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

December 17, 2017

*****

DIGGING WINGED YAM
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/wing-yam.htm we look at a Yam Family member much planted throughout the world's tropics because of their large, edible, starchy tubers. It goes by many English names but I call it Winged Yam.

On our Winged Yam page a Maya gardener tells us that Winged Yam tubers can reach two feet (60cm) across. This week I dug up my one plant. Before starting to dig, I photographed the vine's stems where they entered the soil, along with some of the tuber-like "bulbiles" that formed on the vines' stems. The picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217ym.jpg

In the above picture, the bulbiles in my hand are still attached to the vine, while the lower ones have fallen onto the ground. Another bulbile-producing, vine member of the Yam Family, the Air Potato -- whose bulbiles have a different appearance -- shouldn't be confused with Winged Yam. Our Air Potato page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/air-pot.htm

Now look at our Winged Yam's partially exposed tubers, with my machete included for scale, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217yn.jpg

The entire tuber cluster removed from the ground appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217yo.jpg

My machete with its broken blade is 16½ inches long (42cm), so the tuber is about 20 inches broad (51cm). This isn't as large as the gardener on our page says, but now I can believe that such big tubers are possible. When I planted my Winged Yam, I still hadn't realized how hard and impoverished our garden soil was, and I had neglected to pickax and beat the soil, and mix it with lots of manure, as I do all my plantings now. I'll bet that if I'd plant one in such a way now, I might end up with some two-foot-wide tubers, or larger.

*****

NISSOLIA VINE FRUITING
On the main highway about 5kms north of Vallodolid, from the bicycle I spotted large clusters of fruits more or less clumped atop roadside trees. Vines often produce such clumps, where they've twined to a tree's outermost limbs to produce their flowers and fruits. Here in the early dry season, these fruits were turning brown, so they were conspicuous against the deep greenness of the forest, plus they displayed very curious, almost awkward-looking forms. You can see how thickly packed they were at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217ni.jpg

A fruit close-up, is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217nj.jpg

They look like green beans flattened on their lower ends, or winged ash-tree samaras. I felt pretty sure that they were legume-type fruits of the Bean Family, though, especially since the leaves were pinnately divided like many Bean Family members, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217nk.jpg

Assuming the Bean Family, it was easy to browse the list of Bean Family members documented for the Yucatan, to find that this is NISSOLIA FRUTICOSA var. FRUTICOSA, a woody vine, or liana, generally occurring in a variety of habitats in the New World tropics. The species has no commonly accepted English name.

The Maya traditionally use this woody liana to tie up loads of firewood. I find it listed as medicinal, though the use isn't given.

It's a pleasure finding a plant producing such curious looking fruits.

*****

BYTTNERIA THE BLOODY-ARM BUSH
The mystery began about six months ago when the rainy season's first downpours were bringing vegetation back to life, when greenness was exploding everywhere, and along the winding little trail I bike down each Sunday to reach the main highway, to go to Temozón to buy fruit, plants lean in from the forest wall, craving the trail's extra measure of sunlight. More precisely, the mystery began when a certain spiny plant deeply scratched my arm as I biked past. Then the next Sunday it was the same thing, only then the cut was deeper. It was only my laziness that kept me from getting off the bike and going back to find the wrongdoer, and pull it out by the roots.

On the third Sunday of getting a bloody arm I did that. At least I found the culprit; but its stems were too spiny, too robust and too deeply rooted to pull the plant up. You can see the plant's arm-lacerating spines at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217b2.jpg

That looks like a blackberry stem up north, and the leaves were vaguely like those of a blackberry's leaflets, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217b3.jpg

And some stems of that several-stemmed, 9-ft-spreading (3m) bush bore soccer-ball-size flowering clusters somewhat like a blackberry bush's inflorescences. However, the 5mm-broad (1/5th inch) flowers were nothing like blackberry flowers, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217b4.jpg

It was a very unusual flower, and its parts were hard to interpret. Seeing this, instantly I knew that here I needed to "do the botany," and that it would be a challenge. Hot dog!

First of all, are those five green items making the flower star-like corolla lobes or a calyx's sepals? The rear view of the above flower answered the question, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217b5.jpg

There's nothing between the star-like green parts and the flower's stem, or pedicel, so the green items are forming a calyx. In the above flower picture, the stamens must be those matchstick-like items with an orange blush where the anthers must be. A side view of the blossom shows the stamens with very kinky filaments, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217b7.jpg

And now a closer look at the flower head-on is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217b8.jpg

What are the waxy-looking, pale, round-pointed items at the stamens' bases? My first impression had been that they were modified, sterile stamens known as staminodia, but usually staminodia occur between stamens, and thee could well be growing from the stamens' filaments. And I'm guessing that the short, whitish, crown-like feature at the stamen's bases are much reduced flower petals. Finally, I see no hint of an ovary, so this must be a unisexual male flower.

This was all last June. As the months passed I kept trying to figure out at least which family the plant belonged to, but with no luck. The various "Key to the Plant Families" I knew of never helped, apparently because I was misinterpreting one or more flower parts. I found the species rarely and spottily occurring here.

Finally, about a month ago a few fruits appeared on the bush's branches, and they were nothing like I'd anticipated. You can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217b1.jpg

A fruit close-up is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217b9.jpg

Is this a single spiny fruit, or clusters of fruits with pointy tops? Cutting across a spiky thing's equator, I found what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171217b6.jpg

So, each sea-urchin-like this is an individual fruit. The above photo shows that the fruit consists of five compartments, or carpels, each containing at least one hard, bony seed.

But, even with this new information, I couldn't identify the bush. In the end, this week I discovered the plant's identity by accident, finding it as I worked on another species.

It's BYTTNERIA ACULEATA, with no proper English name,. Traditionally the species has been assigned to the nearly entirely tropical Chocolate or Sterculia Family, the Sterculiaceae, but modern genetic analysis has caused that family to be merged with the much larger, more generally occurring Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae.

Even knowing this, it's hard to interpret some of the flower's features. Page 406 of Standley and Steyermark's Flora of Guatemala in the December 27, 1949 edition of Fieldiana:Botany, Vol 24, Part VI, published by the Chicago Natural History Museum, speaks of the species' flowers as having "lobes of the stamen tube alternate with the petals, the anthers solitary in the sinuses." No mention is made of flowers being unisexual. If I'm understanding the description right, then the waxy-looking, rounded items at the base of the stamens are part of the "stamen tube," the stamen tube being a cylinder formed by the stamens' fused filaments, and such stamen tubes are a prime field mark for members of the Hibiscus Family.

But, I've never seen a stamen tube even slightly resembling what's shown in our pictures.

Byttneria aculeata is native to most of Mexico south through Central America to northern South America, plus it's spreading as an invasive in certain tropical countries. Standley and Steyermark describe the species as one of the worst weeds in Guatemalan banana plantations, soon forming impenetrable thickets. Also, "Wherever it grows, the shrub is a great pest, since the sharp prickles tear the flesh painfully, so that it is impossible to pass through an infested place without the use of a machete."

In the Yucatan, the Maya traditionally use the species to cure skin problems, venereal diseases, and diarrhea.

*****

MY RADIANT VISUALIZATION
To me the most beautiful feature of Nature is the irrepressible energy and inventiveness with which She evolves ever greater diversity, while at the same time causing the created parts to be ever more integrated and mutually interdependent. My spirituality is rooted in the mental image of this process.

For, when I need guidance, I refer to that mental image, and if my proposed behavior feels harmonious with the feeling the mental image evokes, then the guidance given is to go ahead. If the behavior seems to strike a sour note with the feeling evoked by the mental image, I'm advised against it. There's nothing rational about the process. It's just that after all these years, this process seems most honest to me, and is the most effective one I've tried.

I don't know if philosophers have provided an appropriate name for such a thing as this mental image. When I think of the mental image, it's easy to visualize it as a radiant, gold-coin-like thing suspended inside my head. A magical feature of this radiant visualization is that the process it represents provides a motif for the most complex and integrated of its creations.

For example, on Earth the most obvious example of my radiant visualization's motif being echoed in its creations is the evolutionary history of the Earth's living things. Life, like the Universe itself, sparked into existence, then explosively evolved into its own universe of interconnected diverse living parts.

And, since humanity is one of the creations, the history of humanity's evolving, ever more sophisticated mentality, and the history of humanity's ever more complex social structure and even the recent history of computers and computer programming... all echo my radiant visualization's prime motif. All those subsets of reality constantly struggle forward out of simpleness and isolation toward every greater sophistication and community.

"In the beginning there was the Word... " says John 1:1. I used to think that that was a clumsy and inexplicable way to begin a book. However, now I'm wondering if it might not hit the mark exactly, insofar as the word "word" is understood by all to be something that conjures a mental image or feeling -- a kind of visualization that if we're talking about John's "God" then we can say that it's a radiant one.

Some might argue that a mere visualization is a modest rooting medium for one's spirituality. However, the radiant visualization inside my head is very clear about the following "commandments":

I have found these few words more than enough to keep me busy, and feeling good about my spiritual state, for a lifetime.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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