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

January 22, 2017

*****

SPINY CUCUMBERS
About two months ago in Mérida my friend Eric handed me a egg-sized, egg-shaped, green fruit thickly armored with fleshy spines, and said that it was a cucumber he'd bought just because it was interesting. Cutting it open, it looked like a regular cucumber inside, smelled like a cucumber and tasted like a cucumber. I couldn't wait to see if the seeds would germinate and, if so, what kind of plant would produce such a fruit. Seed germination was close to 100%, and the resulting plant grew like a weed in the garden, with no special attention other than daily waterings. You can see what it looks like now at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170122cc.jpg

I'd guessed that the plant would be a vine closely related to regular garden cucumbers, so as the picture shows I supplied scaffolding for the vines to climb. The plants did quickly develop into vines with tendrils, but the stems showed no interest at all in climbing. In the picture the plant appears to be ascending the scaffolding but that's because I draped the stems there, hoping they'd get the idea. However, now it's clear that these vines want to run on the ground as if they were Watermelon vines. In fact, the leaves are deeply lobed somewhat like Watermelon leaves, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170122cd.jpg

Each vine produced both unisexual male and unisexual female flowers, the latter displaying very prickly ovaries positioned below the calyx and corolla, befitting a member of the Cucumber Family, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170122cf.jpg

In that picture, on the right, the prickly ovary is easy to see. In the picture's center there's a tangle of frustrated tendrils unable to find anything to wrap around other than themselves, and at the left there's a male flower with no ovary. The vines began producing flowers and fruits very early, when they bore only two or three leaves, and the fruits developed fast. You can see some almost-mature fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170122ce.jpg

You can see how a cut-open fruit looks just like a cucumber inside at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170122cg.jpg

In fact, you could say that this really is a cucumber because the species is a member of the genus Cucumis, which is the cucumber genus (as well as that of the Muskmelon). Our spiky-fruited vine is CUCUMIS ANGURIA, which many gardeners call Spiny Cucumber, but which in much of the world is known as the West India or Bur Gherkin. In North America often the name "gherkin" is used for pickles made of young regular garden cucumbers, so that name can be a little confusing to us.

The binomial Cucumis anguria is a good old Linnaeus one, so Spiny Cucumbers have been known about for a long time. Normally they're grown only for their novelty, however, the general opinion being that if you want to eat cucumbers, and you can grow the regular garden cucumber, Cucumis sativus, why bother with the small, prickly Cucumis anguria? Still, when I'm working in the garden I enjoy popping a whole spiny one in my mouth and eating it as-is. The spines are so soft and fleshy that they don't bother at all.

The species is native to the tropical and subtropical Americas. In fact, we've found it growing as a weed here in the Yucatán, though the spines on those fruits were much smaller than those on our garden ones. Our weedy Spiny Cucumber is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/cucumber.htm

*****

ORANGE BLOSSOMS
Nowadays many people are upset for various reasons, so you may be glad to know that here in the Yucatan the orange trees have been blossoming -- we're at the end of their flowering period -- and the flowers' beauty and perfection have not at all been influenced by human distress and confusion.

Both Bitter Oranges and Sweet Oranges have been flowering, buds and blossoms appearing just as the last fruits of the previous season were picked, or fell after being ruined by Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. This week we'll look at the Bitter Orange's blossoms and next week those of the Sweet Orange. Our Bitter Orange page showing fruits and leaves, and telling a bit about the cultivar, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/sour-o.htm

A typical Bitter Orange flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170122or.jpg

Orange blossoms are exceptionally simple in design, with the parts in the above picture being easy to make out. The five white petals do nothing fancy, just help attract a pollinator's attention in the classical way, by being bright and pretty. The ±20 out-curving, match-stick-like things are stamens -- the flower's male parts -- with the slender, white parts being the filaments and the yellowish, banana-shaped items being pollen-filled anthers. Arising from encircling filament bases is the female pistil, composed of the ovary, style and stigma. In the picture the yellow, spherical item looking like a tiny orange is the stigma, where pollen grains are supposed to germinate. The stigma is attached to the style's tip, the style being the ovary's "neck." In the picture the ovary is hidden by the filament bases. If several stamens are removed, the entire pistil can be seen, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170122os.jpg

In that picture the round, shiny, green thing at the style's bottom is the ovary -- the future orange fruit. The yellow stigma looking so like a minuscule orange and the style below it will fall off not long after the flower is pollinated, leaving the tiny green ovary to begin swelling toward its days as an orange fruit.

The differences between a Bitter Orange and a Sweet Orange flower are subtle, but a feature of the leaves makes the two cultivars easy to distinguish. Some Bitter Orange leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170122ot.jpg

At the leaves' bases, seen in the picture's top half, notice the curious constrictions. Orange leaves are "jointed," with the outer, larger blade being the actual leaf, and the smaller part between the joint and the woody stem being a "winged petiole." The broad, flaring parts, looking so leaf-like, are the wings. On Bitter Orange leaves the wings are exceptionally wide, while on Sweet Orange leaves the wings are much narrower.

The joints between the blades and their winged petioles are such anatomical novelties that a close-up of the situation is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170122ou.jpg

*****

JÍCAMA PLANTING UPDATE
Earlier this month I shelled Jícama pods to get beans for planting. Our Jícama page with that story and more about the Jícama vine -- which produces large, edible, carbohydrate-rich tuberous roots -- is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/jicama.htm

Two earlier Jícama plantings had failed because the beans had been too old. On this third try, I worried that even my newly shelled beans might not germinate, so before planting I sprouted them using the technique outlined on our bean-sprouting page at http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/alf-spr.htm

Now I can report that close to 100% of the sprouted beans produced healthy seedlings. You can see a seedling just two weeks after its sprouted bean was planted, the seedling already producing a fast-elongating stem clearly yearning to twine around something, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170122ji.jpg

*****

TEN COMMANDMENTS
Especially since the last world war, certain philosophers have made the point that people in general may insist on having a say in their governance, but what they really want -- at least in difficult times -- is for someone to tell them what to do.

Traditionally dictators and religions have fulfilled that need, but dictators tend to rule by their whims and run their countries to ground, and religions tend to be appropriate for societies as they were thousands of years ago when the religions formed, not the world of today. Therefore, this week I've thought about what The Ten Commandments for people living today should be, and here's what I came up with:

TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR LIVING ON EARTH

  1. Take care of the source of your drinkable water.
  2. Take care of the purity of the air you breathe.
  3. Take care of the soil needed to grow your food and to sustain the global biosphere.
  4. Take care of your open spaces and beautiful scenery, needed for your sanity and inspiration.
  5. Recycle the resources you use.
  6. Human population numbers must be kept in balance with the Earth's ability to supply resources to all in a sustainable manner.
  7. Rights of the community supersede those of the individual, and the rights and needs of untold numbers of future individuals and communities supersede those of the present.
  8. Scientists, teachers and administrators shall receive special honors for their services, but if a scientist falsifies information, a teacher misrepresents what is known, or an administrator yields to corruption, he or she shall be banished from service, and receive punishment at least ten times that which a private individual would receive.
  9. The body and mind shall be kept as healthy as possible. This means an unending struggle to overcome laziness, excessive self indulgence, and self destructive habits such as addictions.
  10. Never abandon the struggle to achieve ever higher levels of understanding and of feeling.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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