The Oriole in the Ipomea

Flower of the Ipomea. 2002 ASDM Sonora Desert Digital Library / photo by Mark A. Dimmitt

Flower of the Ipomea. © 2002 ASDM Sonora Desert Digital Library / photo by Mark A. Dimmitt

We were walking on the path along the rim of the Chalatón Arroyo. It is one of the numerous, bouldery, deeply dissected drainages that tumble off the Sierra de Alamos on the edge of our town in Sonora, also called Alamos.

It was a morning in December when the Ipomea trees are leafless and in bloom. At this time of year, their skeletal white trunks stand out in the forest landscape and their many pearly white flowers perch one by one on the tips of the skyward-pointing branches. If a candelabra could be a tree, it would be an Ipomea.

We came upon an Ipomea on the path. A brilliant yellow-and-black oriole was acrobating in the tree, dangling from one branch tip, hopping to another, eating the flowers or perhaps some insects on the flowers or both. I should be more observant.

Flowers were strewn on the ground around the base of the tree. Other flowers nested in the branches of surrounding bushes, captured in their free fall. While we stood there, a few flowers drifted down. Ipomea flowers are diaphanous, moist and gauzy and glow with an inner light. I can imagine a gown of Ipomea blossoms. We stood there, looking up at the oriole in the Ipomea and down at the halo of flowers. At that moment I silently proclaimed the Ipomea as my favorite tree, but I have made silent proclamations about other trees on other occasions of clarity.

This embroidery captures the joyful essence of the Palo Santo. Alicia Sánchez de Cano, of Alamos, Sonora, is the embroiderer. Her husband, Hilario Cano, made the frame.

This embroidery captures the joyful essence of the Palo Santo. Alicia Sánchez de Cano, of Alamos, Sonora, is the embroiderer. Her husband, Hilario Cano, made the frame.

A footnote about the oriole and the Ipomea:

The black-vented oriole, Icterus wagleri, is a robust bird of semiarid scrub landscapes ranging from Mexico to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. It is not shy. It’s plumage — shiny black above with a lemon yellow breast — makes the bird look like it is wearing a tuxedo. As Steve Howell succinctly writes in A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, “Often seen in leafless flowering trees.”

Ipomea arborescens is a distinctive tree of the thorn scrub and tropical deciduous forest of Mexico. It ranges from Sonora and Chihuahua in the northwest of Mexico to Veracruz and Oaxaca in the south. The genus name is pronounced ee-poe-MEE-ah. Its common names are Tree Morning Glory and Palo Santo. In the winter months, Ipomeas are leafless but profuse with white flowers. Across the landscape, even in broad daylight, they flicker like candles.

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