Not much in the way of a caption needed here. As the poet said: “He that loves not the Hibiscus has a Soul assuredly viscous…”
BANANAQUITS: AHEAD OF THE CURVE?
Bananaquits (Coereba flaveola) are small, colourful, and delightful birds of the coppice and garden. Besides their obvious attractiveness, the birds have in recent years enjoyed an uniquity: the status of being the sole species in the family Coerebidae.
However this singular status has really been a kind of avian parking place due to past, present (and doubtless future) uncertainty of the right category for these birds. Like so many avian species these days, they are subject to the rigours and vagaries of continual reclassification by the ornithological powers-that-be.
Bananaquits are, broadly speaking, passerines – essentially birds that perch. The nominal ‘passer’ was specifically awarded to sparrows by BRISSON, a contemporary of Linnaeus. Recently, bananaquits have suffered mysterious migrations of their classification ranging from the generalised ‘passerine‘ to the vague incertae sedis (= ‘uncertain group‘) to uncomfortable inclusion with tanagers / emberizids.
The debate over the appropriate classification for this pretty little bird (of which there are many subspecies in the broad Caribbean region) – rumbles on. A new way to confuse the issue is the suggestion that the bananaquit should be split into 3 species. In some areas, I believe this has happened at least informally.
Elsewhere there are doubters, sceptics, and champions of other group inclusions. The most obvious beneficiaries of all this will be dedicated birders, who may end up with two extra species to add to their ‘Lifer’ lists. Personally I’d like to think that the birds themselves will stay ahead of the curve in their own category, maintaining the mystery of their precise status while humans argue about what to call them.
CREDITS: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour (1); Gerlinde Taurer (2); Craig Nash (3, 7); Tom Sheley (4, 5); Erik Gauger (6). All birds photographed on Abaco, Bahamas
Bananaquit perched on yellow elder, the National flower of the Bahamas
A BOUQUET OF HIBISCUSES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS
I haven’t featured flower species for a long time. There are a number of reasons why this webular location is low on flower power. Under duress, I’d probably say that, though gorgeous and a joy to all, flowers and plants are essentially one trick ponies. Or maybe peonies?
Essentially the drawback with flowers is that they don’t fly and they can’t swim. There’s no motion to them that isn’t caused by an outside agency such as a breeze (unless you spend time actually watching them grow, I suppose). I feel more comfortable with more mobility around me.
The hibiscus is surely one of the prettiest flowers on Abaco or indeed anywhere else. Mostly they are pentamerous, which is to say 5-petalled; and they have an unmistakeable central adornment that I’ve had to check the name of. Then I discovered that someone on Pinterest had done the heavy lifting for me with all the other parts of a hibiscus.
One exception to the usual pentamerous arrangement is the white hibiscus shown below.
I have also remembered to check the correct plural of ‘Hibiscus’. Some while back, I examined the candidates for the correct plural form for more than one OCTOPUS. I thought I might now be back in that strange Greco-Roman arena where -uses or -usses compete with -i or -odi for primacy. Thankfully, it is simply ‘octopuses’ and ‘hibiscuses’. And even if, technically, a different form could be insisted on to be correct, it will still sound wrong.
Another striking hibiscoid variant is the beautiful coral hibiscus, with its elegant construction and extravagantly fringed petals.
These flowers are powerful insect attractants, especially for the butterflies. One of the only partly successful photos I have ever taken of the annoyingly perpetual motion Polydamus (Gold Rim) Swallowtail is below. There’s nearly half a wing at rest. And even that isn’t sharp.
Readers who have stuck with this blog for a while (thank you both) may recall my enthusiasm for the excellent way in which the Bahamian Government honours the wildlife of the Bahamas with frequent special issues of stamps and coins. You can find out more with these links: BAHAMAS STAMPS and BAHAMAS CURRENCY. Even the hibiscus has been featured on the coinage, not once but twice. And on stamps several times over the years.
Personal resolution: to try not to leave it for more than 2 years before the next floral feature
All photos Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour; thanks to anon Pinterester for the flower part pic; and to 123RF for the stock stamp photo
THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE BAHAMAS: A FIELD GUIDE
On October 15th Cornell University Press publishes the first-ever comprehensive field guide to the terrestrial natural history of the Bahamas*. This monumental study has been years in the devising, researching, writing and production. The five authors are all eminent natural scientists in their specialist fields, and well-known far beyond the Bahamas. They combine to bring authoritative yet accessible scholarship to the pages. This book will undoubtedly become the go-to standard field guide for the Bahamas for decades. Furthermore, its breadth of scope will reach adjacent territories beyond the archipelago. *With a few exceptions for ‘signal species’, ocean-life is not included
The new guide comprises an encyclopaedic 464 pages with 768 colour photos plus line drawings, maps, charts and tables. The subject-matter begins with a detailed introduction that encompasses Geology, Climate, Habitat, Biogeography, Human History and Conservation. This establishes the wider context for the pages that follow.
The guide is then divided into discrete sections that cover Fungi, Flora / Plants, Invertebrates, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds, and Mammals (of which there are very few in the Archipelago, and few of those endemic). As a general observation, you simply will not believe how many species and subspecies there in some of the categories.
In expressing my enthusiasm for the new guide, I ought to declare my interest. From a fairly early stage of the project, I helped in two ways: sourcing / supplying images; and helping with proofing / editorial work of the sort common to all such diverse reference works.
Right now, in the aftermath of the disastrous impact of Hurricane Dorian, the northern Bahamas (Abaco & Grand Bahama) are still at the very earliest stages of a return to normality. Some areas are still without reliable water or power. The extent of the devastation suggests that the new ‘normality’ will inevitably be rather different from the past. It is sobering to consider that, since this field guide went to press, the balance of nature on two of the most diverse islands for wildlife in the archipelago has already changed significantly – and in some instances that change may well be for good.
I have a hope – and there are some signs already – that people’s interest in the wildlife around them provides a degree of comfort in hard times. Further south in the Bahamas, the other islands will each have had their own similar extreme weather experiences many times. The wildlife is varied but with similarity throughout the extensive chain of 700 islands that make up the Bahamas, with a vertical length of over 500 miles and covering more than 8000 square miles of land and sea. The familiarity of many of the plants, trees, butterflies, and birds binds the diverse islands together to create a common experience.
For more information on this new publication CORNELL U P FIELD GUIDE
Credits as captioned, with thanks to all concerned
BOUQUET OF ABACO FLOWERS (1): HIBISCUSES
‘HIBISCUSES’ as the plural for more than one Hibiscus schizopetalus looks wrong somehow (hibisci?) but is in fact right. It’s similar to the problem with the correct PLURAL OF OCTOPUS, a name that is also of Greek and Latin origin. The ‘schizo’ part reflects the division of the petals (though this characteristic surely applies plenty of other species).
The flower above is being visited by the familiar and lovely POLYDAMAS SWALLOWTAIL or Gold-rimmed butterfly. They are extraordinarily difficult to photograph when their wings are open – they flutter by, and carry on fluttering non-stop. I have always found it hard to get an entirely in-focus open wing shot. And when I say hard, on reflexion I don’t think I ever have…
The hibiscus is kind of mallow, a large and colourful family found throughout the world in warm-to-hot areas. Apart from the bright colours and pretty looks, the plant makes for a nice cup of tea (cf camomile tea) that some say may help to lower blood pressure.
There’s a lot of technical stuff to say about the petal construction and leaf forms, but I prefer to leave you to look it up if you want a deeper analysis than I am minded to give. I love flowers to look at and even to grow – who does not – but unlike the mechanics of birds, botanical intricacies seem *whisper* quite dull.
IS THERE A STIGMA ATTACHED TO THESE FLOWERS?
Yes indeed, but not in the more common usage for disgrace, disrepute or dishonour. In the botanical sense, it is the central part where the pollen of a flower is to be found. It’s the part that the bees are looking for.
Besides the tea / blood-pressure reduction benefits of hibiscus mentioned earlier, the plant is used in many places round the world for folk medicine for a variety of ailments. I don’t actually know if it is used in the Bahamas, where bush medicine certainly has its place in the treatment of some conditions. Any comments on this would be welcome.
THE GOLD-RIMMED LUCAYAN FLORIDA BATTUS POLYDAMAS SWALLOWTAIL
The Polydamus ‘Gold-rimmed’ Swallowtail Battus polydamas is a familiar sight in the Bahamas. It’s known by all the names above, though not all at once to be fair. This is the medium-sized black-brown butterfly with gold accessories and a tasteful selection of red ornamental jewellery. It’s one that hardly stays still for a moment. Its perpetual motion tendencies make it a right little… well, they are hard to photograph. I’ve never taken a totally still photo with no blurring from the creature’s rapid wingbeats.
The subspecies Lucaeus found on Abaco (where these photos were all taken)and elsewhere in the Bahamas is not confined to the archipelago, and is commonly found in Florida. There it seems to be called (slightly possessively?) the Florida swallowtail. The main species is found more widely. Here’s a helpful range map that shows the butterfly’s range – quite a wide band but latitudinally limited in global terms.
Mostly, you will see the topside of these butterflies as they do the rounds of sweet-scented flowers, often pausing briefly while still frantically fluttering. Note the rather gorgeous red patterns on the underside of the creatures shown above. Now compare with the open-wing images below.
This butterfly flies year round in the Bahamas (in contrast to its northern range). It breeds throughout most of the year (except on the fringes of its range), which is probably why it is relatively common.
CAN YOU SHOW US ONE THAT YOU HAVE TAKEN, PLEASE?
Certainly (with reservations). Nice coral hibiscus; it’s a shame that the stamen (if that is the correct term for the sticky-out bit) is in the way. Plus the wretched thing is still on the move. From this weekend, I get the chance to nail one on Abaco, but I’m not optimistic. I think they mistrust me.
WHAT DOES ‘POLYDAMAS’ MEAN?
I anticipated that question, kind Reader. I had thought it was Graeco-Roman for ‘many’ something or other. Wingbeats, maybe. Not being able to consult Linnaeus who originally came up with the word, I did some research. It turns out that Polydamas was a Trojan warrior and friend of Hector. He features a lot in Homer’s Iliad as a kind of ‘Best Supporting Warrior’, though they seem to have differed about battle tactics. Of which digression, enough.
Credits: Nina Henry; Charmaine Albury; Rhonda Pearce, Keith Salvesen
BREADFRUIT: NATURE’S BOUNTY (WITH ADDED MUTINY)
Capt. William Bligh achieved fame for all the wrong reasons. Despite a distinguished and wide-ranging seafaring career he is widely remembered for just two things: (1) The Bounty and (2) Mutiny On. In 1787, he was dispatched to Tahiti to collect specimens of BREADFRUIT (a fruit of the Pacific islands, in particular Polynesia) to help provide food for the British colonies in the West Indies. To be clear, the breadfruit was intended to be a basic and cheap staple food not just for settlers but also for the indigenous population. I think we can all guess the status of the latter at that time.
‘BLIGH’S BLIGHT’ – MUTINY!
Capt. Bligh’s Bounty crew unfortunately mutinied – possibly to do with the amount of water the breadfruit required in transit, compared to their own meagre rations. So they threw overboard the hundreds of breadfruit plants that were in transit. Then they set Bligh with his loyal officers and crew adrift… He was later court-martialled but cleared of culpability for provoking a mutiny by his conduct.
This isn’t the place for a disquisition on the Mutiny. You can read all about it HERE. Or better still, watch one of the rollicking all-star-cast films based loosely on the episode for a careful and accurate historical record of the events that will buckle your swash…
BLIGH’S SECOND CHANCE
Following that skirmish, and indeed blemish, on his record, in 1793 Capt. Bligh was yet again charged with the task of shipping breadfruit trees from their origin to the Caribbean. His heart must have sunk, yet finally he succeeded, only for those on the eating end to express considerable distaste for such a bland, starchy fruit. It took a long time to catch on, and its culinary versatility was only discovered many decades later. By which time slavery had thankfully been abolished anyway.
The most famous breadfruit tree in all Abaco is to be found in Hope Town, on Elbow Cay. I can do no better than display the notice that proudly proclaims the historic significance of the tree and its eponymous fruit.
Unusually for a fruit plant, a true breadfruit Artocarpus altilis does not produce seeds. It is propagated by removing the suckers that grow at at the base of the tree.
BREADFRUIT IN ART
Breadfruit has (somewhat surprisingly?) received some artistic recognition over the years. Here are a few examples. The first, very jolly, includes early representations of the Polydamus Swallowtail butterfly; the second is quite dull; the third is instructional (oddly equating breadfruit with tea, coffee and chocolate); and the fourth, frankly not at all appetising to look at…
SO WHERE DOES BREADFRUIT GROW NOW?
Breadfruit will flourish only within a certain latitude range where the rainfall and temperature suit it, as this map shows. I include this information in case you ever find yourself in the awkward position of being socially stranded with someone whose conversation has become soporific. Be armed with some useful worldwide breadfruit stats for just such an occasion – the fact that Madagascar is a suitable yet not a very good location, for example (not enough rainfall). You will soon find yourself alone…
A CULINARY TREAT
Breadfruit is sometimes thought to be a dull and untasty, at least compared with many other fruits. I thought I’d include a recipe or two that rather appealed to me – the second because even I could do that… it’s within my shamefully limited culinary skill-set.
Large, ripe breadfruit 1 cup water Butter 1 lime or lemon
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Put the water in a shallow pan and place the whole breadfruit in the water. Bake in oven for three hours. Remove from oven, allow to cool slightly, peel, removing the large core and stem. Cut the fruit into sections and place in a serving dish. Cover with butter and a squeeze of lime or lemon juice.
This post was inspired by an article on breadfruit and the Hope Town tree by local historian Deb ‘DP’ Patterson, who will be known to many for her committed involvement with the Wyannie Malone Historical Museum in Hope Town. I’m grateful to her for permission to use her idea and indeed some of her material, in particular her photos of the tree and its notice. I originally posted this about 4 years ago, and have dusted it off for the benefit of new (thank you!) followers who might also have breadfruitphilia.
Capt. Bligh managed to put his breadfruit adventures and the mutiny behind him. He continued a distinguished naval career with successive command of an impressive number of ships. He ended up a Vice-Admiral, and (on his death in 1817) in a grave in Lambeth, London.
Credits: First and foremost, Deb Patterson; Magpie Pickings including Hans Hillewaert, US Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, Royal Botanic Garden Kew, myrecipefriends, M Kwek, whatsonbahamas, Wyannie Malone Historical Museum, ‘Geograph’, Dan Kasberger, and Wiki; and anyone else I have omitted…