Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the May 1, 2016 Newsletter with notes from a visit to Lacanja Chansayab in the Lacandon Reserve, Chiapas, MÉXICO

On April 14th as I hiked small gravel backroads around Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve, one of the most eye-catching roadside plants was a dry-season-leafless vine whose foot-long pods hang on long peduncles from trees, as shown below:


Below, you can better judge how large those pods are in a close-up of one in my hand:


At the very moment the above picture was snapped, behind me on the road a little Lacandon girl seemed to materialize out of nowhere, saying ""You shouldn't touch that, because it has tiny, sharp hairs that come off, stick into your skin and won't come out, so that you'll itch a lot." She's on the right, beside her little sister, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160424le.jpg

As soon as I heard this I realized what kind of plant we had. It's a viny member of the Bean Family, so the big fruits are legumes. Moreover, it's the genus Mucuna, whose various species often go by the name of Pica-Pica, the name based on the Spanish verb picar, of which one meaning is "to prick," as in "stick into your skin," as the little girl said. Around the hut at Hacienda Chichen in the Yucatan there lots of prickly Pica-Pica legumes hang from the trees and I'm always having to tell tourists not to touch them. I didn't recognize these Chiapan Pica-Pica legumes because they're old with most of the hairs fallen off, and they're so big. You can see the four-inch-long (10 cm) Pica-Pica pods I'm used to -- and Pica-Pica hairs sticking into my skin -- at the bottom of our Pica-Pica page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mucuna-p.htm

This big-podded Pica-Pica is MUCUNA ARGYROPHYLLA, distributed from southern Mexico -- except in the arid Yucatan -- south to Guatemala and El Salvador. It favors humid forests and disturbed areas where its woody stems climb into the tops of tall trees, sometimes covering them, like Kudzu in the US Southeast. Pica-Pica leaves are trifoliate and in fact look a bit like Kudzu leaves.

Because of its weediness, irritating (but not stinging) hairs, and reports of cattle getting sick from eating its leaves, this Pica-Pica isn't much appreciated by country folks, except those taking advantage of traditional medicine.

For the online Biblioteca Digital de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana reports that the vine's big seeds, which are a little similar to a human eye, are used to protect against the evil eye, which seems to afflict an amazing number of backcountry folks. For hemorrhoids, you need a "male" seed and a "female"one -- a concept fundamentally at odds with Western botanical concepts. To determine which seeds are of which sex, put them into water. Males float while females sink.