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

*****

PULL-BACK-AND-HOLD FLOWERING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/pisonia.htm we look at a super-spiny bush or tree that leans onto surrounding vegetation so that it almost becomes a vine. One of its names is Pull-back-and-hold, which makes sense when you think of pulling back all those spines and then passing by without holding them back. At the above link you can see the species' unusual side branches, and how cat-claw-like spines armor some of the thorns and stems. Also you can see the plant's strange fruits stuck messily to the bottom of my bare foot. This week a slender branch of Pull-back-and-hold caught my eye because it was adorned with yellow clusters of flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170226pv.jpg

I didn't recognize this as our old friend Pull-back-and-hold until I noticed a sidebranch bearing the signature "cat-claw" spines, pictured at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170226ps.jpg

This was the first time I'd noticed the species' flowers, so I took a good look at them. The small, yellow blossoms are arranged in branching panicles, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170226pt.jpg

A flower is shown up close, its white stamens arising from below the blossom's ovary, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170226pu.jpg

An important field mark helping us to figure out which plant family Pull-back-and-hold belongs to is that the blossoms don't form the usual green, bowl-like calyx below a colorful corolla. These flowers seem to display only the yellow corolla, though those in the know tell us that actually what we're seeing is a calyx modified to look like a corolla, and that the blossoms really produce no corollas at all.

When I see a fair-sized flower with a calyx modified to look like a corolla, I know that a good bet is that the plant is a member of the Four-O'Clock Family, the Nyctaginaceae, in which we also find Bougainvilleas, maybe the most-planted ornamental bushy vine in all the world's tropics.

*****

GUMBO LIMBO PRETTILY FLAKING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/gumbo.htm we see that Gumbo Limbo, Bursera simaruba, is one of the most abundant, useful and interesting trees in Mexico. It's also one of the easiest to identify, because its trunk is so distinctive, displaying a smooth, green bark that develops a thin, reddish skin that flakes off. Along the Yucatan's Caribbean coast they often call Gumbo Limbo "The Tourist Tree," because the exfoliating reddish skin looks like what happens when tourists here stay out in the sun too long.

Nowadays, right beside my hut during my campfire breakfasts, the peeling, red flakes of a young Gumbo Limbo's trunk glow warmly as early morning sunlight back-lights them, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170226gl.jpg

The fiery, radiant presence amid the forest green, the white smoke-ghosts rising beside me from flickering, orange flames, and the dozing dogs recuperating from their night's roamings, all make a congenial companionship.

The Gumbo Limbo's trunk isn't always so spectacularly flaky. With the dry season starting to bear down hard , I think the tree's trunk must be shrinking as stored water is utilized, and maybe the shrinking causes the outer bark to flake off. But, that's just my theory.

*****

OIL PALM'S MALE FLOWERS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/oil-palm.htm we look at one of the most controversial plants on Earth, the Oil Palm, whose commercial plantings throughout much of the world's tropics have brought about loses of vast tracts of rainforest. Lately we've seen oil palm plantations popping up in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas. Our Oil Palm page shows a cluster of Oil Palm fruits on a tree washed up on the Yucatan's Caribbean coast. The fruits are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515po.jpg

This week at the rancho another planted Oil Palm tree turned up, this one bearing a large cluster of spiky flowering heads looking like a bunch of up-curved, eight-inch long (20cm), shaggy frankfurters, and bearing only tiny, densely packed male flowers. You can see what this looked like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170226op.jpg

The flowering heads' shagginess consists of old anthers that have already split open, released their pollen, and matted together after a few showers. You can see some spent anthers at the top of a flowering head at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170226oq.jpg

Oil Palms are "monoecious," meaning that all-male and all-female flowers occur on the same plant. Some time ago on another of the rancho's Oil Palms an item looking like a crudely made, dark green whiskbroom appeared among the tree's petiole bases but didn't develop, maybe because no male inflorescences were nearby, or maybe from lack of water.

*****

PLANTING GARLIC
This week at the frutaría in Temozón I bought an especially large, good looking bunch of garlic, and planted the cloves. You can see the purchase at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170226gc.jpg

Botanically, the whole item pictured above is regarded as a bulb which, when matured and hung to dry, separates into several cloves, each clove enclosed in a silky, white envelope or skin. In the picture, the stiff, dry, vertical item surrounded by the cloves is the parent plant's stem, which has been cut off. Looking at the bulb from below, you can see the parent plant's former roots, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170226gd.jpg

Each individual clove when planted produces a new garlic plant. Before planting, each clove must be broken from the cluster's root base. You can see what a broken-off clove's bottom looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170226ge.jpg

When the cloves are broken off, the clove's bottom must be kept intact, because that's where the new plant's roots will arise. If the clove is cut off with a knife, leaving behind the little collar visible in the picture on the clove's bottom, no roots will sprout on the planted clove.

This planting is a kind of test. Garlic grows well in a wide range of climates, but it's known to have problems where it's too hot or humid, or where there is a lot of rainfall -- like here, during the rainy season, which will begin in a few weeks.

Garlic needs a lot of sunlight, and grows best in well dug-over, crumbly soil, the best soil type being a sandy loam. Our soil, being derived from limestone, is not at all loose and crumbly, unless mixed with plenty of organic matter and kept moist -- which might be a tricky situation, since garlic suffers with frequent waterings.

Keeping these points in mind, I planted the cloves with their pointed ends upward, their bottoms about two inches deep (5cm). Then I gathered dried leaves from the ground in the forest to cover them as mulch. I plan to water about once a week, trying to keep the soil below the mulch moist, but not wet.

*****

ODOR OF MINT
When I arrived at the rancho I found no mint growing. In Santa Rita one day I bought a sprig of it from a lady who had it growing outside her hut door. The sprig, about the length of my finger, was planted in soil into which a good bit of cow manure was mixed, watered every day, and now we have a lusty, fast-spreading, dog-size patch of it prospering in a large tub, the tub to keep it from spreading into the garden as a weed.

Just seeing the plant's healthy vigor, its crinkly leaves shining contentedly in skin-stinging sunlight, its elegantly pink, squared stems sprawling luxuriously over the moist, manure-smelling soil, the leaves' perfect, classic form with such artfully serrated margins... makes me smile.

Until now I'd not touched the plant, not wanting to interfere with its development in any way but, this week, fascinated by the plant's flawlessness and wanting a cup of mint tea, I couldn't restrain myself. I leaned over the little plant, took a stem tip between my right hand's index finger and a thumbnail, and clipped it off.

Instantly the dusty, overheated air around me ignited with rampaging odor of mint. I'd expected this, of course, but such an immediate, full-blown olfactory assault on the day's unsuspecting indolence, and me, was shocking.

For, that day, instantly I recalled a certain rainy morning back in the late1970s in a sort of hippy community in backwoods Mississippi where the gay cook in an old slave kitchen where right beyond the screen door huge blossoms glowed like little violet suns on rampant morning-glory vines revealed to me the magic that mint conjures in the North African dish I came to know as tabulé.

And then came the mint odor proceeding that French-speaking lady in Belgium in the 1990s, coming through the door carrying a rainbow-confetti salad with dainty little tatters of mint she'd ever-so-expertly and tenderly mingled with peas, lettucy roquette, smelly little melting crumbles of some kind of obscure cheese we liked, and other things from her gorgeous, snail-infested garden.

And, another time, who-knows-when, backpacking on the Appalachian trail in the Smoky Mountains, a little stream dribbling over a high cliff, sitting among ferns and mint watching through blue haze the valley far below, a raven's view, the raven somehow triumphant but alone, alone in chilly, ethereal sunlight, with ferns and mint.

Yes, it was shocking being an old man with a lifetime collection of mental associations with the mint odor.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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