Sunday, February 18, 2007

Vanilla orchid bean

And here is the only fruit I've ever seen of the vanilla orchid. It's about the size of a ballpoint pen and it takes months to reach maturity, turning yellow towards the end of this process. I'm told that the curing process of the bean is very complicated, which may explain why most vanilla extract is artificial today. There are also other vegetable substitutes for vanilla extract. I'm waiting anxiously for another flower exhibition. In the meanwhile, I've placed one more plant on the back porch of the museum.

Vanilla orchid flowers

It's my understanding that the vanilla orchid comes from Mexico and that it is the only edible orchid in the world. The cured bean is the source of that wonderful flavor that goes into vanilla ice cream. Evidently the flower is not easily pollinated, which might explain why few people here have seen the fruit. As you can see from the image, there are two flowers and several buds. I don't remember having seen flowers from the other buds and one one of these flowers produced the vanilla bean. Coming up in the next post.

Vanilla orchid

My friend, Hélcio Amaral, gave me a cutting of Vanilla planifolia some years ago, right from his back yard. I planted it next to a taperebá tree (Spondias lutea) at the Bosque. Although it suffered during the dry season, it made its way up the tree at least 10 meters. Then it lost its grip and fell. The next rainy season it was climbing again. So it went for several years, never getting higher than that. I took some cuttings from the plant and placed them on the supporting columns of the porches. Local orchid collectors told me that they had never seen the plant bloom. The one in the attached image did. The flower coming up in the next post.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Orchid (Psygmorchis pusilla)

I thought I had this native orchid classified but when I was ready to post the entry I couldn't find the name, common or scientific. My friends, Claudio and Bernadette Serique from the Santarem Orchid Society came to my aid. The name of the little beauty is Psygmorchis pusilla. The first time I remember seeing it (the flower is the size of my fingernail) was many years ago when I was cleaning up the heaps of downed trees left by a bulldozer, which had been sent in by the municipality government to open up the road, then not much more than a trail. There were literally dozens of them attached to the branches of a young jack-fruit tree. Over the years the new generations of the orchids moved on to other trees further away. Today, when I thought I might get a better picture of the plant, there was not one orchid on the jack fruit tree. Almost 200 meters away I found several of them on a "pavão" shrub. Image by Jeremy Campbell.

Bamboo orchids

Visitors to the Santarém area are often disappointed that they don't see more orchids, especially the wild ones. I guess this might be the case of great expectations, much like people expect to see a greater number of birds and other animals. In part, it is that the Santarém region has a semi-humid climate that reduces the number and variety of orchids, let's say compared to some other areas of the Amazon where there is greater rainfall and relative humidity. One of my favorite orchids at Bosque Santa Lúcia is the bamboo orchid (Arundina bambusifolia), a terrestrial plant that blooms and blooms year around, if it gets plenty of sun and water. I keep some in the ground and others in buckets. During our dry season it is easier to water the ones in buckets. Those in the ground suffer from the lack of water but return to their state of exuberant beauty when the rains begin. The bamboo orchid is native of Asia. Image by my German friend, Chris.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Porcupine quills

My neighbor's dog enjoys having an extra meal at the Bosque as soon as I arrive and he's not fussy about the food. It can be leftovers from our table at home; it can be Lucca's (our dog) leftovers; or anything else available. When there's nothing, I crack some Brazil nuts for the hungry beast to eat. Day before yesterday, I laid out the banquet and to my surprise "Bichinho" just looked at it. Then I saw why; his lips and mouth were full of porcupine quills. It hurt just looking at him. Yesterday, Bichinho was back without the darts and hungrier than ever. The next time I see Bimba (my neighbor), I'll ask how he removed the quills.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Turn on the lights

Looking at community priorities on a 1-10 ranking system, I dare say that having electricity is right at the top. Most of us take it for granted but for the dwellers of Poço Branco Bosque (where Bosque Santa Lúcia is located) it has only been a dream. Individuals and committees from Poço Branco have lobbied regularly for installation of electricity for decades but to no avail. The bottom line was always the small numbers of rural families to benefit from several kilometers of power line, compared to some suburban areas (mostly invaded lands) where hundreds were asking for electricity. Politicians don't count sheep, they count votes. In an attempt to get more families residing in Poço Branco, the president of the community petitioned me, in writing, to subdivide our forest reserve into small residential lots. I think this was around 1987. Maybe doing so would have justified asking for electricity but it wasn't going to help the forest reserve. So, here were are 20 years later and it appears that electricity is on its way, thanks to President Lula and his national rural electrification program. His platonic aim is to hook up every rural home with electricity by the end of his second term as president. Seeing is believing! I couldn't believe my eyes this week when I saw this pile of concrete poles deposited alongside the road next to the Bosque. Projection is that we'll have lights within the next two months.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Brazil nut tree, alive

In an earlier post I showed images of dead Brazil nut trees (Bertholetia excelsa) killed by man in his effort to introduce mechanized agriculture in the Amazon. I'm glad to report that all of our trees are still alive and well at the Bosque, including one tree that is more than 300 years old. You'll notice in the attached image that there are three individual trees fused together at the base. This is quite a common occurrence for Brazil nut trees because they germinate from pods, which have an average of 14 seeds. These seeds are super packaged by the woody-like pod and individual shells, so it can take two or three years for these elements to decompose enough for germination. They can all germinate together inside a rotting pod, thus the probability of more than one tree in a stand.

The Legendary frog

On Friday I was changing some identification tags on the palms located on the back porch of the "museum" at the Bosque to discover this very unusual frog attached to the side of a plastic vase. It was totally immobile with legs and feet tucked in under its body and only a slight slit of the eyes open. The attached image was taken after I had removed it from the vase. The only sign of life was that it moved its legs out from under the body and opened its eyes a bit wider. I have never seen anything quite like this little frog. Immediately, it reminded me of the legendary frog of this region, called muiraquitã. Amulets of this green frog were made of jade and other rare stones by Indians of past times and the legend associated with the muiraquitã is one of the best known throughout the Amazon. I have written more about the legend in my upcoming book, SANTARÉM - RIVERBOAT TOWN, to be published soon by the Missouri Publishing Company.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Rain at last

Rains got under way day before yesterday and they have been relatively heavy ones, making up for the several weeks of extended drought in this immediate region. The last significant rain at Bosque Santa Lúcia was on November 14th and we had already had a few weeks of dry weather prior to that. Weather patterns are very unpredictable here but it seems to me that the dry season gets longer every year. We get approximately 2,000mm of rain a year and most of it falls between February and July. September and October have traditionally been bone-dry months. December and January are always very erratic. Don't count on anything. Some soy and rice farmers take their chances of planting early after a rain, like the one on November 14th last year. On December 24th I saw some of these fields near Belterra. A total loss! The mud hole in the image is on the Bosque property. It is referred to as a "baixada", lowland. I've seen as much as 1.5 meters of water accumulated here, certainly enough to bring all traffic to a stop.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Cupuaçu continued

The fruit of the cupuaçu tree (Theobroma grandiflorum) isn't ripe until it actually falls off the tree. Locals say they know when there are fruit on the ground because they can smell them from quite a distance, even though they may not be broken open. Without a doubt, cupuaçu is the most popular and expensive fruit in the Amazon and the pulp is used for a great variety of foods, for example, juices, fillings for chocolates, ice cream, cake fillings and so on. Most foreigners like cupuaçu products but there are some people who liken them to durians. You either like them, or you don't. If it's the latter, prepare some reasonable excuse for refusing the fruit because the Brazilians always want to offer what they consider best in their environment and believe me, they love cupuaçu.

Cupuaçu tree

The cupuaçu tree, Theobroma grandiflorum, is in the same genus as the chocolate tree, Theobroma cacao. You might recognize the similarity of the two by looking at the leaves. but the fruit is quite different. At Bosque Santa Lúcia, the fruit is seasonable, i.e., only to be found during the rainy season. Fortunately the pulp adapts very well to freezing, so it's available year around in Santarém. Like its cousin, T. cacao, chocolate can be made from the seeds, except it is a white chocolate. In recent times someone has patented it as Cupalate. Speaking of a patent, only a few years someone in Japan patented the word "cupuaçu", which caused quite stir here in Brazil. So much so, that eventually the patent was revoked.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Jack Fruit (Jaca)

You will find jack fruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) where ever you go in Brazil. Although it looks like something that might be native of the Amazon, it's not. It was brought from India in the 18th century, along with its cousin, breadfruit. There are a number of varieties, some the seize of watermelons. Note that the fruits grow off the main trunk of the tree. Jack fruit is absolutely delicious, when it's absolutely ripe. When they fall off the tree onto the ground, you can be sure they are ready to be eaten. That's the way I like to eat jack fruit, right under the tree. To avoid contamination and eating after other varmints, most people cut them from the tree still green and put them in a dark place, where they ripen in a few days. If you try eating the fruit when it is still green, you may find yourself with a new champion. The resin is more effective than those super bond glues!

Guaraná Plant

This is a young guaraná plant located just back of the museum area. It is from a seed I collected from an older plant, which can be seen in the forest near the old roundhouse. Notice the termite mound in the background. The termites have built their nest around the stump of a tree that was cut some four years ago. When the wood is completely eaten up, they will move on to another meal.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Visitors at Bosque Santa Lúcia

Except for some cruise ship stops, we see few visitors here in Santarém. As the old saying goes, "when it rains, it pours", or as the Brazilians say, "it's eight or eighty". A ship like the Regal Princess, which was here this week, will disembark hundreds of tourists on the city of Santarém, most of which are booked for one tour or another. Bosque Santa Lúcia was the best option for those wanting an ecological tour. The morning tours were canceled because the ship arrived very late, so we ended up with four groups of 20 each for the afternoon. Ship tours to the Bosque are approximately 3 hours, which includes half and hour to get there and the same for returning. Each group is accompanied by an English speaking guide and a local woodsman. Most of the remaining two hours are devoted to walking the Bosque trails and also a fast visit to the museum to see a variety of Amazonian woods and other artifacts.

Bosque walking tours - woodsmen

Local woodsmen are an important element to seeing that our visitors have a safe and fruitful stay at Bosque Santa Lúcia. Often time they are overlooked by the clients because the English speaking guides tend to monopolize conversation and tour activities. Some of our regular woodsmen are shown in this image: Left to right, back row: Cleber, who is the health aide for the Municipality Health Department; Mondico Jr., a local farmer; Cleuson, who works as night watchman for the rice plant. Front row: Teixeira, father of Cleber and Cleuson. Retired farmer; Waldemar, local farmer; Dona Lena, housewife. She keeps the museum and bathroom sparkling clean in between pit stops; Carlos, Dona Lena's husband. Local farmer. An excellent team!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Açaí palm fruit

The açaí fruit in different stages of development: At the bottom of the image are the mature fruit, which are dark purple in color. The pulp of the fruit is used to make a traditional drink in this State of Pará, also called açaí. Belém is the capital of the açaí world but there are a number of vendors around Santarém too. The juice has caught on in the big cities of Brazil as a "health food" and more recently our favorite palm fruit has made its way to the United States, especially in the State of California. In the middle of the image are the green fruit and at the top are the seeds after removing the pulp.

Açaí Palm

Açaí palms (Euterpe oleracea) love water, so it's really no surprise that we don't see many in the planalto (highland) area. At Bosque Santa Lúcia, where we go for weeks and even months without rain, it is to our credit and stamina (for hauling water) that we can show visitors some stands of açaí. I planted the ones in the image from seed about 5 years ago and then transferred the plants to the ground. The ground was so hard, I thought I would never get the holes deep enough to plant them. Knowing that they don't adapt very well to this environment, I've given them undue attention over the years.