Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

from the November 9, 2014 Newsletter issued from Río Lagartos, on the north-central coast of Yucatán, MÉXICO
CUDJOE-WOOD

Positioning myself to photograph a small herb in a seasonally flooded but otherwise thin-soiled, dry, low area near the marshes along the coast just east of Río Lagartos, something painfully pricked my back in several places. I was backing into a dense, dark-green, knee-high shrub whose laurel-like leaves were tipped with hard, slender spines. The bush bore clusters of pea-sized, orangish flowers more interesting than what I was about to take a picture of, so below you can see the plant that stabbed me in the back:

Cudjoe-wood, BONELLIA MACROCARPA ssp. MACROCARPA

A closer look at the clusters of flowers with prickle-tipped leaves below them is shown below:

Cudjoe-wood, BONELLIA MACROCARPA ssp. MACROCARPA, leaves & flowers

The flowers turned out to display the unusual features shown below:

Cudjoe-wood, BONELLIA MACROCARPA ssp. MACROCARPA, flower from front

Most striking is that the "ten corolla lobes" seem to alternate in size, the smaller ones with low ridges running their lengths. Are the outer, larger lobes perhaps petal-like calyx lobes? That question was easily answered by examining the flower from the side, as seen below:

Cudjoe-wood, BONELLIA MACROCARPA ssp. MACROCARPA, flower side view

Here we see the green calyx below the corolla, right where it's supposed to be, its broad, rounded, overlapping sepals fringed with unusually transparent margins, and bearing tiny glands spread across their surfaces. The orange corolla lobes really do alternate in size, and overlap one another, features that are very unusual in the world of corolla anatomy.

Having such fine field marks to work with when I "did the botany," the pretty little bush revealed itself as BONELLIA MACROCARPA ssp. MACROCARPA, which is so rarely documented that it has no decent English name, though some web pages have settled on calling it Cudjoe-wood. The term "Cudjoe" is a name given at birth to a black child in certain creole-speaking cultures, indicating the child's sex and the fact that the child was born on a Monday. What our plant has to do with that practice can only be imagined.

Anyway, Cudjoe-wood occurs in Mexico and Central America, where often it's a component of "thorn scrub," which is one designation of our local vegetation. In Florida and Cuba, Cudjoe-wood has escaped from plantings into the wild, where it lives on spoil deposits and the fringes of mangrove forests.

Experts say that the smaller, petal-like structures between the larger corolla lobes are "staminodes," which are stamens modified to look like corolla lobes. Technical descriptions insist that Cudjoe-wood's flowers have only five corolla lobes, though it certainly looks like they have ten. Then there are five fertile stamens, and five staminodes that look like corolla lobes.

Maya in the Yucatán traditionally use Cudjoe-wood medicinally for skin problems.

Another very similar Cudjoe-wood species, Bonellia flammea, is listed for the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Its flower stems, or pedicels, appear more slender and somewhat longer than our Bonellia macrocarpa.

Taxonomists have problems deciding where to put Cudjoe-wood on the Phylogenetic Tree of Life. For years Cudjoe-wood resided in the genus Jacquinia as Jacquinia macrocarpa, and many web pages still use that name. Though the online Flora of North America recognizes the genus Bonellia, it retains the species in the small, seldom heard-of Theophrastus Family, the Theophrastaceae, even though gene sequencing data has caused many experts to lump the genus into the Primrose Family, the Primulaceae.

Whatever our little shrub's affiliations, I was glad it caught my attention by stabbing me in the back.