JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Rancho Regenesis
in the woods ±4kms west of Ek Balam Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

January 28, 2018

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"JUTE"
At the garden's edge a certain weed grew so entangled in the general weedy luxuriousness that despite its weird fruits it was easy to overlook, but hard to photograph amid all the weeds' visual clutter. A disentangled branch of the diffusely branching, sprawling, tough-stemmed annual plant is shown held against the sky at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128cc.jpg

When that branch was plucked from the main stem, very tough, pliable fibers tore from the stem, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128cf.jpg

Such fibers are typical of the big Hibiscus or Mallow Family, the Malvaceae, as were the plant's simple leaves arranged alternately with one another along the stem, and the leaves' margins bearing low teeth, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128cg.jpg

In that picture, the most interesting feature is the immature fruit at the stem's tip. On other stems mature, capsular fruits were splitting open to release their seeds, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128cd.jpg

Capsules that already have lost all their seeds, showing the interior compartments in which the seeds had lain are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128ce.jpg

This plant is fairly similar to the Slippery Bur, Corchorus siliquosus we looked at last month, profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/slippery.htm

The most obvious difference is that Slippery Bur's fruits are much longer and slenderer than our current plant's, and they lack the conspicuous spreading teeth at the fruits' tops. However, our present plant's fruits, if elongated, made thinner, and if the teeth at the top were reduced, structurally would be the same. Therefore, maybe we had another species of the genus Corchorus.

Which we did. This is CORCHORUS AESTUANS, a good old Linnaeus name bestowed in 1759. One reason Linnaeus knew about it is that Corchorus aestuans occurs throughout the world's tropical regions. Some experts believe it's native to the American tropics and was introduced long ago into Africa and Asia, while others think it's probably the other way around. Wherever it originated, today it's widely cultivated in many places because of its tough stem fibers. Among its English names are West African Mallow, East Indian Mallow and Jute.

Most of us have heard of the Jute plant grown for its bast fiber, but more commonly the name Jute is applied to another species of Corchorus -- Corchorus capsularis. That's why I've placed our garden Jute's name between quotation marks. The bast of our current Corchorus siliquosus is considered to be coarser and less durable than that derived from Corchorus capsularis. By the way, that word "bast" refers to any fibrous material derived from the phloem of a plant, for use as fiber. And "phloem" is the vascular tissue in plants that conducts sugars and other metabolic products downward from the leaves, after being photosynthesized there.

Our present garden Jute has other uses than fiber. In some countries its leaves are eaten. In northeastern India the root is cooked as a vegetable. In traditional African medicine an extract of the roots or leaves is taken for the treatment of gonorrhea. In the Congo, leaves are squeezed and the sap is sniffed for the headache. And there are a number of its other uses as well.

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PURPLE SCALYSTEM'S GHOSTLY FLOWERS
Along the footpath to the hut, a very bug-eaten, raggedy looking, foot-tall herb caught my attention because its tiny purplish flowers seemed to glow in the morning dimness as if they possessed incandescence. You can see the effect at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128el.jpg

The plant displayed an unusual form of growth, better seen farther away, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128ek.jpg

Notice how leaves clusters atop short stems. They're like rosettes raised from the ground. The leaves' margins, instead of ending at the top of petioles, continued on down the petioles, forming narrow, green wings almost to the petioles' bases, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128em.jpg

That picture also shows how the flowers grew in thick spikes, the spikes themselves often arising two, three or more together. A closer look at the spikes and their dainty flowers, the corollas' lobes flaring from atop slender, upward-growing tubes, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128en.jpg

The plant is reminiscent of the Verbena Family, but when you get much closer to the 1/3-inch-long (7mm) flowers, you see features that cast doubt on that family, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128eo.jpg

Only two stamens are seen, plus notice that structure curiously projecting from between the two, mostly fused-together top petals, above the corolla's throat. Seeing that, and taking into account the thick, scaly flowering spikes, I remembered that back at Chichén Itzá we've seen those features, though they were produced by a plant whose leaves hugged the ground, forming real rosettes, not elevated ones. We called that the Wheatspike Scalystem, Elytraria bromoides, and our page for it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/scaly.htm

Could we have a second species of Elytraria, one with a stem? It was easy enough to find that a second Elytraria species does indeed occur in the Yucatan, and it's one with a stem, and in fact looks exactly like our footpath plant.

Our footpath plant is ELYTRARIA IMBRICATA, a member of the Acanthus Family, the Acanthaceae, sometimes in English named the Purple Scalystem. It enjoys an English name because not only does it occur throughout most of tropical America, but even as far north as the southwestern US. It's also establishing itself as a weed in various other parts of the world's tropics.

Numerous traditional medicinal uses have been reported for Purple Scalystem. In the Yucatan it's been commonly used to cure the diarrhea.

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TREETOP CLUSTERS OF LITTLE BROWN FRUITS
Along roadsides through the local cut-over, scrubby woods, nowadays treetops bear vines heavy with peppercorn-size fruits, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128ja.jpg

Being a vine bearing heart-shaped leaves and such fruits, it's clear that we're dealing with a fruiting morning glory. However, we have lots of morning glory species in this area, so which is this? A close-up of the handsome fruit clusters helps whittle down the possibilities, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128jb.jpg

A cluster of fruits seen from the side, and showing that the peduncle and stem are covered with low, soft hairs is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128jc.jpg

Any morning glory producing so many tightly clustered, capsular-type fruits of such a small size must earlier have borne unusually small, closely packed flowers. Our smallest species of morning glory are members of the genus Jacquemontia, of which so far we've noticed three species in the Yucatan. Of those three species the one with the smallest, most congested flowers is the white-flowered Jacquemontia nodiflora, whose page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/jacquemo.htm

Further field marks suggesting that these fruits are from Jacquemontia nodiflora, which we call "Little White Bells," include leaf and stem appearance, and the clusters' numbers of fruits seeming to match the numbers of flowers in our pictures showing clustered flowers. Also, the species when flowering strikes me as equivalently abundant relative to the fruiting vines now being seen.

Thousands of pictures of this species' flowers appear on the Internet, but I could find no good ones of the fruits. Now the world can know that the fruits of Jacquemontia nodiflora on a sunny morning hanging in the top of a Uaxim tree are almost decorative in appearance, and are worth noticing.

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LIVING-MULCH IN THE GARDEN
As we sink deeper into the plant- and animal-stressing dry season, this year's garden is much more productive than last year's, because last year I learned a lot from my failures. Most importantly, I realized that in our thin, clayey soil with its cattle-hoof-formed hardpan, before planting anything at all I needed to break up the soil with a pickax and add plenty of compost and manure. The other trick I've realized is that live-mulching makes sense.

Live-mulching is the process of growing plants so close together that the plants themselves form a protective cover over the soil, keeping out the sunlight and wind, and holding moist, relatively cooler air beneath the leaves. When visitors enter my present garden, the most spectacular case of live-mulching is provided by the Climbing Spinach we've profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/basella.htm

The garden's live-mulching Climbing Spinach is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128sm.jpg

Our Amaranth page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/amaranth.htm

A live-mulching bed of Amaranth with small plants in a good stage for providing greens and a colorful addition to salads is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128sn.jpg

The live-mulching bed of mustard greens with the sweetest, most succulent leaves you can imagine is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128so.jpg

Our Cilantro page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/cilantro.htm

The live-mulching bed of Cilantro is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128sp.jpg

And who would have thought that Dwarf Siberian Kale could possibly survive here, but you can see an excellent crop of live-mulching plants grown in the shade at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128sq.jpg

I would have had such beds of leaf lettuce and beets, but dogs and Muscovy Ducks destroyed my plantings before I realized what was going on.

Part of my live-mulching strategy is to pick and eat young, too-crowded sprouts. As the live mulch grows, the larger plants end up farther and farther apart, because I've eaten the plants between them. The soil, however, stays protected from the sun and wind, and the air below the leaves stays moist.

I'm unsure if even live-mulching will sustain the garden through the end of the dry season, for December and January are our "cold season." March, April and May are our hottest, driest time of the year. At this time, my advice for gardeners here is to plant live-mulching crops in December and January, then see what happens as the heat comes on. Whatever happens then, so far this year, live-mulching has provided wondrous results.

On the Internet, live mulching seems to be understood as planting thickly-growing plants between regular crops. So far I've not found anyone using the concept as I do, in gardens being irrigated during long, extremely hot and dry dry seasons. A good page with a general look at live mulching in organic gardens is at http://www.organicgardeningtips.info/organic-and-living-mulches/

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CLIMBING SPINACH CLIMBING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/basella.htm on our Climbing Spinach page I express doubts about the plant being an effective climber. It produces no tendrils and doesn't noticeably wrap around twigs. Now I've seen that Climbing Spinach climbs. You can behold some stems climbing about 15 feet up (4.5m) into branches of a young Ceiba tree at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180128cs.jpg

Notice that the stems aren't wrapping themselves around the Ceiba's limbs. They're just wandering among the tree's widely spaced branches, neither following a straight course, nor seeming to make much effort at finding aerial support. Their forward growth is so haphazard that you wonder how they do it. However, the proof is that they're climbing into that Ceiba, and show every indication that they can go quite high if in the mood to do so.

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INSTRUCTIONS FOR LIVING A LIFE:
Newsletter reader Alan in the US wrote commenting on my remark in the recent essay "Katrina's Nose" that, "...if we are all hooked into, or are part, of a Universal Mentality -- and I suspect we are -- then all our human, Earthly experiences are of value to the Universal Mentality, whether they're 'good' or 'bad.' The job of us nerve endings is to experience."

In his letter, Alan introduced me to the living poet Mary Oliver, who in her poem "Sometimes" writes:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

I like that. I've added it to our "Nature Quotations" page at http://www.backyardnature.net/101/quotes.htm

This week, here's what the poem set me to thinking about:

First of all, the advice to "pay attention" builds on the "Katrina's Nose" insight that our human job is "to experience." It continues that thought because the most meaningful, spectacular, beautiful experiences noticed when we "pay attention" are those revealed by our mentalities. The coldness of ice and the flavor of a peach are worthy sensations, but they pale compared with the awe felt when with our mentalities we "pay attention" by reflecting deeply on the outrageously big, complex and mysterious Universe, and our place in it. Something almost unbearably majestic is going on, and our everyday lives are vital expressions of that, yet few people even realize it...

Mary Oliver points out that when we do pay attention, the next step is to be astonished -- which in my experience happens naturally when you pay attention.

And, once we recover from our astonishment enough to think coherently, "tell about it." I like to think that this third admonition comes about because Mary Oliver shares my feeling that the most majestic feature of the Universe and its contents is that everything is lustily, poetically evolving. And our mentalities can't evolve to higher levels of paying attention and being astonished even more unless those of us who are astonished share our insights with others -- if we "tell about it." The astonishment must be passed on, and nurtured.

Thinking about Mary Oliver's poem this week, and Alan's urge to share it with us, I've enjoyed meditating on the fact that in this world with so much happening because of insensitivity and ignorance, this little current of sweetly radiant thought and feeling made its way to me through a friend, and that I'm in a position right here and now -- thanks to your willingness to read these words -- to tell about it.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim