Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The "Beach Onions" Mystery


"What a strange thing. It's an onion!" I heard my friend Victor call out in Spanish, as we walked along the beach.

On a late December afternoon we were walking along the Yucatan's northern fringe at water's edge, kicking at chunks of coral and scanning the tide line for something interesting, when suddenly we stumbled upon this object.

As soon as I'd processed the day's "language learning moment," realizing that my friend was not talking about a certain strong-tasting edible root, but rather in general about plant bulbs (of which onions are just one example), I bent over to take a look.

Although it did resemble an edible onion in color and texture, obviously this bulb was something different. It still had the remains of green leaves at its top, and some threads of root remained attached to the base. As we walked further, we found quantities of these uprooted plants, strewn among shells and seaweed clumps along the shore.

Victor commented that they looked a lot like the wild lilies that grow near the coast. He in the past had pointed out these plants growing here and there near beach access roads and in dunes along the Yucatan coast, although I've never seen them in flower.

But what we kept wondering was, "how did these bulbs get here?" It was pretty obvious that they'd floated awhile and then washed up on this spot. Did someone dump them? Why did they dig them up in the first place?

As we speculated, we decided to collect a few, so as we beach combed we selected those in better condition and piled them where they would be visible and easily found as we returned to the car. Some were rotted and badly damaged, but we gathered about a dozen good ones for a little experiment.

The bulbs were planted in my garden a few days later, and within two weeks had begun to sprout new leaves. They did greatly resemble the wild lily plants commonly seen along beach areas around here.

As they grew, what was surprising to me was the size of these plants. After about six months, the leaves have reached a length of more than a meter (40 inches). Then they began to flower in late June, exactly six months after being put into good soil. The blossoms confirmed that these are the local plants we suspected they were.



 And what a fantastic thing the blooming of these plants is. It is not a flashy flower, in fact it is so spindly that from a distance it might easily be missed. Its six swordlike petals have a look reminiscent of orchids to my eyes. The stamens and anthers, with bright orange pollen at their ends, lend the flower a spidery, delicate elegance. This sizable bloom measures about 23 centimeters (9 inches) across. The stalk which supports this flower has had at least eight buds, which seem to bloom one at a time, consecutively. A flower lasts a day or two, with a new blossom opening as its predecessor wilts.


As for the "Beach Onions" mystery, I believe that coastal erosion is the reason that these bulbs are washing up on the shore. It seems to be an indigenous plant, common along the coasts, and this area of the Yucatán coast north of Mérida has some serious problems with erosion of beaches. I am guessing as beaches recede and dunes wash out, that some of these plants might manage to survive by floating to new habitat. However I imagine, from seeing the many damaged and rotted bulbs along the beach that day, and from the slim chance that a bulb would be tossed high enough up a beach to root and thrive, that the majority do not survive.

If my readers have other theories or information, or can help with identifying this plant, I'd appreciate comments.


26 comments:

  1. That is a Fukushima onion, they grow just outside of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Soma Fukushima Japan.

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    1. Oh boy! I knew the Fukushima debris was hitting the coasts of the Pacific Rim, and a lot has come ashore back in Alaska, but I didn't realize it had made it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico! Amazing. ;-)

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  2. The lilies that are common along the Yucatan coast (and that, as you found, grow very well inland) are a species of Crinum -- but I'm not sure what the species name is. I'll hunt around a bit and see if I can locate the name.

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  3. Woops -- the lily is Hymenocallis littoralis aka beach spider lily!

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    1. Thanks, MCM. It's nice to know. I started a Google search but didn't come up with that. It's nice to know. Now I can find it myself. I guess I won't chop one up and try it on a sandwich.

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    2. A Google search for Hymenocallis littoralis turned up lots of information, and nice photos.

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  4. Anonymous is teasing. The "Fukushima onions" and other less-fictional tsunami debris are washing up here on the West Coast.

    You grow the most amazing plants.

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    1. I've been hearing about all the strange stuff washing up on the beaches back in Alaska, including soccer balls, boats and entire shipping containers. I would not be a bit surprised if "Fukushima onions" appeared there, too.

      Thanks, Debbie. All we did was stick them in the ground. If you want one for your garden, let me know.

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  5. Must have washed up from some dumped basura Mark.

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    1. I thought of that, but if someone had dumped garden/patio cuttings and other such debris I'd have expected to see more of that kind of stuff, and I didn't. It is a possibility, though, for sure. Probably I'll never know, but I hope to hear from some beach residents in the area to see if they've ever noticed anything like this.

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  6. Really beautiful! My guess was a spider lily too.

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    1. Spider lily is the consensus and it looks as if you are right. It was an expectedly beautiful surprise for me. Thanks for commenting.

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  7. Marc,

    Nice find! Recuerdos a Victor. I've sent a link of your post to naturalist Jim Conrad to see if he has anything to share.

    ~eric.

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    1. Eric, thanks for sending it on to Jim. I see that he has responded below with a link to more details. I'll pass your greeting on to Victor.

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  8. Hi Marc. That looks like the Beach Spiderlily, HYMENOCALLIS LITTORALIS, featured at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/hymenoca.htm

    Great plant, huh?

    Jim Conrad

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    1. Thanks, Jim, for sending the link. I refer to your catalog of Naturalist Newsletter entries often. It was great to meet you at Hacienda Chichen a year and a half or so ago...hope to see you posting observations from back here in Yucatan again one of these days.

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  9. Lovely posting, Marc. I want one of those TOO! Delicacy in a flower is so enticing, isn't it. "Spider Lily" sure seems to say it all.

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    1. Thanks, Alinde. I am hoping that these plants will reproduce. I'll put one aside for you.

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  10. What serendipity to find a nice addition to your garden at the beach.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where, after three weeks in Mexico, the garden has gone wild.

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    1. Yes, it was a great surprise. Interesting, too, that these plants that seem adapted to sandy, salty environments seem to do so well inland.

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  11. When I saw the picture of your lily, I immediately thought of a lily from my native Alabama. It grows only along the banks of the Cahaba River and is known as the Cahaba Lily. The pollen is more orange than the red look of yours but you can google images of Cahaba Lily and see that they are definitely in the same family.

    Cheryl Keller

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    1. Growing up in Louisiana and Houston, we had these lilies everywhere. Do you suppose they came across the Gulf?

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    2. It looks to me like these plants, or close cousins, are common all around the Gulf of Mexico. Not too surprising, really. Good question, and I also wonder how far these plants might have drifted with the currents. They seem very salt-tolerant. Perhaps it's possible that they can survive a fairly long voyage.

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  12. What a pretty plant. I have red spider lilies that pop up here in late summer. I read a little on this one, and it looks like it's something that could be planted for naturalizing. The dark green leaves are nice, and those pretty little flowers. I've got a classic southern milk and wine crinum lily that I rescued from a bulldozer 10 years ago. It grows on the south side of the house and it's huge, strap-like dark green leaves are nearly as nice as the glorious pink and white striped flowers. The romantic in me wishes your bulbs had traveled from one of the islands to arrive on our little coast there, maybe even from Alacranes. :-) I wonder how many plants have traveled by water to some new place, possibly where they'd never been before? It's fun to think about. Hope you're having fun in the mountains and staying cool. Tulsa is a blast furnace right now.

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  13. Where ever they came from it is a great plant to have in your garden, and a good conversation piece as well. They are really very pretty.

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  14. I too have harvested several of these bulbs from the beach.. And am in love with the delicate thin leaved flower. My soil, not being as well managed as yours necessitated a much longer period of time to bloom. Congratulations on your find, and your beautiful garden

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