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

November 5, 2017

*****

FLOWERPOT PARASOL MUSHROOM
Several days after it stopped raining, still the garden's chest-high thicket of weeds was drenching wet, and the soil sodden. As I macheted my way to the back corner, a clump of small, sulfur-yellow mushrooms caught my eye, growing in cathedral-like darkness beneath a low canopy of tall grass knocked over by the rains. You can see the mushrooms, with a cherry tomato in the picture's lower, left -- those cherry tomatoes thrive under about any condition -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171105lb.jpg

This mushroom displays so many unusual features that I felt confident it might be identifiable, even though the Yucatan is too arid to be good mushroom territory, and relatively few studies have been conducted of the fungi found here.

Important field marks include the mushrooms' bright yellow color, and the fact that they grow in tufts instead of individually -- they're "cespitose". The caps are narrower than usual, are finely striated, and covered with what appear to be yellow crumbs. Closer up, more distinctive features show up, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171105lc.jpg

Of most interest diagnostically is the definite ring or "annulus," looking like a yellow collar around the stem at the right. Stems on most mushroom species don't bear such rings. Also notice how the stems expand at their bases. When this mushroom's cap is removed, the spore-producing gills on the cap's underside are very thin and close together, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171105ld.jpg

Spores had fallen from the gills in abundance, often ending up clumped on nearby weed-stem hairs, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171105le.jpg

We've seen this species before, up in Texas, where after a soaking rain it emerged from a bed of woodchips left where someone had chopped up a tree. It's LEUCOCOPRINUS BIRNBAUMII. The Texas mushroom had been very pale yellow, almost white, so at first I didn't make the connection between our yellow garden mushrooms in the Yucatan and the Texas one. You can see the Texas one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/parasol.htm

Now I read that younger individuals of Leucocoprinus birnbaumii are yellow, and fade toward very pale yellow as they age.

This species goes by several English names, but the one we used in Texas was Flowerpot Parasol, because in North America mostly it's observed in people's flowerpots and greenhouses, though in the world's tropics and subtropics it occurs in the wild. Other popular English names include Yellow Parasol, Lemon-yellow Lepiota and Yellow Pleated Parasol.

Though the clumps of what I assume to be pollen on weed-stem hairs were definitely yellow, the literature states that the spores of Leucocoprinus birnbaumii are white. The mushroom's yellow color is from alkaloids known as birnbaumins. It's unclear whether these birnbaumins are responsible for the stomach problems that some people experience when they eat this species.

Two days after I'd parted the weeds enough to let a little light in for taking the above photos, the mushrooms had withered onto the ground. The mushrooms needed the high humidity in which I'd found them, but those cherry tomatoes had undergone a spurt of new growth,

*****

AIR POTATO #2
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/air-pot.htm we've looked at Air Potato vines growing rampantly here at the rancho. Pictures on that page show the vine's aerial "bulbils," which look like and can be eaten like a regular potato. However, the bulbils shown on that page were produced by a cultivar developed from a wild species native to Africa and Southern Asia. Cultivar bulbils are much larger and more angular than those found on the wild form.

At the rancho we also grow Air Potato vines that are much closer to the wild form, with smaller, rounder bulbils, such as those shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171105di.jpg

The wild form's bulbils contain the steroid diosgenin, and can be poisonous. This week before I remembered that, I collected some smallish, roundish bulbils such as those in the above picture, boiled them for about an hour, and ate them, with no ill effects. They tasted like regular boiled potatoes, though with a certain oily flavor. But even these bulbils were the product of a cultivar, for wild-type bulbils are even smaller than these. So, I'd still hesitate to eat many bulbils of the truly wild form, which often is encountered in North America as a weedy vine.

*****

CHINESE HAT
During my mid-October visit with a plant-loving friend near Tepotzlán, Morelos, in the high elevations just south of Mexico City, one of the most unusual plants seen was the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171105hm.jpg

A close-up side view of one of the flowers makes it easier to figure out what we're seeing, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171105hn.jpg

The flaring, yellow, saucer-like part at the left is an expanded calyx with little indication of separate sepals. The yellow cylinder pointed at the image's top, right corner is the corolla, with stamens emerging from the flower's throat. A closer look at the blossom's mouth shows more interesting details, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171105ho.jpg

Features to notice here include that the corolla is bilaterally symmetrical -- only one way you can cut across it to produce mirrored images -- and the flower's four stamens cluster at the corolla tube's top. The outer two stamens are longer than the inner two. When four stamens occur in two pairs of different lengths, they're said to be "didynamous." These are good field marks, for bilaterally symmetrical corollas with didynamous stamens are often featured in two commonly encountered families, the Vervain and Mint Families.

My old Manual of Cultivated Plants by L.H. Bailey places our yellow-flowered, evergreen shrub acting like it wants to be a vine in the Vervain Family, but now I see that it's been switched to the Mint Family. Our plant is HOLMSKIOLDIA SANGUINEA, in English variously known as Chinese Hat, Mandarin Hat, and Cup-and-Saucer Plant. It's native to the Himalayan Mountains, but is cultivated in warm areas worldwide, and has escaped and "gone wild" in many countries.

The sanguinea part of its binomial means "blood red" while the genus name commemorates Johan Theodor Holmskiold, a Danish botanist back in the 1700s. The sanguinea part makes sense when we learn that the flower parts can display various arrangements of red, orange and yellow. Apparently the plant's namer had a red-flowered one.

The genus Holmskioldia contains only this one species.

*****

HELICOPTER TREE SURPRISE
During my mid-October visit with my friend near Tepotzlán, Morelos, just south of Mexico City, a certain tree caught my attention, apparently a naturally occurring one at the property's border, adjacent to a neighbor's cornfield. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171105gc.jpg

Notice that large, diffuse flowering clusters, or inflorescences, appear at branch tips. Not many trees display their flowers like this, so I went for a closer look. The flowers turned out to be very small, but bunched tightly at the tips of widely flaring, branching peduncles, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171105gd.jpg

An open flower with its stalked anthers displaying remarkable cells from which pollen has been ejected is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171105gf.jpg

One of the tree's large, star-shaped leaves is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171105ge.jpg

We've seen this remarkable species before, in the woods near Hacienda Chichen beside Chichén Itzá Ruins in the Yucatan. However, those trees were flowering in June, at the end of a hard dry season, when all the trees' branches were completely devoid of leaves. You can see what those trees looked like at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/helicopt.htm

There we see that our tree is the Helicopter Tree, Gyrocarpus jatrophifolius, a member of the tiny, seldom-heard-of Hernandia Family, the Hernandiaceae.

But, why did our Yucatan trees produce flowers on naked branches, while these Morelos ones are fully leafed when their flowers appear? I thought that maybe the Morelos ones were a different species, until I found Adolfo Espejo Serna's 1991 work "Notas Sobre el Genero Gyrocarpus (Hernandiaceae) en Mexico..., " appearing in Acta Botánica Mexicana, 13:39-51, freely downloadable here.

Espejo makes clear that in Mexico we have two Gyrocarpus species, G. jatrophifolius and G. mocinnoi, and that both our Yucatan and Morelos trees are G. jatrophifolius. Without fruits it can be a little tricky to distinguish the species, but Espejo's distribution map shows that in Mexico G. jatrophifolius occurs in the Yucatan and the Central Volcanic Belt cutting east/west across Mexico just south of Mexico City (including Morelos state), plus the pacific slope from Sinaloa south to Guerrero states, while G. mocinnoi is restricted to Oaxaca and Chiapas states, and extreme southeastern Puebla state.

I'm guessing that our Yucatan trees were leafless during the flowering season because our dry season is more severe than in Morelos state; when the tree is ready to flower, maybe it's just too dry in the Yucatan to bear large, water-transpiring leaves.

*****

A Birding Trip through Mexico can be read online. Also, it can be downloaded in various formats.

NEW INTRODUCTION TO A BIRDING TRIP THROUGH MEXICO
During the last 21 years my book A Birding Trip Through Mexico has been downloaded from the Internet many thousands of times. During all those years the Introduction to the book's text failed to mention an interesting angle to the story. This week, I've come up with the following new Introduction:

This Introduction is being written 21 years after finishing my birding trip through Mexico. It's taken me that long to come to terms with the struggle I had with it.

For, at dawn on October 4, 1996 when I walked across the bridge from El Paso, Texas into Juárez, Chihuahua, I wanted to write something like Robert Pirsig's 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Except that instead of using the upcoming trip as an organizing structure around which I might explore classical philosophy and my personal mental instability, I'd talk about birds and birding, and the tumultuous, sometimes spectacular but ultimately failed love affair I was at that very moment fleeing from.

The millisecond sighting of deep jade greenness merging with scintillating ruby specks on the gorget of a hummingbird zipping past too fast to identify, is like the profound contentment one might find with a partner on a winter night at home with hot chocolate, if only the other would cooperate... That kind of thing, a whole book of it, the goal being to undo or at least understand and somehow dignify the deep depression I was in, and maybe even get that lady in the little Walloonian village back in Belgium, which I'd just left, off my mind.

The book's first draft was three or four times more voluminous than the text I ended up with. That's because all those analogies like the hummingbird/hot chocolate one just never, once they were in print, seemed convincing. After three or four years of trying to squeeze transcendent meaning from it all, I finally came up with something readable only by expunging from the manuscript every single word about dear, lovely Françoise, our relationship, and my lifelong search for "love."

Now, two decades later, I've decided that the whole experience was important for me, even necessary. The whole drama became a stepping stone to my finally seeing very clearly that birds, the Mexican landscape and myself wandering through it belong to one domain, and art, soaring thought and "love" to another. You can touch a bird, but those latter phenomena are all in our heads.

That insight opened the door to grasping that Nature -- the touchable world -- is ordered, made sustainable and beautiful by natural laws such as the First Law of Thermodynamics, and the fact that ecosystems collapse if more of their resources are consumed than are recycled back to them. No such laws govern the ecology of our minds. As such, models exist in Nature that, when applied to our mentalities, can bring order, sustainable well being, and beauty.

But, all that is another story. In the context of the following book, now it's time to get back to that October morning back in 1996, just after I'd hiked across the bridge from El Paso, Texas into Juárez, Chuihuahua...

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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