Epitaph Seeds from Hurricane Mitch

by Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer

Going to the beach and ignoring the wrack line is like going to Disney World and looking only at the parking lot,” quoted Ed Perry from Cathie Katz’ The Nature of Florida’s Beaches while lecturing at the Fourth Annual Sea Bean Symposium (October 22 – 24, 1999).

As if adding an exclamation point, while Ed spoke before a packed audience, the wrack line — the swath of debris deposited by the previous high tide — yielded a cornucopia of Mary’s-Beans (Merremia discoidesperma), the rarest, most storied drift seeds. European legends of the inch-long black beans carrying a Holy Cross, date back to the Middle Ages.


Floridians count themselves lucky in a lifetime to find a single Mary’s-Bean. In October 1999, however, record
numbers washed up, including two other rare seeds Oxyrhynchus trinervius and Brown Nickerbeans (Caesalpinia spp.). No one could remember such bounty.

Get this,” wrote Ed from the Sebastian Inlet Park entrance gate. “Last Sunday (11/28/99), my wife (Beth Sinclair) and baby (Gayle Perry) hit the beach for an hour in the afternoon and found three Mary’s-Beans. They’d just washed up! Lori Veber, who also works at the Park, just now came into the office with an Oxyrhynchus — this is her third in a two week period! This is unheard of! It took me three solid years of beachcombing to find just one. In the last month along Florida I know of ten (Oxyrhynchus) now found plus five Brown Nickerbeans. All this points to a devastating flood in the Central America area.” Mary’s-Bean vines grow only in Central America. “Other rare seeds like the O. trinervius and the Brown Nickerbean are thought to originate from the same area, as they are only found by beachcombers when Mary’s-Beans also wash in,” wrote Ed. “Oxyrhynchus, brown nickerbeans and tons of Mary’-Beans all point to Central America as the origin. In all that, I also found a Guatemalan crustacean tag.”

Though seldom washed to sea, Mary’s- Beans are marathon floaters. They’ve drifted across the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and a specimen floated six years in John Dennis’ tank tests.

Reasoning that the supply depends on the quantity flooded to sea, Ed searched for hurricanes striking Central America a year upcurrent from Florida. In 1998, a tropical atmospheric wave spawned Hurricane Mitch 360 miles south of Kingston, Jamaica. By October 26, it intensified into a Category 5 hurricane swirling 180-mile-per hour winds. From October 28 to November 1, Mitch rained four feet on Central America. Widespread flooding and mud slides killed at least 10,000 in Nicaragua and Honduras, making it the most deadly Atlantic storm in 200 years.

Mitch’s rain surged down mountains sweeping away virtually everything in its path — trucks, livestock, roads, houses and people. Hurricanes, the costliest natural disasters in the United States, cause an annual average damage of $4.8 billion (adjusted to 1995 dollars). In terms of damage potential, Category 5 is 500 times worse than Category 1. Mitch destroyed 80% of Honduras’ agriculture and washed massive quantities of debris into offshore currents.

As if offering mementoes at graveside, the torrential floods carried Mary’s-Beans to sea mourning Mitch’s victims. Currents transported the epitaph seeds northward through the Yucatan Channel, Gulf of Mexico and Florida Straits, to eastern Florida beachcombers. Along Texas, Louisiana and Alabama, beachcombers no doubt will also find once-in-a-lifetime numbers. Just before the 1999 Symposium, Debbie
of Gulf Shores, Alabama, found her first one at Cocoa Beach, FL. By Christmas 2000, the fabled beans should wash up in Europe.

Here’s a few notes for horticulturists. “Mary’s-Bean is not a bean (legume) at all, but a Morning Glory in the family of Convolvulacea,” Ed noted. “Mary’s-Bean has stuck as a name, as it sounds much better than Mary’s- Convolvulus.” Pete Zies and Ed think the Brown Nickerbeans originate in Central America because they only find them when they see other Central American species like Mary’s-Bean and Oxyrhynchus. “We are not sure of the Latin name, but the seed is so close to Caesalpinia bonduc that it must be a Caesalpinia,” Ed deduced. “Furthermore, I am growing a plant from the seed and it is also close in looks to a gray Nickerbean plant.”

To transform the Mary’s-Beans into millennium Christmas presents, read Cathy Yow’s beautifully illustrated book, Jewelry From Nature (Lark Books, $18.95).

(Information on Hurricane Mitch from R. Ferraro, G. Vicente, M. Ba, A. Gruber, R. Scofield, Q. Li and R. Weldon, EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, 80 (43), October 26, 1999. Hurricane damage information from R.A. Pielke, Jr., and C.W. Landsea, 1998, “Normalized Hurricane Damages in the United States: 1925-1995,” Weather and Forecasting, 13: 621-631).