Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Jarana seed

Look at the seize of this Jarana seed (Holopyxidium jarans)! I can't remember ever having seen a larger single seed in the forest.

Jarana seeds and pod

Earlier this week I guided a group of Swedish visitors to Bosque Santa Lúcia and then on to the Tapajós National Forest, where we did a walking tour of about one hour. The highlight of the visit for me was finding an abundance of jarana pods (Holopyxidium jarans) on the ground. Jarana trees are found at the Bosque but I haven't noticed any pods around this year. There used to be lots of these trees around the immediate region of the Bosque but they were all cut, along with the rest of the forest, in favor of soy and rice plantations. The wooden columns of the two verandas of the Bosque museum are jarana. They were cut from fallen trees with a chainsaw. As you would suspect, the wood is very hard and heavy. In the past I've noticed that local farmers and ranchers preferred jarana for their fence post.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mucajá palm

The mucajá palm (acrocomia aculeata) is one of the most common palms and perhaps the largest at Bosque Santa Lúcia. As can be seen in the image, the crown is way up there, 15-20 meters, and yes, those formidable thorns are found from the bottom of the trunk to the very top of the palm. I remember having to cut one of these mucajá palms some years ago and I'll never forget that it was as hard as the steel axe I used to cut it. Maybe harder because the axe blade was actually contorted from the many blows it took to down the medium sized palm. I was a lot younger then but it took some time to get rid of the pains in my arm bones.

Mucajá palm fruit

The mucajá palms (Acrocomia aculeata) are now dropping their fruit at Bosque Santa Lúcia. Although animals are fond of the relatively thin layer of yellowish pulp around the nut, this fruit isn't a favorite for human beings. Maybe because it requires a lot of gnawing for little food.

Monday, January 22, 2007


When I get to the Bosque I always have a quick look around the museum area, inside and out. I never know what I might find. A frightened snake inside the building knocking everything over; invading termites; masses of ants making a fast search of the place for food; and sometimes animals, which have made a home in some niche of the museum. Today I was not surprised to find bats "hanging out" under the veranda roof because there was a time when they made a home inside. But what struck my attention about these two bats was that they did not fly away as I got close to them for a picture. At first I thought I was seeing one bat but then it became evident that there were two of them, one on top of the other. I assume they were bushed out from a romantic night in the jungle ... and maybe unable to go their separate ways.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Guaraná fruit, continued

In an earlier post I presented a picture of guaraná fruit still growing on the plant. Cleuson Teixeira picked these mature seeds just in time, as they were getting eaten up by monkeys. Notice the one pod at the top of the image. As you may know, guaraná is classified as both a stimulant and aphrodisiac. Caffeine is the main ingredient that gives guaraná this fame. Although you can buy the real stuff at supermarkets and all arts and craft stores in the Amazon, the most popular guaraná is that of the soft drink bearing the same name. I like the Antarctica brand name because it has less sugar than others. To keep us from getting too high on a day to day basis, the guaraná soft drink is decaffeinated. I can't speak for those monkeys eating the fresh fruit from the plant!

Pajurá fruit continued

These are the three pajurá fruit Cleuson brought in from the forest yesterday. Some forest animal got a few bites from the one you see in the foreground. It's not fair but I got the rest! I gather that pajurá is not all that common, even in the Amazon. Most Brazilians visiting the Bosque never heard of the fruit, unless they are from the rural Santarém area. And furthermore, not everyone likes them. Unless the fruit is extremely ripe, it takes some effort to peel it and the edible part is hard and granulated. It's a very sweet tasting fruit but I can't compare it to anything else. There's more than one variety of pajurá, the most sought after the one from the Óbidos area upriver. It's so rare that it's a collector's item among people who plant fruit trees.

Pajurá fruit

Yesterday I asked Cleuson, a fellow who works with me at the Bosque on a part-time basis, to check on the guaraná fruit I had seen a few days ago. He returned with a hand-full of seeds, which I planted right away. He also brought back three pajurá fruit (Coupia bracteosa) to my surprise. It has been so dry over the last few months, I didn't expect to see any of these fruit at all. The photo is one I took of pajurá fruit three or four years ago. The ones Cleuson found yesterday are much smaller and he reported seeing only the three he brought back. Later I snacked on one and it was not lacking in quality. In the foreground you can see the seed, which is relatively large, compared to the overall size of the fruit.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Tucumã-açu thorns

The tucumã-açu palm may not have as many thorns per square centimeter as the mumbaca palm (earlier post) but they are larger and very rigid. I tell visitors to Bosque Santa Lúcia that they don't want to back into this palm. I believe that Indians of the Amazon use these thorns for points on their arrows.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Tucumã-açu palm

How old is this tucumã-açu palm? If it takes five years for a seed to germinate, then my guess is that it's getting up there in the years. The first time I saw the palm was in 1981 and I don't remember it being any different than today. On another post I'll let you have a better look at the thorns.

Tucumã-açu palm seed

If you've never planted palm seeds, there's something you should know about the subject matter. First of all, not all seeds germinate. They sure looked viable when you planted them but weeks and months passed without your seeing any sign of green. So you dig them up to find that they are rotten or to discover they have been eaten by some unseen culprit. At Bosque Lúcia I check my seeds every few months, but mostly when the containers need cleaning of the falling leaves from the surrounding trees. I'm always in need of containers and soil for planting new plants and seeds, so I seldom cry over the fact that some seeds didn't make it. When I discover that the seeds are still in tact, I carefully cover them over again with soil and hope for the best. Identification tags of planted seeds seem to disappear over time but I figure that what's important is that that the seeds produce palms. Some botanist or palm enthusiast can make the identification later on. What has impressed me most about palm seeds is that many are very, very slow to germinate. The epitome of slowness is the tucumã-açu seed (Astrocaryum aculeatum), which can take up to five years. Just this week I was cleaning up a container to discover the tucumã-açu seed you see in the image. It was like running into an old friend I hadn't seen in years. As a matter of fact, three years. And believe me, the seed is as solid as a rock. When and if the seed germinates, I think a party will be in order. Yet to come, a picture of the proud parent of the seed.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Looking up at an Imperial Palm

Roystonea oleracea, so called imperial palm, is quite a common palm around Santarém nowadays but I remember back in 1984, the year I planted this one, they were rare. I would like to speculate that mine, like most in Brazil, is a descendant of the one planted by Dom João (soon to be king of Portugal) at the Botanical Gardens in Rio de Janeiro around 1808. The palm is native of the Caribbean region and I would assume that seeds were brought to Brazil, as opposed to plants, but I haven't found any historical details to prove it. I've been waiting anxiously for this imperial palm to produce fruit but they don't flower until they are 20 years or older. The original palm planted by Dom João flowered the first time in 1829. The story goes, and it's documented, that the royal family left behind in Brazil by Dom João were so jealous of the palm that they ordered slaves to burn the seeds. As I tell visitors at Bosque Lúcia, it didn't take long for the slaves working at the Botanical Gardens to realize that these seeds were very valuable and they consequently sold them off, undercover, of course. The imperial palm planted by Dom João was killed by lightening in 1973! In the right environment and with some luck, imperials can reach the age of 200 years.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Brazil nut pods

Brazil nut pods fall from the gigantic trees in January, February and March at Bosque Santa Lúcia. The trees produce only once a year and the nuts are not mature until the pods hit the ground. It's interesting that the trees bloom at the same time the pods are falling. This season I have not seen one pod or flower, I assume because of the lack of rain. There are an average of 14 nuts in a pod but I've counted up to 23 in some of the larger ones. I'd say that the average size of a pod is a bit larger than that of a softball. They weigh around 1 kilogram, which is capable of crushing a skull. We do not tarry under these trees when the pods are falling.

Where have all the Brazil nut trees gone?

Vultures seem to have a direct link with the dead, so it is not too surprising to see these two Brazil nut trees full of black vultures, the most common species around here. I'm not sure why they were hanging out there. They certainly weren't drying out from a rain because we haven't had any wetness for several weeks. Maybe they thought some was coming in those big, dark clouds. If so, they were wrong. But my reason for showing these dead trees is to report that the Brazil nut tree (Bertholetia excelsa) has been destroyed in unknown numbers with the coming of mechanized agriculture, i.e., soybean farming. I'm told that there is a law or decree that prohibits the cutting of this tree because it is considered a national asset because of the valuable nutrients found in the nut, especially in the form of protein. I guess cattle ranching took its toll on the trees over the last few decades but traditional slash and burn farmers would never, never cut this tree. Things changed drastically with the intrusion of mechanized farming in this part of the Amazon. It's logical that a soy bean or dry-land rice farmer doesn't want to see a tree or even a blade of grass in front of his combine machine. "Brazil nut tree? What's that? The law prohibits the destruction of the Brazil nut tree? I sure didn't know that! Nobody told me." It's reported that one soy farmer down the road from the Bosque pushed over 70 Brazil nut trees with his bulldozer. I believe it because one can look into the far horizon and not see one of these giant trees around. Some farmers and ranchers are in the know and they never cut or bulldoze the trees down. But, like the trees in the photograph, they more often than not die because of the fires. Some fall over from winds, which increase in speed because of the large open areas. Like the animals of the forest, we can say that the Brazil nut tree doesn't stand a chance of survival in the ever-expanding mechanized agriculture lands of the Amazon.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Morpho butterfly

Three days ago I spotted a very large butterfly feeding on the remains of a mango fruit on the ground near the entrance to the Bosque. Because the wings are closed at these times, there was nothing to indicate that it was one of the brilliant blue morphos we see floating over the trails and open areas of the reserve. I decided to try my hand at photographing it anyway. I find my digital camera extremely slow and unresponsive on these occasions but I took several shots at different angles and distances without getting anything worthwhile. The rotting mango produced some neat colors but the butterfly was dark and without any prominent features. Suddenly, wow, there was a flash of blue as it unfolded its wings for flight. I had gotten too close. Obviously the shutter on my camera hadn't opened at this split second interval so I waited for its return. And return it did ... but I couldn't capture the iridescent colors for love or money. Okay, another day. So yesterday I was back looking under that same mango tree and to my surprise I spotted a dead morpho on the ground. Dead but still portraying some of its original beauty. I wonder how the butterfly died. My guess would be that it was picked off by a bird but I don't know for sure.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Howler monkeys pay a visit

Okay sharp shooters, I know that this howler monkey isn't in focus but you can pretend that the photography is an Amazonian rage of blending subject matter into environment. The picture was taken this morning at the Bosque and I have to admit that I can see more in the picture than I saw from down below looking up. I assume this is a female. One of the four howlers making the visit was a male for sure. He was huge. He refused to stay put in one place long enough for me to take his picture. We hear the roar of howlers almost every day, a sound much like that of a jet plane taking off. At the Bosque museum (not really a museum but a collection of woods and odds and ends) I show visitors the skull of a howler along with its voice box. It demonstrates why the howler may be the loudest animal in the world. Although it's the male that yells the most, females also join in the act of defining their territory.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Best water is rain

Since September of 2006, Raimundo Teixeira has been watering plants at Bosque Santa Lúcia on almost a daily basis. He hauls water in these 5 liter bottles from the Poço Branco spring, which is about 500 meters away. I also supplement the supply by taking water from our home, some 18 kilometers away. Between us we have managed to keep our plants alive while we wait anixously for rain. The picture was taken this morning, minutes after I shot that picture of "Clouds over the Amazon".

Clouds over the Amazon

A very common comment heard these days in Santarém is "... it never rains anymore." And it's true! I've been moaning and groaning about the lack of rain for a long time because our forest reserve took on the appearance of a dustbowl in 2005, and close to it, in 2006. As mentioned in an earlier blog entry, we went four months without any significant rain during the latter part of 2005, and here we are well into January of 2007 and we continue to water plants and young trees. I should alert the readers that the drought is more common to this region of Santarém. It has been raining for some weeks further down the Santarém-Cuiabá Highway. It rains almost every day in Belém. Manaus has had its share of rain. In other parts of Brazil, for example Goiania, it has rained almost every day. At this moment many cities in Brazil are flooded because a cold front has moved in from Argentina. The weather pattern holds here in Santarém. I took this picture of clouds moving over an area close to the Bosque this morning. Not a drop of rain fell. Easterly trade winds steal them away.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Silvery Marmoset (Callithrix argenta)

Although they are getting to be more difficult to see, several varieities of monkeys are yet to be found at the Bosque. The most common is the silvery marmoset, a small, barefaced monkey with a very long dark colored tail. In years past, I used to count up to as many as 25 indiviuals in a family but today 10-12 seems to be the average. I see them around the museum building a lot because they are quite fond of the sap and resin of the tatapiririca tree (Tapirira guianensis). In the image to the left you can see one of the monkeys spread-eagle on the trunk of a tree full of holes dug by the buck-tooth canines of our little friends. They seem to prefer the sap of the tree but they also eat the resin, which is the hardened form of the liquid. Over the years I have seen several tatapiririca trees killed because of overfeeding on the part of large groups of silvery marmosets. Because of the dwindling numbers of wild animals at and near the Bosque, we may see fewer fallen trees in the future.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Sloth gets a helping hand

Highways are deathtraps for animals, especially wild animals. Only a few days ago I spotted a dead anteater near the entrance to the BEC military base on the outside of town. Run over snakes are what we see most of on the roads, maybe because most drivers make it a point to kill them. The sloth, on the other hand, is an animal that most drivers try to avoid hitting and there are those caring people who will actually help them get over to the other side of the road. Such was the case today. As I started my decent from the "Serra" I spotted three motorcycles and a car stopped right in the middle of my lane. My first thought was, "... another accident involving motorcycles." As I got closer I saw one of the men lifting something from the pavement. "My God", I thought, "it must be a small child." You guessed it, it was a sloth, which was carefully taken to the other side of the highway and released in the woods. This was not the first time that I had seen such an incidence. It happens from time to time. As a matter of fact, I have never seen a dead sloth on any road here. Let's hear it for those people who offer a helping hand to our animals. Speaking of sloth, this week I looked up from my task of watering plants to see something in a tree that reminded me of a sloth. But the trunk and the upper levels of that tree is full of curves and contortions, so I was not sure. When the water bottle was empty I looked up again to discover that indeed it was a sloth and a very large one. Sloths are noted for being slow but this photographer is slower yet. By the time I found my camera, the beast had moved up on to another branch. My small digital camera has a 3x zoom function and I had it stretched to the limited. I shot off as many pictures as I could before the sloth disappeared further up into the tree top. Not one picture was worth keeping, except for this one, which surprised me because of the patch of light on one of the hind legs, creating more than a silhouette shot. Not a good picture but it was so nice to see a sloth again. They used to be very common at the Bosque but the devastation of the neighboring forests changed that forever.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Carnauba fruits (Copernecia cerifera)

The fruit of the centenary carnauba palm located at the Regional Secretariat of Health (SESPA) across the street from Praça São Sebastião are now falling and I was fortunate to receive 15 of them this week, via one of the employees. I understand from my wife, Áurea, that many people are on the lookout for these seeds because the palm is relatively rare in the Santarém area. Seedlings fetch a nice price of R$ 15,00 (about $6.50 each). The image posted below is a young palm germinated from a seed I planted about three years ago. I am always astounded at how fast the fruit changes colors once it matures. Way up there in the palm, about 40 meters high, they are a bright orange/red color. They might attract a lot of attention but they are up so high up, few see them. Notice that the pulp covering two of the seeds has been eaten away, probably by bats.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Sam Johnson and the carnauba palm

“Steve, how far is it to Fordlândia?” asked Sam Johnson, President of Johnson Wax Company on his November 1998 visit to Santarém. My whimsical response of “fifteen hours by riverboat” was not exactly what the industrial billionaire wanted to hear. He inquisitively looked over to the next table at the Amazon Park Hotel restaurant to ask one of his eleven escort pilots the same question. A rapid response, calculated in aeronautical jargon, was yelled back to Sam—and he flew off to Fordlândia early the next morning. The lack of a runway there was no obstacle because Sam was flying a replica of the 1928 Sikorsky S-38 amphibian, a plane that his father, Herbert Johnson, had flown in an adventurous 15,000-mile flight from Racine, Wisconsin, to Brazil in 1935. Sam built the S-38 reproduction to blueprint specifications, since his mission was that of replicating the flight completed by the Johnson patriarch some 63 years earlier. Fordlândia was included in the original itinerary of Herbert Johnson because he was researching plantation operations which might be applied to the planting of carnauba palms (Copernecia cerifera), the fronds of which produce the carnauba wax. This hard wax was influential in improving the high-gloss quality of Johnson Wax Company products long before Herbert flew off to Brazil. The palm is better adapted to the dry regions of northeastern Brazil, so it is understandable that the Amazon was never selected as a plantation site. Major plantation efforts on the part of Johnson, none of which reached the level of Ford Motor Company investments in Fordlândia and Belterra, were concentrated in Ceará, where the company continues to produce a carnauba wax to add to its synthetics. Sam Johnson, accompanied by his sons, Curt and Fisk, described his visit to Fordlândia as one of the highlights of their expedition to Brazil. I had the pleasure of hosting them at Bosque Santa Lúcia during their visit. Above excerpt taken from my book, Santarém - Riverboat Town, to be published by the Missouri Publishing Company in 2007. The attached image was taken at the Bosque late this afternoon. Obviously it is a young carnauba palm!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Mumbaca fruits

The mumbaca palm is native of the Santarém region and it is one of those palms that survive the long dry seasons without any problems. This image of mumbaca fruit was taken this morning right next to the museum at Bosque Santa Lúcia. Notice how the peeling folds back from the fruit in a star-like formation. It's no coincidence that the genus of this palm is Astrocaryum. The full scientific name is Astrocaryum gynacanthum.
You can see that some smart monkey (probably a silvery marmoset) has eaten some of the pulp away from the nut. The "meat" inside the nut tastes very much like coconut. I have yet to figure out how the monkeys manage to get into this palm for a feed. Read the previous post to see what I mean.

Mumbaca palm

When you look at the mumbaca palm (Astrocaryum gynacanthum) you think, hum.... thorns! The slender 12-16 feet high trunks are protected by hundreds of 3 inch-long thorns, which also inject a toxin into the unlucky recipient. Providing some humor to my tour, I tell my clients that mumbaca is the palm that Richard Spruce made famous. You may remember that Richard Spruce was the English botanist who surveyed rubber tree species in South America in the mid-1800s. As I remember it, he discovered 14 different species of rubber trees but came to indicate Hevea brasiliensis as the best quality. It is no coincidence that the 70,000 rubber tree seeds taken from Santarém to Kew Gardens were of this variety. But back to the mumbaca palm. Before returning to England, Spruce accidently pricked a finger on a mumbaca thorn. Some 17 years later, he wrote in one of his books that there were still nights when he couldn't sleep because of the pain in that finger".

Mumbaca thorns

This image will illustrate the much respected thorns of the mumbaca palm. As you can see, the length of the thorn is almost that of the diameter of the trunk and they are also found on the fronds of the plant. Definitely not good thatching material.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Coati crossing road

I often come to the conclusion that wild animals have seen their day in the immediate Santarém area, including our small forest reserve, Bosque Santa Lúcia. Some years ago we never took a walk in the woods without seeing at least sloth and a variety of monkeys. Today seeing fauna is an exception, so much so that I tell visitors that our objective at the Bosque is to show biodiversity of flora, i.e., trees and plants. The truth of the matter is that wild animals continue to inhabit the existing forest but their survival depends on not being seen by anyone, including sympathetic visitors. Then, too, the animal population has been traumatized because most of the neighboring lands have been devastated by bulldozers and chainsaws making way for plantations of dry-land rice and soybeans. Friends make the comment to me that the Bosque must be full of animals now that the surrounding forests have been destroyed. Well, I wish! But we know that most animals need extended habitats much larger than the Bosque.
It is always a pleasant surprise when I see old friends again. The posted image is of a coati (raccoon family) we spotted crossing the road this past week, along with the rest of its big family. I was too busy trying to get a picture but Áurea counted 24 of them. I had stopped the car some distance down the road so as not scare them, the result being poor pictures. This one I was able to edit in such a way that it is maybe usable. I only wish that it had stuck its long tail up in the air, as they normally do. I'll be on the lookout for these beautiful animals again.