Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the February 26, 2012 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO
MAYA TEMPLE NIGHTSHADE

The Hacienda's property extends far into the surrounding forest, where hundreds of ancient Maya ruins lie moldering. Typically all you see of a ruin is a rise on the forest floor overgrown with vegetation. Only rarely do stone surfaces bearing hieroglyphics peek from among the rubble and plant cover. It was atop such a rectangular mound, which earlier surely bore a building, that a six-ft-high (1.8m) semi-shrub turned up, its big, bluntly lobed, spine-bearing leaves translucing in sunlight, as shown below:

SOLANUM HIRTUM, plant

Some plant species seem to cluster around ancient ruins, so might this possibly be a relict species somehow hanging on from ancient Maya times? Also, I'd not seen this species elsewhere, so I clambered onto the mound for a closer look. Though the plant was a species I hadn't seen, it bore a few flowers structured a familiar way. See if you recognize the plant group it belongs to by looking at a flower below:

SOLANUM HIRTUM, flower

With its spreading, five-lobed corolla subtending five yellow anthers grown together by their margins to form a cylinder around the female pistil, it could hardly be anything other than a member of the Nightshade Family, the Solanaceae, as well as the nightshade genus, Solanum. But Solanum is one of the largest of the Earth's flowering-plant genera, holding about 1700 species, so we were still far from knowing exactly what we had.

To help with later identification I noted the plant's special features, such the dark, broad-based spines along its leaves' main veins, and how the leaves themselves were soft-fuzzy with white hairs, as shown below:

SOLANUM HIRTUM, spines & soft hairs at base of leaf

The species turned out to be SOLANUM HIRTUM, native from Mexico south into northern South America. It's a forest species that can be weedy enough to bear a Spanish name, which is Cojón de Gato, or Cat's Balls, referring to its spherical, fuzzy fruits.

The Maya also have a name for it, Put Balam, or "Jaguar Papaya." In Mayan cosmology the Jaguar is the most powerful shamanic animal, so the possibility arises that our temple-mound-growing nightshade may indeed once have been associated with Mayan rituals. It's recorded that chewing the plant's fresh leaves produces a narcotic and stimulating effect, and the fruits are used medicinally for treating angina.