JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the valley of the Dry Frio River on the
southern slope of the Edwards Plateau, northern
Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, USA

October 6, 2013

HONEYBEES COLLECTING POLLEN
For the last month each morning when it was so early that the sky was brght but the sun hadn't yet risen above the eastern hills, one or more honeybees has visited flowers on a big pot of Purple Spiderworts on Juniper House's deck. The bees make no effort to search for nectar, for they only want pollen. You can see a honeybee gathering pollen from a yellow anther at http://www.www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/131006hb.jpg.

Honeybees need both nectar and pollen from flowers. When worker honeybees, who are all females, visit flowers for nectar they eat as much as they can. Upon returning to the hive they regurgitate the nectar to another worker, a "house bee," whose body adds enzymes to the nectar. The enzymes cause the water in the nectar to evaporate and thicken. The nectar is stored in a honeycomb cell where eventually it becomes honey.

The problem with nectar is that, like honey, it contains plenty of high-energy carbohydrate, but relatively little of other kinds of nutrients, and honeybees require a balanced diet similar to humans -- lots of vitamins, minerals, proteins, enzymes and other things. A honeybee surviving on pure flower nectar would be like a human eating only ice cream.

That's where pollen comes in, for pollen consists of about 40% protein and is one of the purest and richest of all natural foods, containing all a honeybee's nutritional requirements. An interesting webpage about bee-collected pollen is at http://www.mercola.com/article/diet/bee_pollen.htm.

In our photograph, notice the large gob of yellow pollen stuck to the bee's back leg. The pollen adheres to the bee's "pollen basket," or "corbicula." The corbicula is a polished cavity surrounded by a fringe of hairs into which pollen is placed. Most other bee species possess a similar structure called the "scopa," but that's just a dense mass of branched hairs into which pollen is pressed.

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TEXAS PINYON PINE
For me, one of the greatest botanical surprises of this area has been the occurrence of what's called the Texas Pinyon Pine, PINUS REMOTA, atop a few -- but not many -- hills in the area. This week our neighbor Dave invited us on a wandering among the hills of his ranch, where pines graced the occasional hilltop. You can see a branch with needles mostly grouped two per bunch, and only about 1½ inch long (4cm), along with small, ± spherical cones, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006pi.jpg.

An open cone with several distinctively oval and relatively large seeds collected from the ground is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006pj.jpg.

If you're familiar with pine seeds, you know that most pine species produce small, "winged" seeds -- the wings being papery, sail-like appendages helping disperse the seeds by wind. The pinyon pine's wingless, large seeds, compared to seeds of the vast majority of pine species, are simply mind boggling. You can compare the seeds in the picture with the winged seeds of a Loblolly Pine back in Mississippi at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/loblolly.htm.

In that picture the seeds are hardly visible, slender bulges at the bottoms of the three large, pale wings at the left of the cone.

I first heard about pines in this area when I read La Relación by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of a few Spanish survivors of a 1527 shipwreck off the coast of Florida. For eight years the survivors wandered across the future southern US and northern Mexico, becoming the first modern Europeans to see most of that area. Their precise route isn't known, but when they walked westward from the Texas Gulf coast they eventually came to hills -- our hills of the southern Edwards Plateau -- and the wanderers were very happy that pine trees there produced highly edible and nutritious seeds, with thin, easy-to-crack shells.

Texas Pinyon Pines occur only in southwestern Texas and adjacent northeastern Mexico. That is, they occur there IF you regard them as a distinct species. The online Flora of North America, which normally I use as the ultimate source for plant names, considers Texas Pinyon Pines, Pinus remota, as only a regional variation of the much wider-distributed Pinus cembroides, known as the Pinyon or Mexican Pinyon Pine, occurring at higher elevations as far south as the belt of volcanoes crossing south-central Mexico. Some authors also regard Texas Pinyons as a recognizable variety of Pinus cembroides.

Main field marks distinguishing Texas Pinyons from regular Pinyons are their thinner seed shells and the size and shape of the spine on the cone bract -- fairly obscure features. It's hard to disagree with the Flora of North America opinion that "The strong overlap in nearly all character states between the populations of the Edwards Plateau and other populations makes var. remota difficult to maintain." However, the Flora says that the regular Pinyon, Pinus cembroides, has needles mostly in groups of three, only sometimes in twos or fours, but the needles on our trees are mostly in twos.

When traveling by train through the mountains of northern Mexico I used to enjoy buying little paper funnels filled with pinyon pine seeds sold by indigenous folks at stops. What a pleasure slowly rocking and rolling in those stinky old rail cars, watching out the windows, cracking pine-nut shells, and nibbling across the landscape.

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SHIN OAKS
We've already met the Sandpaper Oak, Quercus pungens, a mostly Mexican oak occurring here and there in the US's arid Southwest. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/qpungens.htm.

The Sandpaper Oaks atop our hill reach only about chest high. Therefore, the other day I was astonished when some oaks presented themselves atop some neighboring hills looking very much like Sandpaper Oak, but they were about 20 feet high (6m). Leaves and acorns are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006qu.jpg.

A close-up of the robust acorns with their cups covering only a small part of the nuts' bottoms is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006qv.jpg.

The leaves look very much like Sandpaper Oak leaves. Happily, the oak section of the online Flora of North America is available, so before long I was learning why I might find tree-sized specimens of an oak species that until now I knew only as shrubs.

Best I can tell, this week's trees were Vasey Shin Oaks, here just called Shin Oaks, QUERCUS VASEYANA. Experts agree that Shin Oaks look very much like Sandpaper Oaks, occur over pretty much the same area as Sandpaper Oaks, and frequently hybridize with Sandpaper Oaks. In fact, in the past, Shin Oaks were regarded as merely a variety of Sandpaper Oak.

However, the Flora of North America points out that the cups of Sandpaper Oak's acorns cover more of the nut than they do on Shin Oak acorns. I haven't seen the Sandpaper Oak's acorns, but the Flora also says that the leaves of Sandpaper Oaks are "strongly undulate," undulate meaning that they're wavy. In contrast, Shin Oak leaves are more or less flat. Leaves shown on our Sandpaper Oak page are indeed a bit wavy and curved along the margins, while leaves seen in our above pictures are fairly flat. The acorns in our pictures perfectly match internet pictures of acorns of Vasey Shin Oaks. You can see our Shin Oak's dark brown, furrowed and somewhat exfoliating bark at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006qw.jpg.

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LACEY OAKS WITH ACORNS
Last winter we looked at our Lacey Oaks, endemic to only here on Texas's Edwards Plateau and across the border in northeastern Mexico. At that time the leaves were wintry brown. Now the species is displaying not only handsome, blue-green leaves with shallow, irregular lobes along the margins, but also very good looking acorns. You can see why some local ranchers call the trees Blue Oaks at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006ok.jpg.

A close-up of the acorns with their shallow cups enclosing only 1/3 or less of the acorn, and the cups' scales whitish with dense, short hairs, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006ol.jpg

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TEXAS PERSIMMON DYE
Our Texas Persimmon page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/tex-pers.htm makes clear that that tree's fruits -- which nowadays are abundantly available -- are sweet, juicy and messy. Part of the messiness is that the juice is a dark brown color. Therefore, I got to wondering whether juice from Texas Persimmon fruits ever has been used as a dye.

The Internet is full of references to pioneers having used Texas Persimmons for dye, but there's little information on how it was done. However, Deb McClintock here in the Texas Hill Country has experimented with fruit juice from Texas Persimmons. Her interesting page is at http://debmcclintock.wordpress.com/tag/dye-2/.

I've not dyed anything with the juice but I've done what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006ik.jpg.

That picture shows a toothpick stuck into a Texas Persimmon persimmon, and writing accomplished with the toothpick wet with persimmon juice.

Therefore, when the revolution comes, we in the Texas Hill Country will be able to write notes to one another, maybe on Sycamore leaves, with persimmon juice.

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LEATHERSTEM
Farther west in and around the vast Chihuahuan Desert, one of the most abundant and easy-to-identify shrubs is the thicket-forming, knee-high bush shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006ja.jpg.

Notice that the plant's stems are unusually thick and rubbery-looking, and that the leaves arise not from slender side-branches but from knobby branch tips and stump-like modified stems along the main stems. A close-up showing an immature fruit below a tuft of branch-tip leaves is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006jb.jpg.

This is Leatherstem, also known as Sangre de Drago, Sangregrado and a host of other names. It's JATROPHA DIOICA, "dioica" in the binomial referring to the fact that the plants bear either male or female flowers, but not both on the same plant, so the plants are "dioecious."

Sometimes in rocky spots in the Chihuahuan Desert you find extensive thickets of Leatherstem, the stems issuing from subterranean rhizomes. Most hills in this area lack Leatherstem, but a few miles south of here on certain hilltops they're abundant.

Though I've known Leatherstem for decades, I almost didn't recognize these plants because they bear so many leaves. Throughout most of the year when it's either dry or cold, only leafless, spongy-looking, dark gray stems poke from the ground, causing some folks to call them Witch's Fingers. Our Leatherstems currently bear leaves because about a week ago we had a nice rain.

The Spanish name Sangre de Drago means "Dragon's Blood," referring to copious juice in the stems that changes from clear yellow to blood red when exposed to air.

With such unusual sap, and taking in mind that the plant belongs to the Poinsettia or Euphorbia Family, the Euphorbiaceae, harboring many species producing colorful and often toxic sap, you might expect that Leatherstem's sap also is worthy of consideration.

In fact, Leatherstem roots contain the compound riolozatrione (C20H26O3), which is a diterpene with antimicrobial properties. Sheep and goats who eat the plant experience severe gastroenteritis, vomiting, and abdominal pain. This doesn't deter Home-remedies-site.Com from claiming that Leatherstem is "Useful for controlling diarrhea, heal wounds, relieve hemorrhoids, and combat hair loss." The online Atlas de las Plantas de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana agrees, saying that in Mexico Leatherstem has been used to keep hair from falling out, to wash bumps and bruises, cure mange, and for better anchoring one's teeth. Also, juice from squeezed fruit is dropped into the eyes of those with various eye problems. That latter cure is one I wouldn't try, since the sap of some members of this family is known to do permanent damage to eyes.

Leatherstem is mostly a Mexican plant found in the uplands of most of central and northern Mexico, but enters the US here in southwestern Texas. It's often conspicuous in Big Bend National Park to our west.

Because Leatherstem survives long periods without rain, and even in its leafless state looks interesting and unusual, it's a prime candidate for xeriscaping.

*****

TASAJILLO CACTUS
As with the Leatherstem, farther west in and around the Chihuahuan Desert, one of the most abundant and easy-to-identify cacti is a slender-stemmed, bushy one that usually grows knee to waist high, and nowadays bears large number of red, mothball-size fruits. A small section of one forming a bathtub-size tangle atop a hill a few miles south of Juniper House is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006cc.jpg.

A shot giving a better idea of the cylindrical stems' size is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006ce.jpg.

Note that this species bears no large spines. However, a close-up of fruits showing that the cactus can produce dense clusters of tiny, very slender and sharp spines called glochids, which easily stick into your skin with the merest of touches, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006cd.jpg.

This is CYLINDROPUNTIA LEPTOCAULIS, variously called Tasajillo, Christmas Cactus, Desert Christmas Cactus, Christmas Cholla and Pencil Cactus. Probably most books list it as Christmas Cactus, but another species with flat stems is much sold under that name during the holidays.

Tasajillo occupies a wide variety of arid habitats throughout most of the northern half of Mexico, and extends in the US from southern California to southwestern Oklahoma and eastern Texas.

Several sources describe Tasajillo fruits as edible, including one webpage saying that indigenous Americans made jam from them. However, the berry-type fruits are so small and bear so many finger-sticking glochids that it's hard to imagine anyone eating many. My Mexican friends showed me how to beat cactus fruits with soft-leafed weeds to remove glochids, so maybe if you can develop a technique like that it might work.

One important service contributed by Tasajillo is that its interconnecting branches can form impenetrable tangles providing refuge and nesting sites for small animals such Cactus Wrens. And somehow deer, quail, wild turkey and many other small critters feast on the berries, glochids or no.

Nowadays as cities in arid areas try to convince people to abandon grassy lawns, Tasajillo is becoming an important candidate for xeriscaping, especially because with its green stems and red fruits it stands out so prettily amidst otherwise bleak winter vegetation.

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BARREL CACTUS
Tangles of Tasajillo cactus were fairly common on certain hilltops, but another cactus species was rare and very unexpected. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006an.jpg.

This small, barrel-type cactus was topped by immature, pear-shaped, green fruits bearing brown, shriveling remains of flowers. Notice that the body's upper spines are particularly long. Also notice that each spine cluster arises atop a bump, or "tubercle," situated along the rim of one of about 13 vertical ribs.

A close-up of a cluster of spines is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006ao.jpg.

There you see that atop each tubercle, spines arise from whitish, fuzzy-looking spots known as areoles. Each areole normally bears 7-14 spines. Of these spines, usually four arise from the areole's center, while the remaining ones radiate from the areole's perimeter. Also, note that one of the four large, central spines in each cluster is somewhat flattened and hooked at its tip -- like a fishhook.

It's hard to identify cacti without flowers and/or fruits. At first I thought it was a Fishhook Cactus, but when I showed the picture to botanist Bob Harms at the University of Texas, he expressed the same opinion that it's hard to identify without key characters, but that he thought it was too large to be a Fishhook. He guessed that it was what's sometimes called the Texas Barrel Cactus, but also Turk's-head Barrel Cactus and Mexican Fruit Cactus, FEROCACTUS HAMATACANTHUS, on the grounds that "... the spines and 'nipples' form strong clear ridges and the fruit is not uniformly cylindrical to the top, but has a sort of small extension on the top."

This wonderful cactus is endemic to a handful of counties in southwestern Texas and the two arid Mexican states across the Rio Grande just to the west and south.

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FLOWERPOT PARASOL MUSHROOM
Except after our rare soaking rains, we seldom see many fleshy fungi. The few who do appear often are hard to impossible to identify because most field guides don't deal with uncommon or semitropical species who might occur here. Therefore, I didn't have much hope for identifying the pale yellowish, two-inch-tall (5cm), fleshy mushroom along one of our hill trails where some time back a fallen tree was chopped up, leaving woodchips on the ground. You can see the little mushroom with numerous narrow, shallow grooves radiating from a distinct, bruised-looking bulge at the cap's very top, and the rest of the cap covered with easily detached, mealy scales, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006mu.jpg.

Seeing the stem's collar-like ring, or annulus, I thought the stem might arise from a cuplike volva, like several common and poisonous amanita mushrooms. However, there was no volva. The stem seemed to form where masses of fuzzy, white hyphae merged just below the leaf litter, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006mv.jpg.

It's a gilled mushroom, and the gills are particularly fine and close together, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131006mw.jpg.

It turned out that our mushroom was easy to identify, the ease explained by the fungus's most commonly used names: Flowerpot Parasol, Plantpot Dapperling and Yellow Houseplant Mushroom. In the Temperate Zone where folks have potted plants sitting around, including in their homes, this little mushroom very often makes an appearance in the potting soil, and people photograph it, and talk about it on the Internet.

It's LEUCOCOPRINUS BIRNBAUMII, common throughout the Earth's tropics and subtropics, and extending here and there into warmer parts of the Temperate Zones, even being recorded as far north as England. In North America and Europe, however, it's more likely to be found in hothouses and plant pots.

The Flowerpot Parasol lives on decaying humus or compost, so it's "saprotrophic." Often it turns up among woodchips surrounding landscape plantings in towns, as in parking lots.

FLowerpot Parasols are perfectly harmless growing in flowerpots, but they shouldn't be eaten, since there are conflicting reports about their toxicity, with some evidence that it can cause stomach problems in a certain percentage of people.

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HISTORY'S CYCLES
This summer I bought a Kindle reader and began downloading free books from Project Gutenberg and other websites. It's been great. Mostly I read historical books and biographies. History is like ecology, in that everything affects everything else and, like ecology, once you acquire a general knowledge, basic principles reveal themselves. In my history books, one question I'm always looking at is whether history repeats itself.

It's clear that human history does often repeat itself. For example, again and again we humans have so degraded our local environments that either we had to go elsewhere, or reduce our numbers through war, famine or disease. "Messing in our nest" is a repetitive cycle as old as humanity itself. What's worrisome is that with 7.2 billion people currently inhabiting the Earth, now humanity's "nest" is the whole planet.

My readings suggest that history's cycles continue repeating until something completely new comes along. For example, something new that came along keeping Earth's history from being limited to an eternity of merely repetitively spinning on its axis was that life arose. Then, keeping life from being doomed just to reproducing itself generation after generation, the new thing that appeared in some living things was a brain capable of imparting complex, genetically programmed, instinctual behavior. Most recently, the new thing that came along enabling life to evolve beyond endless cycles of instinctual behavior (the same kind of bird nest century after century) was this: The human capacity for poetic impulses, scientific innovation, for soaring forms of love and spiritual insights, and more.

One can hope that this new window to enlightenment will save us from our current "messing in our nest" before all life on Earth is destroyed.

The question is that this most recent "new thing" -- honored as "The Sixth Miracle of Nature" at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/ -- is only at this moment in human evolution flickering into existence. We still don't know whether The Sixth Miracle will touch enough of humanity for us to break from history's until-now-unbroken cycles of nest messings.

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FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Nothing is Unnatural" from the February 21, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/100221.htm

"Worms & Magical Realism" from the January 14, 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/080114.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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