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

September 3, 2017

FIDDLEWOOD FRUITING
Here and there in the rainy-season-lush forest the ground is littered with spherical, green-turning-brown fruits very similar to the Muscadine grapes currently dangling from wild vines in the US southeastern states. You can see a section of the forest floor here just as I found it -- the most recently fallen fruits green while older ones are brown -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903vz.jpg

Cutting across these grapelike fruits, you find a fair amount of surprisingly hard "flesh" surrounding bony seeds looking enough like grape seeds, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903vw.jpg

However, searching for a grapevine in the forest canopy above the fallen fruits, you'll not find one. Instead, you'll see Muscadine-like fruits dangling from tree limbs, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903vy.jpg

In that picture, notice that the leaves arise opposite one another along the stems, and that they are "digitately compound" -- single leaves composed of five or so leaflets all joined at their basses like digits on a hand.

Relatively few tree species produce digitately compound leaves, so I should have recognized the species immediately. However at first I just couldn't think of any that might produce Muscadine-like fruits. To convince myself that I really was seeing such fruits and leaves produced by a tree, and not a vine growing into the tree, I had to follow the fruit cluster's branch back along its forkings, to the trunk, But it definitely was a tree, even one with a monumental trunk, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903vx.jpg

Finally it occurred to me what this was: It's the wonderful Vitex gaumeri, whose pretty panicles of purplish blue, dogface-like blossoms are shown on our page for the species at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/vitex.htm

There we call it Fiddlewood, and it's classified on the IUCN's "Red List" as endangered. Probably that's because of tremendous habitat destruction throughout the lowland area the plant lives in from southern Mexico to Costa Rica, and because of overharvesting of the tree for its exceptionally fine wood.

I was slow to connect the grapelike fruits with Fiddlewood because the species belongs to the Verbena Family, the Verbenaceae. Up North we're used to thinking of the Verbena Family as producing herbs like verbenas and lantanas, not big trees. I'd forgotten how in the tropics the family lets itself go, producing not only big, beautiful trees as well as herbs, but also woody vines like glorybowers and Queens Wreaths.

As I made the above pictures, a very noisy flock of White-fronted Parrots was busy high in the tree's top. Judging from numerous fruits on the ground bearing holes in their skin, the parrots' powerful beaks were a match for the fruits' very tough flesh.

*****

HAMPEA TREE FLOWERING
Atop the little mound on which the new concrete water tower has been built there rises a 20ft tall (6m) tree with a slender, gray trunk, and bearing white flowers. The blossoms look like little white tea-roses among the tree's unusually large, three-lobed leaves with droopy sides, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903hm.jpg

Even from a distance the small tree looked like a member of the Hibiscus Family, because of its leaves, which displayed conspicuous veins arising from the blades' bases -- as opposed to there being just a single prominent midrib, as with most leaves. Also, the long petioles were covered with a thick mat of brownish hairs. These are traits shared by many Hibiscus Family members.

When one side of a flower was broken away so that its sexual parts were easier to see, the tree's membership in the Hibiscus Family was confirmed, as evidenced at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903ho.jpg

The detail corroborating Hibiscus Family membership was that the flower's numerous stamens were united at their filaments' bases, forming a cylinder around the style. In the above picture, the style -- the ovary's "neck" -- is the darkish item thrusting up from the bouquet of yellow stamens. The style is topped with a grainy-textured, curving stigma, which is where pollen grains are supposed to land and germinate.

With these field marks I could identify our little tree as HAMPEA TRILOBATA, endemic just to the Yucatan Peninsula and neighboring Belize and northern Guatemala. It has no English name, but Hampea is good enough. Despite its limited distribution, in this area the species is fairly common, often growing along weedy roadsides, but also in thin soil atop limestone rises.

When reading about the species I was surprised to find it described as "dioecious," meaning that trees bear either unisexual male or female flowers, but not both flower types on the same plant. That explained why the stamens at the base of the vigorous-looking style in the above picture looked a bit puny. Now I went looking for Hampeas with male flowers, and they were easy to find along a weedy road. A male flower with a much more robust-looking bunch of stamens, but with no indication of a style, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903hn.jpg

Once I began paying attention to different Hampea plants I realized that the 20ft tall tree in the woods atop our mound was a little atypical for the species. By far the greatest number of Hampea plants here are best described as bushes or weedy shrubs. You can see what most of our Hampeas look like, this one bearing many flower buds on crook-necked pedicels, but not yet flowering, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903hl.jpg

The excellent online Biblioteca Digital de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana reports Hampea being used medicinally to treat wasp stings. It says that the roots are chewed, though it's unclear whether the stung individual chews the roots, or the doctor, who spits root juice onto the sting. Hampea also is used to treat the evil eye, or mal de ojo, which among the Maya is possibly the most commonly reported ailment, along with bad winds. The Biblioteca Digital website, produced by UNAM, the Autonomous University of Mexico, is freely available at http://www.medicinatradicionalmexicana.unam.mx

*****

SAPRANTHUS FRUITS ALMOST RIPE
We've been following the development of fruits of a Sapranthus tree next to the hut, at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/sapranth.htm

This tree's flowers are especially interesting because from a single blossom several little peach-like fruitlets develop. Now the fruiting cluster is almost mature, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903sa.jpg

I'm not waiting to photograph them when they're perfectly ripe because my experience with fruits of this family, the Custard Apple or Pawpaw Family, the Annonaceae, as that as soon as the fruits become a little mature, or even before, they are such sweetly fragrant, succulent morsels that wild critters eat them before I get to them.

*****

YELLOW GROOVE BAMBOO
In the big sinkhole where the owner is planting exotic trees there's a small cluster of bamboo species reaching about 20ft high (6m) and whose stems, or culms, are attractive enough, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903bb.jpg

My hand holding a culm so that the stems' diameters can better be judged is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903bc.jpg

This pretty little clump suffers from habitually being overshadowed by the towering Male Bamboo we profiled last week. With more light and water, maybe it would be larger.

In the above picture you can see the most striking and distinctive feature of this bamboo: Its culms are lemon yellow with green stripes. That's already enough for us to identify it, but just for the fun of it I photographed a technical feature that helps designate the genus, and that's how the branches arise from the culms' nodes -- in this case, a main one with two or three much smaller side branches -- shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903bd.jpg

The species' leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903be.jpg

These are shade leaves not much larger than a finger, but up higher where sunlight is available they were much larger, the size of butcher knife blades.

This is Yellow Groove Bamboo, PHYLLOSTACHYS AUREOSULCATA 'SPECTABILIS'. The "spectabilis" at the name's end indicates a horticultural form of the species known as Phyllostachys aureosulcata. You can see that this spectabilis form is yellow with green stripes on the culms' sections, or internodes. The form aureocaulis has all-yellow culms, the form alata is totally green, plus there are other forms as well, for this is a much loved, much propagated bamboo. Mainly it's popular because it's so attractive, but also because its young shoots are edible, even raw. However, in some environments it's an aggressive spreader and in some places is prohibited as an invasive species.

Originally the species was from China but now it's planted throughout the world's warmer areas -- even in the Temperate Zone. I read that "In areas where the average winter minimum temperature is above -15°C (5°F), it may grow to a maximum height of 14 meters (46 feet)... "

*****

BEES AT OIL PALM FLOWERS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/oil-palm.htm on our Oil Palm page we've already examined the palm's male flowering heads. This week I walked past the same palm and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170903el.jpg

Those are bees apparently gathering pollen from bursting anthers.

Interestingly, the male flowers on our Oil Palm page were photographed in February, so with these September-maturing ones it's apparent that flowering isn't just once a year at a specific season. I could find no female trees to dust with pollen from this tree.

*****

BAD CATS
Several months ago a cat at the tool shed gave birth. One day Chichan Ch'o' the famous, edible Mexican Hairless dog wandered by, saw the kittens nursing, and went to sniff. The mama cat hissed and scratched. Chichan Ch'o', having no hair to protect his soft skin, or canine teeth to bite, scrambled away, yelping piteously.

The mama cat seemed surprised and pleased with her paw swipe. Chichan Ch'o' is a slow learner so the next day, and for several days afterwards, the same drama took place. Eventually, as soon as the mama cat saw Chichan Ch'o' coming, she'd rush at him, with the predictable results.

Until now things had been different here because a certain dog kept in the kennel occasionally would get loose, and he was a cat killer. Until now, the cats had kept a low profile, but now the cat killer was gone.

Eventually, not only did other cats catch on and begin attacking Chichan Ch'o' on sight, but also they started going after the other dogs as well, dogs too mellow and chickenhearted to want to fight. Nowadays all the dogs avoid the tool shed, except that sometimes Chichan Ch'o' forgets.

This week I've thought about the situation because I like to identify patterns that repeat in many contexts, and this dog/cat story seems to illustrate one of those patterns. The value of identifying repeating patterns is that sometimes a pattern that is easily observable and makes sense in one place, when glimpsed in a more confusing context, orders our thoughts and helps us understand better what's going on. Here's the general pattern I see in the dog/cat story:

The mama cat's first swipe at Chichan Ch'o' was, for here, a new idea being expressed, the idea that it's possible for a cat to chase a dog away. Ideas are contagious and grow as if alive, so soon the cat-attacking-dog concept diversified, leading to reversed relationships between our dogs and cats.

So, can't we apply this simple dog/cat pattern to the much murkier situation up North since Trump's election? Up North, the new idea has been that a president of the United States of America can behave like Trump. Right now, as in our dog/cat pattern, the Trumpism pattern is diversifying, leading to new behaviors in US society, and in some cases -- exactly as with our dogs and cats -- already is creating completely reversed relationships among society's components. For example, until now, who was thinking that news and science are lies meant to mislead common people? Until now, who would say out-loud that the super-rich and powerful are the best protectors of common people? Well, you know the completely reversed relationships better than I.

Clarifications resulting from finding patterns repeating in different situations aren't always encouraging. However, in this case, there's a feature worth considering:

Our dog/cat pattern is still in the process of completing itself. Any day a new dog may be brought here, one used to having his way with cats.

With regard to what's happening up North, history also has its repeating patterns, and history is very clear about what eventually happens to societies who accommodate themselves to Trumpist patterns.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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