferred to other parts of the body, where they may start a new infection, especially if not washed away.

There's more information and and a microphotograph of Trichophyton rubrum, on the Wikipedia Trichophyton page.

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JUAN'S JÍCARAS
Above we've been talking about Jícamas, and now we're into something entire different, called jícaras. Last Wednesday after biking to Ek Balam to charge my computer batteries, on return to the rancho I found our Maya worker Juan busy making jícaras, as shown with the black dog Negrita in the background, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203ju.jpg

Jícaras are traditional Maya bowls made from the spherical, gourd-like fruits of what in English often is called the Calabash-tree, which is a member not of the Squash/Gourd Family but the Bignonia/Trumpet-Creeper family. Our Calabash-tree page featuring a picture of me eleven years younger posing with an uncut fruit is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/calabash.htm

I've not seen Calabash-trees growing wild in this area, but farther south in rainier territory they often turn up in marshy areas. Here they're often grown ornamentally.

To make jícara bowls, Calabash-tree fruits must be dried and cured to a certain point that Juan knows when he sees it. When a fruit is ready for cutting, Juan uses a hacksaw to cut it into equal halves, cutting from the center of stem attachment to the fruit's opposite side. In the picture, Juan is scraping tahe soft coating from the fruit's interior. I've seen jícaras very artfully adorned on their exteriors, worthy of holding cloth-covered hot tortillas on the table of the fanciest restaurant.

You might notice that Juan's cheek is plastered with some kind of greenish coagulations. Juan had just had a molar pulled, leaving his jaw hurting, so he took a ripe sweet orange from one of the rancho's trees, with his knife got some green scrapings from the rind, mixed these with a little alcohol and a pinch of salt, and applied the paste where you see it. He says that the pain stopped immediately.

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TREE POPPY
During my mid-October visit with a friend near Tepotzlán, Morelos, in the uplands just south of Mexico City, a "weed tree" on my friend's property line caught my eye. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203bc.jpg

Even from that distance you can see that its exceptionally large leaves are curiously shaped, rather like those of Breadfruit trees -- like broad hands with numerous fingers. A closer look at the leaves is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203bd.jpg

Besides the deeply lobed leaves and the way young leaves rise like a slender, white flame from amid larger leaves at tip branches, notice the large cluster of fruits dangling beneath the leaves, in the picture's lower, left corner. A close-up of some of those fruits is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203be.jpg

These are capsular-type fruits, meaning that each of the dry fruits (not fleshy like a peach) is derived from an ovary partitioned into more than one cell or "carpel," and normally spliting along one or more lines to release its seeds. These capsules are distinguished by their pointy tops, or beaks, and curved bottoms that gradually diminish toward their connection with the fruit stem, or pedicel.

Such an unusual looking tree would seem easy to identify, but there are challenges. First of all, few of us familiar with poppy plants would guess that this tree is a genuine member of the Poppy Family, the Papaveraceae. To be convinced of the possibility, one could note that the fruiting capsules are at least a little like poppy pods. Also, if you'd injure the tree by slashing its trunk with a machete, it'd bleed a bright, reddish latex, and of course poppies are famous for their milky juice, from which opium is derived. Once you're oriented toward the Poppy Family, it becomes easy to figure out that the tree belongs to the genus Bocconia, because not many tree-forming species belong to the Poppy Family.

However, two similar-looking species of Bocconia occur in Morelos. To figure out which species we have here, I used use leaf characters in a key written by J. Cullen in Volume IV of the European Garden Flora (Walters, SM et al. 1995), which are the following:

  • Leaves long-tapered at the base, appearing to have a winged stalk ... Bocconia arborea
  • Leaves rounded or abruptly tapered at the base, stalk not appearing winged ... Bocconia frutescens
  • Keeping that in mind, look at the leaf-base close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171203bf.jpg

    The leaves' bases are long-tapered, not abruptly so. Therefore, this is BOCCONIA ARBOREA, native to southern Mexico and Central America, and typical of disturbed grounds such as roadsides and second-growth woodlands. In Morelos it's fairly common.

    Both Bocconia species go by several English names, including Parrotweed, and Plume Poppy, but the one I like, since it's so surprising to think of this as a member of the Poppy Family, is Tree Poppy. In Spanish, both species are likely to be called Llora Sangre, or "Blood-weeper," because of the reddish sap that runs from its wounds. I broke some leaves apart but, at least with the dry season almost upon us in October, saw no colored sap issuing from the veins.

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    MIND JUNGLE
    The first jungles were those with tigers, cobras and fearful diseases. Eventually human society became so complex that it itself sometimes became a jungle. Only since Freud and others documented how complex and messed up the human mind can be have we known about the mind jungle.

    It's good to think about the mind jungle for the same reasons it's worth being fully alert and informed along a trail through a tiger's jungle, or when the society jungle around us grows unstable and threatening. We all know those who have fallen victim to ravages of a malfunctioning or out-of-control mind jungle.

    The human mind jungle can host an impressive array of mental enemies, but if the discussion is limited to how malfunctioning or recklessly managed human minds are destroying the Earth's biosphere, then there's no more dangerous enemy than self deception. For example, people tell themselves and others that they live environment-friendly lives, but just look at how most of us really live. Willful ignorance is nearly as bad, as when we don't pay attention to the world beyond our neighborhood, or base important judgments on political and/or religious beliefs instead of what can be grasped with one's own mind.

    To find the way out of a mind jungle, a beacon is needed, a kind of guiding light on the horizon, welcoming you forward.

    A guiding light far away... That's exactly how I visualize the guidance that miraculously becomes available to anyone who for a long time is intimate with Nature and natural things. Nature's influence is to cause us to deeply care about natural things, and natural systems. -- and that includes other humans, and human societies. Caring about them -- "loving" them isn't too strong a word -- causes us to try to avoid destroying them, and to nurture them. It's this caring, loving feeling in us that constitutes the beacon leading us from the malfunctioning, out-of-control mind jungle.

    All this sounds like pie-in-the-sky, until we remember the general outline of the evolving Universe's history up to this point: Then, such a spontaneously generated beacon toward higher levels of thinking and feeling seems appropriate:

    Universal Creative Impulse --> Big Bang --> Non-living but evolving universe --> evolving life --> evolving mentality --> a guiding light for the mentality

    *****

    Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

    Jim

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