Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wild Passion in the Jungle

Bubbles Bev (or is it Mae now) told me that a title makes or breaks a story. So, I hope I hooked you into reading my story. Passion, fervor, ardor, obsession, infatuation, excitement, enthusiasm, zeal, craze: these are words that are enough get us all hot-blooded. We all need a little passion in our lives right? But, I hope you laugh a little when I slowly transition into talking about plants and flowers in my story.

Flowers fascinate me, but not just because of their beauty. Why are there flowers anyway? Flowers are well, basically sex organs. They are made for the purpose of continuing the line of the plants that make them. Their form, color, scent, feel, arrangement, etc. all point to the act of pollination. Flowers are either male, or female, but more often, they have both male and female parts.

When was the last time you received flowers? Sent flowers? People have tagged different meanings to types of flowers or the color of flowers, but the reason for the busiest day in the flower shop points to passion. The last time I sent a dozen roses to some one, the recipient said, “I loved them, sweetie! I thought I just wanted you to save the money for dinner and a movie, but these are breathtaking! I’m so glad you got them.” So in conclusion, no matter what they say: Flowers = Chichiiing! Hehehe! I jest.

I’d like to introduce you to the Passifloraceae family of plants. Passiflora means “passion flower” and we have two kinds on Saipan that were introduced possibly by accident. Their flowers are so attractively intricate and it’s hard to imagine that some people don’t notice them. Well ok, one is really small and cryptic. The PIER (Pacific Island Ecosystems at Risk) lists them as an invasive threat to our islands (especially to the Northern Mariana Islands) since their vines can cover other plants. When the conquistadores first saw these flowers in Central America, they named them after their symbolic passion for Christ. These particulars make the passion flower very fascinating to me.

The Fetid Passionflower (Passiflora foetida) is the larger of the two flowers. Look at how beautiful they are in the pictures below. But why is it called “fetid”? Some publications say that the plant has a stinking smell to it. I’ve never noticed their alleged stinkiness. The white and purple flowers are about 5 cm, and the 2 cm fruits are either pale yellow, orange yellow or red. The pulp and crunchy seeds offer a little and often unsatisfying snack, but they really resemble the taste of the more bigger commercial varieties of passion fruits. The climbing vine is hairy with lobed leaves and you’ll see them in trails, open lots and on wire fences. The pictures are from Coral Ocean Point, and the Costco lot. The beautiful Chamorro name for this flower is Kinahulo’ atdao, which means sunrise. I first got introduced to this particular Passiflora while growing up in the town of Canlubang in Laguna, Philippines. My friend Mark A. started eating them off the vines and said that they were called Kurumpot. What an ugly sounding name for such a pretty flower, I thought to myself!

Kinahulo’ atdao (sunrise): Does the name fit the flower?

That fruit's almost ready to eat.
Those are immature fruits in those pom poms. Pom Pom is also the Pohnapeian name of this fruit. The corky or wild passion fruit (Passiflora suberosa), like P. foetida, is also considered a weed vine. The small dark purple fruit is food only for wildlife but the 1.5 cm flower is just as intricate compared to the rest of the family. It is easy to see why people don’t notice them though, since they are very inconspicuous. Suberosa means “wood cork” and refers to the wood-like quality of the very mature vines. The fruit pictures I took at the Marpi area and the flowers pictures are from the Hyatt Regency garden and San Antonio Beach.

A ripe fruit for the birds. Some immature fruits on a creeping vine.The last story I would like to share with you involves a medical doctor that I knew on Guam who fell in love with the Indonesian passion fruit while vacationing in Bali. He loved the purple passion fruit or Siuh (Passiflora endulis. F. Endulis), but knew that customs would not allow him to bring any to Guam. So Dr. L decided to enjoy and eat as many as he can the evening before flying home. He made sure that he swallowed enough seeds whole. Lo and behold, a few months later he had a trellis with a beautiful vine full of immature passion fruits! Kind of a funny story, and I am sure that Dr. L's digestive system "cleaned" the seeds out, but this is a good opportunity to remind you that bringing plants or fruits from other places can have a devastating impact on our island’s unique ecosystem. Introduced species can become invasive and compete with the native flora and may even bring diseases or pests that can ravage the unwitting existing system. We must do what we can to protect an environment that can't do it by itself.

Thank you for letting me share.

The Beachcomber

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Chamidae- Jewel Box of the sea

So far I’ve been sharing a bit of what I know of the importance of the spiny oyster family Spondylidea to the ancient people of Micronesia especially to the Chamorros of the Mariana Islands of Guahan (Guam), Saipan, Tinian and Luta (Rota). The Spondylus bivalve (marine seashells with two valves) is sessile, cementing their shells to corals or rocks, which the ancient people collected live or dead washed up on the beach. Usually it is the top valve that were cut and polished into salape’ (coin-shaped ornaments) that were bound together by natural cord fibers. At times the whole valve was kept intact, polished, and a hole or two were drilled in them to accommodate binding.

I’ve experimented and developed somewhat of a hobby replicating these artifacts and experimenting with other pendant shapes. I’d like to expand more in this blog what information I’ve collected on the biology and taxonomy of the Spondylus, but it is very difficult to distinguish between the species because of the numerous variations in shapes, forms, colors and sizes. I’ll put this part of my blogging on hold for a while until I get more information and better identifiable samples. Instead I would like to talk about a closely related family, the Chamidae.

The bivalves of the family Chamidae looks much like a spiny oyster because of their projecting spines and radial ridges. Because of their great beauty, they are commonly called Jewel Boxes. They are heavy thick shells that are a bit rounded, with the top valve flatter than the deeply concave bottom valve. I found that you could distinguish a Chamidae from a Spondylus by looking at the hinge and the muscle scar inside of the shells. The Spondylus has two strong interlocking teeth-like hinges (A) and one adductor muscle scar (A1), while the Chama has a single tooth (B) that fits in a groove of the opposite valve and two muscle scars (B1). An internal black ligament connects the valves of the Spondylus, while the Chama’s ligament is external.

According to the Micronesica Vol. 35-36, June 2003 issue (G. Paulay, ed.), Guam has about nine species recorded including Chama aperella, C. brassica, C. fibula, C. iostoma, C. lazarus, C. macerophylla, C. pacifica, C. spinosa and one unidentified. The absence of reference materials with good photo representations are hard to come by so this adds to the difficulty in positively identifying some of the samples that I have collected. The Marine Biodiversity of Guam and the Mariana Islands website has a few pictures that you can check out to help identify local invertebrates:

Chama limbula
On top of the difficulty in identifying what type of Chamidae you may have, finding shell samples while beachcombing is equally challenging. The following sample is a rare beachcombing find since the two valves were intact together. It is a Chama limbula (Lamark, 1819). It doesn’t look like a shell to be fascinated about from the outside since it is encrusted with white coralline algae and whatever spines it may have had have been eroded. Iinside it has almost a gemlike polished quality with purple coloration in the margins and a light jade-like green. The bottom valve is deep and the top is somewhat flattened. It is about 90mm at the longest measurement. I found it at Obyan Beach, Saipan in August 2005. I’ve made pendants out of these shells as you’ll read a bit latter on this post.

Chama asperella
The next few pictures below are the different views of the upper valve of what I think is Chama asperella (Lamark, 1819). It is a small Jewel Box that is mostly white with a pink umbone, or the pointed structure where the beak or the initial point of shell growth is. It is about 29mm at the longest measurement and is fairly strong and thick. Here's a picture of one in situ:

The next two set of pictures maybe C. asperella since they are mostly white, but they have purple radial coloration. This makes me think that they maybe a different species. There are not enough resources at the time for me to make a definitive call. They measure 2mm and 19mm in length respectively.

Unidentified purple Chama
The next set of pictures is the external and internal views of a common Jewel Box that you can find washed up on many of the Saipan beaches. They are usually eroded or covered with encrusting algae. I don’t have a positive identification for these purple Chamas yet but they are fascinating nonetheless. Can anyone help me with the identification? Are they just another variety of C. asperella? They are usually small with the largest pictured here at only 20mm at the longest measurement.

Unidentified pink Chama
The next set of pictures is of again an unidentified Chama of which I pick up fragments infrequently at Wing Beach, Saipan. It has a pink hue and a pronounced undulating growth pattern. Anyone know what I is? It is comparatively of larger size in size to C. asperella at 58mm lengthwise.

Unidentified orange Chama (C. pacifica?)
This small 28mm sample of an orange tinged upper valve of an unidentified Chama is fascinating to me since a few spines are still intact. I’ve also included a few picture views of some similarly colored fragments. Anyone know what they are? I'm kind of leaning towards Chama pacifica (Broderip, 1834) but am not totally convinced yet until I see a better sample.

Unidentified spondylus-like Chama
I mistook the shells pictured next in external and internal views for young Spondylus. A closer look though revealed two adductor muscle scars and the strange striped pattern that occurs in Chama limbula (visible when the surface is ground). I wonder if these are just young C. limbula of are they a different species. The valves are quite thin and light, and the longest one is only 29mm.

Chama lazarus and Chama brassica
Finally, pictured below is what looks like the Lazarus Jewl Box (Chama lazarus, Linnaeus 1758). It is generally easy to identify since they are almost often white, with large scaly flattened spines. I don’t have any intact samples with both valves but here are pictures of separate top and bottom valves with the inner and outer views of the shells. They are popular with collectors when intact and the ones that are highly prized have extended forked spines.
I thought all of the samples pictured below were C. lazarus but the more closely I looked, the top middle and right samples were not shaped round like the other samples and their spines are short and scaly. I think that these maybe Chama brassica (Reeve, 1846) instead.

A Jewel Box for your jewel box
I haven’t found any evidence in my research for information about the ancient Chamorros utilizing Chama for ornamentation. It is well documented though that the Solomon Island natives cut and polished Chama pacifica (Romu in their language) into ornamental beads. They actually bring out the shell’s red color by exposing them to fire. Their money beads are called Tafuliae and you can read about them here and see some pictures: It is amazing how Tafuliae looks vey much like the Spondylus salape' beads that the ancient Chamorros made!

While beachcombing, I happened upon a polished upper valve of what I knew to be a bivalve at the time. It had an amazing swirl of colors and patterns that was unknown to me and it was ovoid in shape, which made it easy for me to visualize as a pendant. After reading a bit more and comparing the few samples that I was able to pick up, I concluded that these were Chama limbula valves.

It seems that the Chama’s growth pattern on the top valve is an outward and forward moving swirl. As the animal grows and build upon its shell different colors are produced that may include white, browns, pinks, purples, and greens. A strange striped pattern occurs as the animal builds layers on top and away from almost the opposite side of the hinge. You wouldn’t know that these colors and patterns were present because in nature, the shells are often covered with coralline growth from algae or sponges, or they may even be eroded. To expose the colors, I had to grind the surface and chose (or guessed really) how much of the colors or patterns to expose. I usually leave the natural shape of the shell.

Below is the biggest Chama limbula valve that I happened upon thus far. It is about 50mm at the longest measurement, and is solid and heavy. It turned into a gorgeous piece.

The purple swirl patterns of the next piece surprised me when I ground into it. How can such a small object hold so much beauty? This one is about 31mm in length.

The next picture below was the first Chama that I found and made into a pendant. The ocean did the polishing for me, the shape is natural and uncut, and I actually just drilled a hole to accommodate the binding.
The next piece below has a very busy color pattern of brown, pink and white, and it even has a hint of blue. I paired it with a smaller type of Chamidae made into a salape’ or coin-shaped bead. The smaller bead is one of the unidentified purple Chamidea polished.

Thanks again for letting me share

The Beachcomber

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Natural history calendar: January 2008

Apologies for being so delinquent in my posting. I have been so busy with work and have been off island for a few weeks, so I suppose we’ll just have to do a bit of catching up together. Let’s talk stories, ok?

The title for today’s post reflects on my desire to be able to post on seasons and trends in nature that occur in the Mariana Islands. I hope that maybe after a few years, we will be able to map out a pretty accurate calendar of seasons that occur and affect our natural surroundings which go mostly unnoticed because of our current disconnect with nature. To name a few events that I would like to be able to map on a calendar are 1. certain blooming and fruiting seasons for our plants, 2. the months when certain fishes run and are caught, 3. when shore birds and marine mammals visit our seas when it gets too cold up north. I am sure that there are many more things to note when we seriously get connected with Mother Nature.

Gulos turns the forest pink
Gulos (Cynometra ramiflora) according to the Trees and Shrubs of the Mariana islands (Raulerson & Rinehart, 1991) and Common Flora and Fauna of the Mariana Islands (Vogt & Williams, 2004), “blooms” by putting forth their new pink leaves. The new leaves first come out colored white, then turn into pink, and then finally mature to green. I was a bit delayed in noticing the change in the forest canopy, since the two reference books said that they are sometime numerous enough to make the forest look pink. I finally got out on January 16th and saw some Gulos that were really flamboyant in their display. Check out the following pictures I took at the Niko Hotel Botanical Garden, Marpi, Saipan. I also wanted to see if the forest canopy was really pink from a distance. I was able to hike down Forbidden Island, Kagman, Saipan on January 19th and sure enough, you could still see signs of Gulos dotting the cliffs here and there.

First, the new leaves come out white to pale green.

Then they turn pink!

It is important to note that the cliff lines like the ones in Kagman, Saipan are still mostly composed of native and indigenous plants, so it is a good place to study them on Saipan. Gulos is a small to medium indigenous tree whose beauty and ecologic importance is mostly overlooked by arborists on the island who prefer planting showy and more commonly known introduced ornamentals. It’s really too bad that most people overlook this beautiful native that our birds and fruit bats prefer to nest in and eat of.

Oschal flowers and Nonak fruits
Two native trees of the Hernandiaceae family had notable seasons in the beginning of the month. The Oschal (Hernandia labyrinthica) and Nonak (H. Sonora) similarly form black fruits that are encapsulated by a thin fleshy light green to flesh colored bracts (specialized leaves) that make them look like lanterns.

I noticed that the Oschal were in full bloom in LauLau Bay, Kagman in on January 20th putting forth their large white inflorescence. It was exciting for me to notice but most people I bet did not take note since they were of an inconspicuous color. I wonder how long they will take to fruit since the fruits would be more noticeable. Native birds like the endangeed Rota Bridled White-eye forages and nests in the Oschal.

The Nonak looks much like the Oschal, but its fruits are first white and then turn bright pink. I was at the Costco parking lot when I noticed the Oschal full of fruits. Gorgeous! There is another easy to spot Nonak in the parking lot of the Community Church in Susupe, Saipan.

I keep asking myself why people don’t plant more of these attractive native trees. They are reputedly easy to grow. I heard from traditional canoe builders that the Hernandias are good for building canoe parts especially the bow for the outrigger since they sometimes grown at a curve. The leaves are said to be used as a painless hair remover.

Mangoes bloom and Iba fruits
Last year we had a good mango season. I can’t wait for the fruits to ripen since most trees on Saipan are in full bloom now since I snapped this picture on January 27th.

Also the Iba (Phyllanthus acidus) had fruits. I love these sour fruits that are originally from South America. Iba is also the Tagalog name, and the locals here like to pickle them. They are also known as the gooseberry tree or Tahitian gooseberry. The fruits have a crisp juicy sour pulp that makes my mouth salivate as I think and write about it. Be careful biting into one though since the single seed is as hard as a pebble.

Dulili visits Saipan
The shorebirds that we call Dulili (Pluvalis fulva) were taking in the sun at a field next to the Costco, San Jose. They supposedly arrive on Saipan in August and stay during the winter months. Then they depart in March to go as far as Russia or Alaska. The young are said to stay here all year long because they are not ready to breed yet. They are also called the Pacific Golden Plover.

Here are some pictures of the man-made wetland and bird watching tower at Costco. Although the tower is always locked, I have seen many different birds at this site just looking through the fence. Take a look outside and you may see a moorhen, an egret, or even a reed warbler.

Gaogao blooms
Finally, one of my favorite native trees started blooming slowly but surely. The Gaogao (Erythrina variegata), also known as the Coral Tree or Tiger’s Claw will soon have its turn in bloom. More pictures and stories on this later!
Don't worry, but they will look better than what I've got posted here. It's just the begining of the season! Seeing the red flowers at the end of those twigs is a good sign.

Thanks for letting me share!

The Beachcomber