Tag Archives: plants

Immigrants: Alcatraz, Agapanthus, and Sugarcane

By Julie Etra

Did you know that the calla lilies and agapanthus, common flowers found in many Mexican markets (and a mainstay at our own Mercado Orgánico Huatulco [aka MOH]) are originally from South Africa? Well, neither did I. In Mexico, they grow in the Sierra Madre del Sur and other temperate climates. Sugarcane, also commonly cultivated in multiple regions of Mexico, is also an immigrant, but with a much longer and more complex history.

The Calla Lily

Calla and arum lilies are both scientifically identified as Zantedeschia aethiopica – arum lilies are larger, calla lilies boast multiple colors. In Nahuatl, they are called huacalxochitl, while the Spanish name is alcatraz, a word derived from the Arabic Spanish used in southern Spain (the Moors ruled Spain in progressively smaller areas, ending up with only the southern part known as Al-Andalus, now Andalusia, from 711 to 1492).

How the word alcatraz came to name the calla lily is debatable; apparently when an 18th-century Spanish explorer sailing up the Pacific to what is now California reached San Francisco Bay, he found callas growing on one of the islands in the bay – and the bay was full of pelicans (alcatraz also means “pelican”). Through a series of cartographic mishaps, the originally unnamed island came to be named La isla de los alcatraces, which transferred to the calla lilies. Callas can be spread by bird-dropped seeds, which is most likely how they got to both San Francisco and Mexico. On the other hand, explorers who had reached South Africa had brought them back to Europe a couple of centuries earlier, so they could have been introduced to Mexico by the Spanish. The trail went cold as I tried to figure out the route of the alcatraz through Europe, and ultimately Spain, for its eventual export to Mexico. Who was responsible for its spread? Was it the Portuguese? The Dutch? Other European traders? Was it ever cultivated in Spain, and if so, where?

In Mexico it grows prolifically in temperate climates on the periphery of oak pine woodlands. In Oaxaca it is commonly cultivated around San José del Pacifico. The white, trumpet-shaped “petal” of the flower is actually a “spathe,” or bract (modified leaf); the flower is the central yellow “spadix,” or phallic-appearing spike covered with tiny flowers.

Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist, had a particular fascination with white calla and arum lilies. He included them in both paintings and murals as a symbol of both purity and sensuality. Some critics believe he used callas to represent the “abundance of life and death” in indigenous life. However, the calla also appears in pre-Hispanic art. Given that it is not native to Mexico, how do we explain that? There are 700+ members of the Araceae family, all displaying the same spathe-and-spadix form; Mexico has 41 species, 26 of them native. Most probably the “flowers” portrayed in ceramics, sculptures, and other works of early art are the calla’s native relatives.

Agapanthus

Agapanthus, called agapando in Spanish, is derived from the Greek – agape meaning “love,” and anthos meaning “flower.” The purple flowers are clustered in an umbel-like form at the end of the stem, accompanied with fleshy leaves.

Like the alcatraz, it most likely followed a similar route from Africa to Europe, first arriving there at the end of the 17th century, possibly returning with Dutch traders. Europeans – in this case the Portuguese – first happened on the Capetown area in 1488, while searching for a sea route to the Orient in lieu of the dangerous and costly overland Silk Road. The Dutch, renowned flower breeders, settled Capetown in 1652, but numerous European traders followed. By 1679, the agapando had reached Europe by a returning trading ship; it loves to grow around the Mediterranean Sea (some countries have declared it an invasive species), so it made its way to Spain and thence to Mexico.

The cut flower trade is a multibillion-dollar industry; Mexican “ornamental plants and flowers” – also the name of Mexico’s overall trade association – were valued at $1.8 billion USD in 2021. The majority of production is located in the states of México, Puebla, Morelos, and Veracruz. There are about 25,500 producers of ornamental plants and flowers, providing 188,000 permanent and about 50,000 permanent jobs. More than a million jobs are indirectly related to the ornamental sector of Mexico’s economy.

Mexico is unique in that it produces cut flowers under natural conditions in open fields, as well as under controlled – usually in greenhouses – conditions. Both agapanthus and calla lilies are field-grown, which may be why they are not in the top 10 flowers produced for export (in 2007, they were about 13th and 14th on the list).
The Ornamental Plants and Flowers association will be hosting its international exposition, La Feria Especializada en Horti-Floricultura, Viverismo, Paisajismo, y Diseño Floral, September 13-15, 2022, in Mexico City at the Centro Citibanamex.

Sugarcane

Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) is in the grass family. It arrived in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1522, brought from Cuba by Hernán Cortés. By 1524, there were already sugarcane plantations along the shores of the Tepengo River in Santiago Tuxtla, Veracruz. Although the origins remain unclear, it most likely is a native of New Guinea. It arrived in Persia (Iran) around 500 CE, spread throughout North Asia, traveled to Egypt and North Africa, and from there on to southern Europe. In around 755 CE, it arrived in southern Spain and the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. From Spain (or the Canary Islands) it migrated to Cuba in 1493. Its cultivation continued expanding into Central and South America. In Mexico, Veracruz was the ideal environment for sugarcane cultivation, given its soils, hydrology, and climate. Sugarcane spread rapidly throughout Mexico from 1550 to 1600, particularly in the states of Michoacán and Jalisco, around Puebla, and Cuernavaca and Cuautla in the state of México.

It rapidly became an important export, along with gold, silver, chocolate, and cochineal (the red dye created from insects that cluster on cactus), almost entirely to the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Early production was very labor intensive using basically slave labor, indentured servitude known as the encomienda system (explicit slavery was outlawed by the Catholic church). Production evolved into haciendas or large plantations, and production surpassed that of cotton, a Mexican native. By the 18th century over 300 sugarcane farms were supplying the sugar mills and factories.

According to the Secretaría de Agricultura y Desarrollo Rural (Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development), as of August 31, 2021, there were 49 sugarcane processing facilities in Mexico, producing over 5.7 million tons of refined sugar, an increase of over 8% percent from previous years. Approximately 738,146 tons were exported to the United States in 2021.

The state of Veracruz leads national production at 35% of the total, followed by 14% in Jalisco and 8% in San Luis Potosí. More than 826,000 hectares are under cultivation. Refined sugar is produced by crushing the sugarcane stems, heating the juice, filtering and crystalizing the juices, and finally centrifuging the liquid to further the purification process.

In addition to refined sugar, Mexico produces a type of unrefined sugar called piloncillo, which is also found elsewhere in Latin America under different names including panela, panocha, chancaca, and rapadura. Cone shaped, piloncillo is a solid form of sucrose derived from boiling and evaporating sugarcane juice. It is available in virtually every Mexican food market. Moscabado or mascobo is a type of Mexican sugar that resembles the brown sugar sold in the U.S. and Canada. It is a partially refined sugar with a strong molasses content and flavor, and dark brown in color. It used to be hard to find in Huatulco, but is consistently stocked at the Colorín market located on the south side of Calle Colorín between Rosa Laurel on the west and Chacah on the east.

Huatusco Showcases Bamboo at Its Best

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Standing in the midst of a massive grove of bamboo is a sensuous experience. The beauty and power of the fastest growing plant in the world is breathtaking – literally. The genus Bambusa regulates the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and so one feels a sense of rejuvenation simply being amongst the vast expanses of bamboo. A simple grove of bamboo releases 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees.

Bambuver

A visit to the nonprofit (or A.C., Asociación Civile) Plantación Bambuver in the tropical town of Huatusco, Veracruz (only 4 ½ hours from the city of Oaxaca), teaches about not only the environmental importance of the 1,200 or so species of bamboo (the most common being Bambusa vulgaris), but also the multiplicity of diverse uses and applications: from commercial/industrial to artistic/aesthetic, from domestic/home to, of course, horticultural. Within the context of a three-hour tour of its installations, one cannot help but be impressed, through learning of the plant’s remarkable versatility and its environmental and ecological value as a sustainable industry.

Bambuver works in collaboration with the state of Veracruz, the national forestry commission, the national science and technology advisory board, and other national as well as state and local government branches. Its mission centers on the ongoing development and promotion of an integrated bamboo industry.

The Bambuver facilities are spread over three main locations in and around Huatusco, all easily visited in an afternoon.

  1. The green area consists of expansive forests comprising several species of bamboo, and includes a science and research center in addition to greenhouses for propagation. There is also a sales component so visitors can purchase small plants in plastic sleeves, and three-meter lengths of mature bamboo also suitable for growing back home. One can also buy large sacks of compost, with or without lombrices (earthworms). Lombrices create the compost from feeding off the exterior casings of coffee beans. Nearby coffee plantations (which can also be visited) provide Bambuver with the outer bean casings, otherwise waste, to use as feed for the lombrices. You’ll learn of the symbiotic relationship between the bamboo industry in Huatusco and the current as well as historical presence of the region’s coffee plantations; each and every bamboo forest at Bambuver has been nurtured with the aid of this natural fertilizer. You can even buy a bag of lombrices enabling you to kick-start or enrich a compost bin!
  2. A showroom in downtown Huatusco displaying examples of the plethora of uses for bamboo for domestic/home applications.
  1. A processing factory where the bamboo is treated and then fabricated for home and commercial/industrial use. The natural/renewable resource can be substituted for other building materials, to the extent that entire homes are now being built using bamboo rather than reinforced steel and other manmade construction products.

In the course of a tour of Bambuver, one inevitably begins to appreciate and consider the use of bamboo in construction, given that it is available in a variety of thicknesses, strengths, textures and colors (natural and dyed). It is used for building frames and beams, roofs, flooring, walls, windows, decorative interior panels, home bars, furniture, craft products, and much more.

Interesting Stops En Route to Huatusco
Starting from Oaxaca (or perhaps the Puebla-Cordóba-Acayucan route to Huatulco), consider a 2 – 3 day driving trip. The route north and east on the toll road from Oaxaca passes through several appealing towns and regions, some steeped in history (Córdoba), others producing crafts using materials native to the particular area (San Antonio Texcala for onyx and marble), still others showcasing environmental attractions (the water museum near Tehuacán, the biosphere near Cuicatlán, and the thoroughly impressive snow-capped Pico de Orizaba). And for the home garden aficionado, you’ll be passing through Fortín de las Flores, noted for cacti, succulents and anthuriums, to name just a few.

The Drive
Take the toll road north from Oaxaca until reaching the junction of 135D and 150D. Exit to the right, towards Orizaba / Córdoba, and continue along 150D. Leave the toll road when you see the Fortín / Huatusco sign. After paying a toll, keep right, and then left at the Huatusco sign, then left again at the next Huatusco sign. This takes you to Mexico 125, on which there will be clearly marked signage to downtown Huatusco.

Lodging and Bambuver Contact Info
Hotel Huatusco has underground parking, a restaurant, and even a conference center. It’s clean, with reasonably priced rooms (including a floor fan for the asking): Av. 1 Ote 399, Centro Huatusco 94108 (tel: 273 734 3852).

Bambuver A.C. is located a few blocks from the hotel: Av. 4 Ote 336 (tel: 273 734 0680 – both their website page list other numbers); you can learn more at http://www.bambuver.com.

Tours are available for 6 – 20 people, but smaller group / private tours can be arranged with sufficient notice, in either case at a nominal charge.

The one three-meter length of mature bamboo Alvin Starkman purchased at Bambuver several years ago is now a small forest. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Calming Your Nervios

By Kary Vannice

“Nervios” is a classification of medical disorders used here in Mexico that, for us, would loosely be translated as the “jitters.” In reality, though, the symptoms go well beyond that.

The late professor Carlos Zolla Luque, an expert in Mexican traditional medicine at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), described nervios as characterized by a “state of unrest” in which it is customary to experience “insomnia, loss of appetite or compulsive eating, anxiety, rapid pulse, occasional despair and other disorders such as hair loss, dermatitis and weakness. Any circumstances that alter the emotional state or mood are interpreted as possible triggering agents.”

Now, let’s be honest, we are all staring down the barrel of another six months of civil unrest, economic uncertainty, and social isolation – as if the past six months were not enough to make anyone reach for the Prozac.

Unlike the other North American countries, Mexicans have long recognized what modern science now calls “stress-related disorders.” Ancient folk remedies throughout Mexico always included several different plants and trees as cures to calm the nerves. In 2014, a team of UNAM scientists itemized 92 “medicinal plants for the treatment of ‘nervios’, anxiety, and depression in Mexican traditional medicine” – a great resource for getting high-strung, stressed out, insomniacs to chill out and take a nap.

In the midst of a global pandemic, regional economic crisis and racial tensions boiling over (for good reason, I might add), it’s safe to say we’re all experiencing more than a little stress in our daily lives. The good news is, here in Mexico, they haven’t lost touch with their ancient ways and some of these old folk remedies are still very much available to us today. Anyone who’s been to a traditional “tianguis” market knows there’s always at least one vendor there selling dried herbs to cure what ails ya’.

Two of the 92 Oaxacan antidotes for los nervios you’d more commonly associate with a flower shop than a pharmacy. They are a local chrysanthemum and Ipomoea stans, a variety of those lovely blue/purple morning glories you see on your morning walks. However, in their case, it’s not the flower that’s used, it’s the roots.

In other plants, it’s the bark or the leaves, or the berries that hold the power to relax one with a tense and uneasy disposition. Calderona Amarilla (Galphimia Glauca, or thryallis), for example, by far the most wildly studied of the folk remedies, uses the seeds and branches to make a soothing tonic.

Another recognizable Mexican flower, the cempasúchil, the Mexican marigold (Tagetes erecta) traditionally used Day of the Dead displays, while not reviewed in the study, has long been used to cure headaches, “fright,” insomnia, excessive crying and nervousness.

There are many other at-home treatments readily available in your local fruit and veg store. While not necessarily native to Mexico, these are well-known “medicines” for nervous Nellies.

Passionflower – There are over 500 varieties of passionflower and only some of them produce a curative effect, but you’ll often find dried Passiflora in local natural farmacías, which you can use to make a calming tea.

Ruda (common rue) – Originally from the Mediterranean, this herb has a long-standing place in Mexican households for its calming and relaxing effects. A tea can be made from its delicate leaves to reduce anxiety and nervousness.

Sage – What we think of as a nice addition to a savory dish is actually an antidote for anxiety here in Mexico. If you’re lucky, you can find it fresh in the produce section. But if you strike out there, move on to the dried herb section of the store and look for salvia.

Lavender – Oil of lavender can be put into a diffuser to create a peaceful and comforting atmosphere. The leaves can be made into a tea and flowers can be added to a hot bath.

Chamomile – You’ll often find this fresh in the herb section of most fruterías. And it is always available in the bagged tea section of the local supermarket.

Hibiscus tea – Yes, the ubiquitous agua de jamica served in cafés and street corners across Mexico is a great tonic for anxiety. So, if you’re feeling edgy, double down on this aguita the next time you have comida corrida.

Red rose – Even this iconic symbol of love and romance has calming effects. Four flowers left standing in a liter of freshly boiled water for one hour can be consumed a half-cup at a time to sooth the stomach and the nerves.

There are better days ahead, but until then, to keep from popping Prozac from a PEZ dispenser, why not take a more natural approach to calming your nervous system? It’s worked here in Mexico for thousands of years.

Who’s Your Daddy?

By Julie Etra

There is enormous variation in the animal, and even the plant, kingdom when it comes to reproduction. Parenting and sexual roles are an even more complicated topic, with lots of shades of gray. So, let’s start close to home with the fish of the waters, reefs and bays of Huatulco:

Seahorses
The male seahorse gives birth. These animals are found in shallow tropical waters and occur in the reefs around Huatulco. Seahorses aren’t really good swimmers – they swim upright and typically hide in sheltered coral reefs and rocks. They are closely related to pipefish, which swim horizontally, and both have a bony exoskeleton instead of an internal skeletal system. The male has a pouch; when seahorses mate, the female deposits up to 1,500 eggs in this pouch. Incubation takes up to 45 days, and the very small baby seahorses emerge fully developed. The young are released into the water and the male often mates again within hours or days. They are not hermaphrodites, as the sexes are separate and remain so.

And what is hermaphroditism?

A hermaphrodite is “an organism that has complete or partial reproductive organs and produces gametes normally associated with both male and female sexes. Many taxonomic groups of animals do not have separate sexes.” Male gametes are sperm, female gametes are eggs. In summary, they start with full male and female capabilities, and potentially change from one to the other depending on the circumstances, which can be myriad.

Protogynous hermaphrodites are born female and at some point in their lifespan change their sex to male. As the animal ages, it shifts sex and becomes a male animal due to internal or external triggers. Protogyny is more common than protandry, where the male becomes female.

Hermaphroditism is a fairly common occurrence among coral reefs species, particularly the wrasses, parrotfish, gobies, and some species of eels.

Wrasses
These are very common around the reefs of Huatulco; we have the ubiquitous rainbow wrasse, Mexican hogfish, and the distinctive rockcrawler wrasse. Their reproductive strategies are complicated. The rainbow wrasse has two types of males and two methods of reproduction. The Mexican hogfish starts life as a female, and after having achieved a larger size, becomes a functional male. The males gather in groups to perform competitive displays to attract females and defend their reproductive territories; the groups are known as “leks” and the displays as “lekking.” (Other species, notably the sage grouse, also gather in groups to attract their “harems” for mating.)

Parrot fish
We have these fish in the Bahías, but they are not common. If you are snorkeling or scuba diving, you might a crunching sound – the parrot fish are dining on coral. What makes these fish unique is that they can change their sex throughout their lifetime. Primary males are fish that are born male and stay male, while secondary males are males that are born female and become male when they reach sexual maturity.

Gobies
Gobies are members of a very large fish family; their habitat is the shallow waters around the reefs of Huatulco. They have mommies and daddies. Daddies protect the nest from predators, take care of the eggs by fanning the eggs to increase the availability of oxygen, while mommies keep the house nice and tidy. When the females quit their household duties, the eggs are consumed by the males. Some species of gobies can change their sex, and their genitalia will change to follow suit. Sex change can occur over days or weeks and from female to male if the dominant male has died.

Saltwater Eels
We have morays and zebras in our reefs. Some species are hermaphroditic, starting their mature life as males, changing sex later to females, but some are both female and male at the same time.

Clownfish
These fish don’t occur in our reef systems here but they are too interesting to not mention. Made famous by Nemo (not a gender-accurate portrayal!), they live symbiotically with anemones, each helping the other to survive and thrive. The sea anemone protects the clownfish from predators and provides food. The clownfish in turn defends the anemone from its predators and parasites. Clownfish schools are female dominated; the females carry both female and male reproductive organs.

The large female fish is dominant, but upon her death the dominant male gains weight and changes sex. While she is still in charge, she mates only with the breeding male. The rest of the community comprises sexually immature males, or ‘”bachelors.” Changing sex is determined by hormones that cause the testes to disappear and trigger the development of the ovaries. Parenting? Both the male and the female maintain and guard the eggs once they are laid by the female.

Anglerfish
Here is another super odd one, a species that does not occur on our beautiful coast, but is just too interesting not to mention – the anglerfish. To get a look at them in action, go to http://www.livescience.com/48885-rare-anglerfish-video-footage.html.

These fish dwell at great depths, below 984 feet, in Monterey Canyon off the central coast of California. The male is tiny compared to the female. Once he finds a willing female the male bites and latches on to her belly. Their tissues fuse, the male wastes away, and all systems become one. The male’s only purpose is to provide sperm, while the host female becomes a bizarre self-fertilizing hermaphrodite.

For plants, the phenomenon of no mommies or daddies needed is perhaps more common than you might realize.

Succulents
These include Hens and Chicks and Mothers of Thousands. These easy to grow succulents are very common in gardens and nurseries around Huatulco, as well as higher up in temperate climates, including San José del Pacifico, well above Pochutla on the route up the mountains to Oaxaca. Although they flower and can produce seed, they more commonly produce new plants with their own root systems, e.g. vegetative reproduction. Thanks to some local friends, I have a lovely Mother of Thousands in our Huatulco garden. It is also known as the “devil’s backbone,” “alligator plant,” or “Mexican hat plant,” and is native to Madagascar. Each plantlet has its own root system, ready to drop off from the momma/poppa plant and establish a new plant.

Cactus
We all know the Nopal plant, of which there are many types in Mexico and the southwest United States. Also known as prickly pears, these cacti prefer warm, dry or seasonally wet climates like our own selva seca (seasonally dry tropical forest). They also produce a fruit, known as a “tuna” (one of the delicious flavors of the shaved-ice nieves available in the Huatulco Organic Market). The tuna contains seeds which readily geminate. But the big pads, called pencas, that are sliced and diced and commonly cooked in Mexican cuisine, can become detached and roll downhill, or attach to and detach from cattle and wildlife, and establish new roots at the base of the penca – hence new plants, no seeds. Voila.

Papayas
Ah papayas, that yummy tropical fruit, whose origin is the southern coast of Mexico, have male and female flowers on separate plants, but also both on the same plant. The male plant actually possesses female parts but they are not fully developed or functioning. However, with rising temperatures the plant can generate a fruit-producing female. Female plants can produce fruit, with seed if pollinated, or without seed if not pollinated (think unfertilized chicken eggs).

Hermaphroditic papaya flowers have both functional male and female flowers. They are capable of producing fruit and don’t require pollination. However, like male papayas, they can change gender. They may switch to being male during hot weather, or to female after being topped.

Despite our expectations of neat and not-so-neat nests filled with eggs, and mommies and daddies hatching the eggs and feeding the squawking hatchlings, there are species that do not really share parenting, and there might even be a few instances of hermaphroditic reproduction.

Cassowaries
These large, colorful, flightless birds are native to Australia and are related to emus and ostriches. The cassowary breeding season occurs in May and June when the male prepares the nest, which consists of a pile of leaves and other debris, and the females lay three to eight large eggs. The male then sits on the nest for 50-52 days, adding or deleting litter in order to regulate the nests’ temperature. After the chicks emerge, they remain in the nest for about nine months while daddy protects them. The female is not involved in raising the chicks, rather going off to lay more eggs in the nests of several other males.

Chickens
And last, hens turning into roosters? Is this possible? Even in Huatulco? Apparently very rare, but it has been documented. Consider the case of Gertie the hen, who hailed from England. In 2011 she suddenly stopped laying eggs, grew a characteristic rooster comb, and began acting like a rooster. This is due to the unique physiology of chickens. They have one ovary and an undeveloped sex organ that can become a testicle or an ovary but remains dormant unless environmental triggers and subsequent male hormone production result in its morphing into a rooster appearance. Although it cannot reproduce, it develops behavior characteristic of roosters, including aggressive territorial behavior and crowing at dawn. (Of course, if you’ve ever raised chickens, you know they crow at dawn, midnight, lunchtime, whenever they damn well feel like it!)

“Variety is the spice of life,” ain’t it grand?!