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

December 10, 2017

*****

DIGGING CASSAVA
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/manioc.htm we look at the bush or small tree variously known as Cassava, Manioc, Tapioca and, here, Yuca -- a plant much grown in the world's tropics for its edible, starchy roots. This week I pulled up one of my 12ft tall (3.7m) plants, and found what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210ct.jpg

The roots' most swollen, edible parts cut and piled into a heap are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210cs.jpg

To prepare the roots, first with a knife blade I scraped off the brown skin, which was paper thin and easy to detach. Beneath the skin the flesh was pure white. Then I cut the roots into finger-long sections, and put them in water in a pot over a campfire. After about 45 minutes of cooking, a fork could be inserted intom as easily as if they were well cooked potatoes.

Not only does cooking soften the flesh, but also it neutralizes toxins in the root. Those toxins repel root-eating animals , and present a danger to humans who eat them raw. The cooking water must be thrown out. I've been told that the roots must be cooked twice, the second time after the water is discarded, but my Maya friends who grow it and eat it regularly say they just cook theirs once. I cooked mine once, had no problems, and the roots tasted a lot like boiled potatoes, just as they are supposed to.

Running down the centers of most roots there were slender, stringlike, somewhat woody strands. I'm told that this is normal, but wonder if roots grown under ideal conditions, or at least in a rainier climate and looser soil, would have them. I don't see such strings mentioned in Internet discussions about the root.

*****

BRUSH-HOLLY FLOWERING
With the old one-speed bike I was straining slowly up a modest rise in the little kilometer-long road through the woods leading into the rancho. At the rise's summit I heard bees buzzing, and noticed a tree beside the road loaded with small flowers and their pollinators. You can see my bike leaning against the very tree -- and notice how the weedy roadside is just beginning to dry up and turn brown here six weeks after the rainy season ended -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210xa.jpg

The small flowers grew in loose, few-flowered clusters along the tree's slender outer branches, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210xc.jpg

Seeing the flowers, I realized that this was the same species as the knee-high bush, also heavily flowering, on the deep-pit rim beside the hut. I'd been trying for a couple of weeks to identify that plant, but so far couldn't. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210xb.jpg

So, already knowing that this was a hard one to identify, now was the time to began seriously "doing the botany." The first step was to take a nice close-up of a flower, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210xd.jpg

It looks like it has six or seven stamens, which is a curious number, and amid the stamens' filament bases there's a flat-topped stigma seeming too large for the puny ovary beneath it. The corolla-like part is so hairy and greenish that maybe the flower had no corolla, with the calyx doing the corolla's normal pollinator-attracting duty. A Look beneath a flower found a continuous connection between the pedicel and the corolla-like calyx -- therefore no corolla -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210xe.jpg

Notice that this flower bears more stamens than the other one, so stamen number in this species isn't fixed, and that's a good fieldmark in itself.

That runty ovary beneath such a substantial stigma caused me wonder whether this might not be a male flower, with a vestigial ovary. I walked along the road until I found another tree of the same species, and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210xf.jpg

That's a female flower, and all the blossoms I saw on that tree were female. So, we have a species with unisexual flowers. Yet another important field mark is that the branches bore what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210xg.jpg

That's a limb's spiny side-branch. The curious thing about it is that it's a spine with leaves growing from its side. It's half spine, half tree branch, a "spinescent branch."

After noting all these excellent field marks and walking around awhile scratching my chin, still I couldn't think of any plant family displaying such features. Finally, in desperation I pulled off a leaf and held it against the sky, and saw the tremendous ID feature shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210xh.jpg

Botanists call those little bright dots between the veins "pellucid dots," and they appear in only a very few plant families. Normally they're supplied with aromatic oils or such. The most commonly encountered plant families producing trees with leaves with such dots are the Citrus and Myrtle Families. But citrus species produce flowers with corollas, so it isn't that, and Myrtle Family members usually have opposite leaves while these are alternate, plus the flowers are not unisexual as are these. In the end I had to go online and use the fine Plant-Family Identification Key freely available at http://www.colby.edu/info.tech/BI211/PlantFamilyID.html

That sent me to a plant family little known to most Northern botanists, the Flacourtia Family, the Flacourtiaceae. But with genetic sequencing, most experts have decided that the Flacourtia Family consists of genera and species that better belong to other families, so nowadays the Flacourtia Family usually is considered as dismantled. Amazingly, our roadside tree now belongs to the Willow Family, the Salicaceae, though most of us might find it hard to see much willowy about it.

Knowing the family, it was easy to figure out that our tree is XYLOSMA FLEXUOSA, widely distributed in a variety of environments from the southernmost tip of Texas through Mexico and the West Indies, through Central America to northern South America. In English it's called the Brush-holly, though it's not much related to the hollies. The online Flora of North America says that often it occurs in moist soils, as in palm groves, but here I find it in thin, dry soil atop limestone outcrops.

I just love having to work for an identification like this. And meeting a whole new kind of tree -- though I've passed it a hundred times during the last year -- is especially a pleasure.

*****

"THATCH-ROOF BEETLE"
Last year at the end of the rainy season when I moved from the visitor hut beside the rancho's tool shed to the hut beside the deep pit, in late afternoon of the day when I cleaned the new hut I plopped into my seat to rest. I was pleased with the move, this new lodging seeming to be an improvement over the old one in every way. But then something tiny bounced off my bald head. And then another. And another and another, and before long it was like a shower of tiny somethings falling on and all around me. They were 4mm-long beetles (3/20ths inch), one of which is shown on my fingertip at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210bp.jpg

A flipped-over one is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210bq.jpg

At first the rain of beetles didn't concern me, thinking that it must be a one-time occurrence, and remembering that I sleep inside a mosquito net. However, that night many slipped beneath the net and crawled over my body, tickling and keeping me awake. When I picked one off and put him outside the net, I found my fingers stinking mightily, for this beetle protects itself from predators with a stinky exudation. And the next night, the beetle rain was even heavier.

My Maya friends knew all about this beetle, because the insects infest the Guano-Palm thatch roofs of their own homes. However, they'd never experienced a deluge of them like I was seeing. They conjectured that in their own homes the kitchen fire sent smoke filtering through the roof thatch, keeping down beetle populations, so I needed to make a smoky fire in my hut. I did that but it didn't help much. The morning after the worst night of my beetle deluge I swept four liters (quarts) of dead, dying and living beetles from the hut floor. The Maya workers said they could hear the beetles munching the palm thatch above us, but they were too quiet for my ears.

Eventually I learned that the beetles fell from the thatch mainly before afternoon rains. They were the best rain forecasters I'd ever encountered. When the dry season began, their nightly numbers fell to just a few. This year when the rainy season returned, the beetle fall increased, but not much, maybe because by the my own thatch roof had been smoked better.

Of course I wanted to know what kind of beetle I was dealing with. Others in the Yucatan with unsmoked thatch roofs -- such as restaurant owners and hotels catering to foreigners who think that a thatch roof is romantic -- may have the same problem.

But, the Beetle Order is enormous. Unless I'm dealing with a well known garden pest such as the Cucumber Beetle, usually I feel lucky if I can figure out which family the beetle belongs to.

Therefore, when Gilles from Quebec signed in at Genesis in Ek Balam and told me that he managed a large Internet forum for insect enthusiasts, and that professional entomologists sometimes visited it, I jumped at the possibility of having some real beetle experts identify the beetle from my posted photos.

Gilles himself figured out that the beetle belonged to the the Darkling Beetle Family, the Tenebrionidae. When he spoke with some specialists in Neotropical Tenebrionidae, their best guess was that our beetle belongs to the genus BLAPSTINUS. However, without dissecting the beetle and without much work having been done on Blapstinus in our area -- conceivably we have a species not yet known to science -- that's as far as they can go.

So, getting our little beetle to genus level is pretty good. I hope that someday a researcher will be happy to know about my nightly Blapstinus rains, and maybe suggest a species name.

*****

TRIPOGANDRA FLOWERING IN MORELOS
During my mid-October visit with a friend near Tepotzlán, Morelos, in the uplands just south of Mexico City, a certain weed in a hedgerow between two ranchos caught my attention. It was a member of the Spiderwort Family, the Commelinaceae, and I'd been looking for species in that family because a doctoral candidate in São Paulo, Brazil studying the family has been asking for pictures of Mexican taxa. You can see the flowering tip of one of the sprawling plant's branches at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210tg.jpg

Even from such a distance, northern wildflower fanciers will recognize this annual herb's similarity to the North's various spiderwort species, which sometimes are known as widow's tears because of the clear, mucilaginous juice that exudes from injured vegetative parts. The flower size and color are right, as are the teardrop-shaped leaves whose bases wrap around the stem. A leaf-base close-up is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210th.jpg

Notice how the leaf base forms a short, silvery cylinder around the stem, before ending at the the stem node. A close-up of the flowering head shows the inflorescence's peduncles and pedicels heavily invested with silvery hairs, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210ti.jpg

From behind, the corolla is seen expanding above three slender, glandular-hairy sepals, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210tl.jpg

What's really interesting, though, are the flowers' stamens, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210tj.jpg

Spiderwort blossoms bear six fertile stamens, but this flower produces only three fertile stamens, each bearing slender, conspicuously segmented hairs on their filaments, plus three sterile stamens, or staminodia, each with hairless filaments. Though otherwise the flowers look like typical spiderwort (genus Tradescantia) flowers, this plant's stamens are unusual enough to settle this species in a different genus. It's the genus Tripogandra, comprising about 22 species, none of which are native to North America, all being tropical American, with several species restricted just to Mexico. No accepted English name is applied to them, so I just call them Tripogandras.

The stamens are so unusual that it's worth looking at them close-up, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171210tk.jpg

The red arrow points to the fertile stamens' pollen-encrusted anthers. The fertile stamens' filaments are short, and hairy. The three conspicuous items with white "hoods" below what looks like yellow anthers are stamenodia. The "hoods" are known as filament inflations, and it's supposed they attract polliators. The yellow things are sterile "upper stamens." I didn't figure all this out myself but rather my Commelenaceae-specialist friend in São Paulo explained it to me, and even placed the red arrow on the image.

Of Mexico's several Tripogandra species, this one is distinguished by its smooth, shiny leaves, its rose-purple corolla, and especially by the particular structure of its stamens and staminodia. Our species is TRIPOGANDRA AMPLEXICAULIS, occurring in a variety of habitats but especially in weedy, disturbed places, and usually on loose, acid soils such as those developed atop Morelos's thick deposits of volcanic ash, through most of Mexico south to Nicaragua.

*****

BOOM-BOOM MUSIC
Last Sunday after buying my week's supply of bananas in Temozón, as I biked home I passed a little house playing boom-boom music as loud as possible. That reminded me of the time I asked my friend Pancho why so many people in Mexico's small towns and villages turn up their radios so high.

"Music makes you happy," he replied.

"But what if someone doesn't like hearing it?" I countered, causing him to look at me as if the question didn't register.

"But everyone likes to be happy," finally he said.

That kind of reasoning usually works in these small communities. In fact, I suspect that most villagers here accept or even enjoy sharing their neighbor's high-volume music, possibly as a relief from the habitual sounds of clucking chickens, babies crying, and people saying the same as always.

However, despite my having "gone native" in so many ways here, I just don't like boom-boom music.

It's been shown that if a rhythmic beat is played a little faster than one's heartbeat, the heart speeds up to sync with what's heard. If the body isn't active, this increase in oxygen and energy to the brain results in the person feeling more alert, quicker thinking -- "more alive," it seems. The body doesn't maintain this level of oxygen and energy input all the time because it'd lead to early burnout. The body is tuned for longevity.

So, the heartbeat experiment shows that people with boom-boom music can to some degree control other people's thinking and feeling; they're manipulating people without their consent. The whole idea gives me the creeps.

Maybe no one in human history more than Hitler's propaganda minister, Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels -- Vladimir Putin is a contender -- has with such effect changed people's behaviors by manipulating their physical and mental environments. Goebbels dusted off powerful mythologies much used throughout history to stir people up -- myths based on the supposed superiority of one's own race and nationality. He coerced those with doubts by using fear-inducing symbols such as the Cross-like swastika, and the terrifying SS on collars of men who knocked on doors after midnight. Goebbels was a master at manipulating people with or without their consent.

Of course, it's a long way from boom-boom music blasting from a little two-room hut along the highway, and Nazi craziness, but there's a thread connecting the two things. The thread is that in both instances someone manipulates people without their consent, by incessantly boom-booming some kind of message, overtly or subliminally, into the general environment.

The question is, at what point along the continuum between boom-boom music and Nazism does the victim resist?

For my part, especially during these sunny, early-autumn-feeling days in the Yucatan, I'm glad to be where only an occasional boom-boom-booming comes thudding through the thicket from cars on the highway a kilometer away. Maybe I even need a little boom-boom from time to time -- even though sometimes it sets the dogs to barking -- to remind me how lucky I am.

But, for most of the rest of you, the keyword here on which to meditate, is "resist."

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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