February 18, 2018
Last October when Lee, the rancho owner, returned from her yearly visit with family and friends in Canada, she brought several bunches of seeds she'd informally collected here and there. In a wrapped-up napkin labeled with a ballpoint pen as Lavender she presented me some brown, crumbly material containing seeds. I planted them, but as soon as they came up they didn't look like Lavender. There are different species and cultivars of Lavender, and all the ones I know are either slightly to very hairy. My plants were hairless -- "glabrous," they say in botany.
Lavender species, genus Lavendula, are members of the Mint Family, and what came up in the garden also looked like a mint -- stems square in cross-section, leaves arising opposite one another on the stems, the leaves themselves simple and with some kind of sweetish odor I'd not encountered before. But, what kind of mint was this? I wasn't for sure until it flowered, producing the plants pictured growing between rows of cardboard mulch at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180218bs.jpg
It looked like a basil cultivar, though it wasn't the typical garden one, nor to me did it smell like basil. So, how does know whether you have a basil or one of the 3000 or so other Mint Family species, some of which are basil-like?
Fist of all, the flowers are grouped at the tips of branches in spike-like racemes, a raceme being when each flower is attached to the main stem stem with a stalk, or "pedicel," as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180218bu.jpg
An important field mark shown in that picture is that the flower clusters, or whorls, are somewhat separated from one another. In many species producing branch-tip racemes, the whorls grow so close to one another that no main stem shows between them.
All else we need to know to be sure we have a basil is provided by the dew-drenched blossom shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180218bt.jpg
First, in that picture you can see that a flower whorl consists of six blossoms. Second, the corollas are two-lipped, as they should be for the Mint Family, plus the top lip is 4-lobed. Third, there are four stamens, of which the top pair is shorter than the bottom one. Finally, the top lip of the purple calyx from which the corolla arises is somewhat caplike, typical of the basils.
So, we have basil cultivar whose crushed leaves emit an unusual smell. However, between 50 and 150 types of basil are recognized, so we still don't have our plants pegged down completely. All basils are members of the genus Ocimum, and most but not all basil cultivars are Ocimum basilicum. Some culinary basils are members of other Ocimum species, and others are hybrids. You might enjoy looking over Wikipedia's page on basil cultivars.
Our cultivar displays several features different from those of the basil typically grown in North American gardens. For example, ours has smaller, more slender leaves, and the stems and all flower parts are deep purple or purple tinged.
By matching our plant's features with those of labeled cultivars on the Internet, it appears that our plants probably are Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflorum, often known as Thai Basil. Thai Basil is said to smell of licorice or anise, and some who have smelled our garden plant's leaves said that there's something licorice-like about their odor, but I can't see it. To me the odor is almost unpleasant, somehow oily smelling, and, in fact, somewhat like the fragrance of Lavender. I've searched for a basil cultivar smelling like Lavender, however, and find nothing.
So, now we have plenty of basil but we're not sure if the leaves will be useful in dishes. We'll just have to see if people like it.
VARIEGATED YOUNG LEAVES OF SYNGONIUM/ ARROWHEAD VINE
Here as the dry season is starting to get serious with its heat and longtime lack of rain, on the shaded, leaf-littered floor of older parts of the surrounding forest you see freshly emerging, attractively variegated leaves like those shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180218si.jpg
You've probably seen similar foliage on shade-tolerant potted plants up north. When these leaves first emerged I couldn't imagine the plant's identity, because here I've seen no mature plant producing such leaves. Potted plants with such ornamentation, fleshy texture and shape usually are members of the Arum or Jack-in-the-pulpit Family, the Araceae, and I was pretty sure that our emerging leaves also belonged to that family, but still I drew a blank. The breakthrough came once the leaves had developed a little more, producing what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180218sg.jpg
The leaves lose their arrowhead shape and become deeply lobed and compound. Here we do have viny members of the Arum Family with compound leaves such as these, in the genus Syngonium. However, Syngonium vine leaves aren't the least varigated. The next discovery supporting my suspicion that this is a Syngonium came with the discovery of what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180218sj.jpg
The top ¾ of that image definitely shows leaves a Syngonium vine, and the lower ¼ shows much smaller leaves with arrowhead shapes and variegation. My finger poked into the soil followed the smaller leaves' stem downward until it connected with a much larger stem, which seemed to be the origin of the vine with larger leaves. Therefore, the fancy little leaves emerging nowadays are Syngonium leaves.
At this point in the quest for a solid ID, complications develop. We have two Syngonium species names here we could be dealing with, Syngonium angustatum and Syngonium podophyllum. Some authors regard Syngonium podophyllum as just a form of Syngonium angustatum, in which case our vine would be Syngonium angustatum. However, it seems that most specialists keep the two species apart. With the vegetative material we have here I can't say which it might be, and I'm not sure I could even with it. Therefore, I'll just call it Syngonium Vine.
Why does the vine feel like it needs to variegate its young leaves and not its older ones? It seems that it'd prefer having no variegation at all, since those white splotches must reduce the leaves photosynthetic capacity. Maybe young leaves benefit from the ornamentation because that provide "disruptive camouflage," which to a leaf-grazer's eye might cause the young leaves to appear less leaflike amid the forest floor's visual clutter.
Young Syngonium Vine leaves aren't the only instance of "disruptive camouflage" making leaves look less leaflike on the shadowy forest floor. There's what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180218st.jpg
I was at a loss as to guess what that might be, until by chance I ran across an identified picture of it at WJ Hayden's fine Flora of Kaxil Kiuic website, where you can compare our picture with his.
Hayden identifies his plant as STENANDRUM NANUM, a member of the mostly tropical Acanthus Family, the Acanthaceae. He says that it's a perennial herb from a woody rootstock, producing flowers in short, dense spikes. I've not noticed mature plants of this species but now I know to be looking for it, and when I find it, you'll hear all about it.
YUCATAN CAESALPINIA YELLOWING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/caesgaum.htm you can see the the Yucatan Caesalpinia's handsome flowers, twice-compound leaves, and exploding legumes. I thought we'd finished documenting this tree, but nowadays it's doing something else worth paying attention to, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/18/180218ce.jpg
To anyone with memories of autumn in the Temperate Zone, this looks like a tree getting ready to lose its leaves for winter. But here we have no winter, so it's really getting ready for the worst part of the dry season, which is starting now. This tree's leaves are the most brightly colored of any woody plant I can think of down here, and it feels odd seeing one our hotter afternoons. Many woody species lose their leaves in advance of the dry season, but normally their green leaves simply fall off, or develop certain brown parts on them, or become a pale, slightly yellowish-green hue before dropping, but nothing like this.
Not all Yucatan Caesalpinias here are yellow now. The one in the picture is especially colorful. Some trees of the species are still dark green and some have lost every leaf on them. Others are mostly leafless, with a few yellow leaves still hanging on. Some of the leafless trees bear slender arrangements of immature flower buds, promising to produce spectacularly yellow-flowered trees such as those shown on our page.
I didn't plan on living as intimately with dogs as I do at the rancho. I don't much like their continual scratching for fleas, slobbering and promiscuous licking, their barking at just about anything, and awakening me at midnight with their nightmare-inspired howls, or by loudly flapping their ears. However, when they saw me settle here they just joined me without an invitation, and I didn't have the heart to beat them away or even to yell at them. Besides, sometimes they're good company, and you've seen in this Newsletter that they do things I enjoy thinking about.
For instance, last week I wrote about the two hut-dogs, clumsy but well organized Katrina, and athletic but rattlebrained Negrita. Their example brought me into thoughts about how Nature compounds diversity by varying talents and predispositions of individuals within species.
This week I've expanded on that theme by wondering about the very premise of letting what I see and experience among dogs suggest insights or "teachings" that can be applied in completely different settings. Is it acceptable to think that the same diversity-creating impulses that engender the evolving Universe, cause Katrina and Negrita to be such different dogs just as it also results in klutzy but smart humans as well as physically superb but dumb ones?
To me, that's a worthy question because, if so, the insight that non-standard individuals represent one of the most deeply rooted impulses of the evolving Universe bestows an added measure of dignity to quirky folks, human and non-human. Differentness means diversity, and that's what the Universal Creative Impulse appears to be striving for.
Beyond that, by finding an extended meaning in the fact that there are two such different dogs around me, I've raised a question about myself: Why have I ended up spending so much time identifying patterns and paradigms, and trying to determine their teachings?
I think it's because my university training directed me toward specializing in one tiny corner of reality, and to avoid all forms of anthropomorphism -- and thinking that individual dogs might be different from one another for exactly the same reason that humans are different, is pure anthropomorphism. I think my teachers went too far in that. From what I can see, reality is so pregnant with mystery, is so complex and -- according to quantum mechanics in the framework of human thought -- irrational, that in our schooling first we need to become masters of generalities. Master generalities so we can step back and see patterns and paradigms that teach and reveal. Once we've accomplished that, we'll know what specialty to choose, if we're interested.
So, I'm agreeable to having dogs teach me philosophy. If I had the brains and the ear, maybe I'd as eagerly go to school in mathematics and music, and if earlier in life I'd learned sociability, maybe I'd find revelation among city dwellers. For... dogs, cities, music, math... it's all Nature, with the same basic diversity-making, dignity-bestowing creative impulse rampaging through all its parts equally.
One benefit of thinking like this is that I find myself -- even as a semi-hermit in a hut in the forest living with unceasingly scratching, sniffing, ear-flapping dogs -- as living in a majestically dignified, magical environment.
Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,