The fruiting bodies of Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) are quite distinctive looking — typically they grow to the size of a soccer ball, but the record specimen measured eight feet, eight inches in diameter and weighed 50 pounds. According to Cornell, it’s been calculated that a single ten-inch Giant Puffball has as many as 7 trillion spores. If each of those spores grew and yielded a ten-inch puffball, the combined puffball mass would be 800 times that of the earth. Look for Giant Puffballs in the fall, growing on lawns, grassy meadows and open woods, sometimes in clusters, sometimes singly. If you find one and it is still white and relatively young, foraging is an option. Dissecting it to be sure it doesn’t have any gills is essential (there are gilled poisonous mushrooms that start out looking somewhat like puffballs); as with all fungi that you’re thinking of ingesting, it’s best to have an expert along to identify it.
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There is no way you can walk by the fruiting body of Pseudocolus fusiformis, a member of the Stinkhorn family Phallaceae, without noticing it. Its shape is markedly different from most fungi, in that it has three or four separate orange “arms” which are fused at the top. If your eyes don’t detect it, your nose most certainly will. Also known as “Stinky Squid,” this fungus emits a strong, putrid odor which comes from the dark green, spore-bearing slimy material (gleba) that is found on the inner surfaces of the arms. This smell attracts insects, primarily flies, which inadvertently disperse spores after visiting the fungus. Look for round egg-like whitish structures at the base of Pseudocolus fusimormis – these are young fruiting bodies that have yet to develop arms. (Thanks to Shiela Swett for photo op.)
Typically you find this fungus growing from the base of a rotting stump, poking up through the ground like a dead man’s fingers — hence, the name. The “fingers”, or fruiting bodies, can take many forms, including individual fingers or fused fingers that resemble a hand. It’s thought that Dead Man’s Fingers, Xylaria polymorpha, is actually several species of fungi, which have yet to be identified. In the spring, this fungus is covered with light-colored, asexual spores, which give it a grayish tint. As it matures, it darkens with the production of mature spores, eventually turning black. Most fungi disperse their spores over a period of a few hours or days. Dead Man’s Fingers is much slower, releasing its spores over many months or even years. (Thanks to Marian and Charles Marrin for photo op.)
As an impressive number of people knew, the black markings on the yellow birch were caused by fungi that create what is called “spalting” in trees. When the temperature (70 – 90 degrees F.) and moisture content (30%) of certain trees (birch, beech and maple, most commonly) is just right, colonies of fungi infect them. There are different forms of spalting – the pictured fine black lines are referred to as “zone lines.” They are created when incompatible colonies of fungi come into contact with each other and lay down barriers to separate their territories. The presence of spalting indicates that the decay process has begun. Spalted wood’s natural beauty is highly regarded by wood turners and is held in contempt by the lumber industry (with time, the wood softens and weakens as it decomposes). As the Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources so eloquently states, “Spalted wood embodies all that is curious in the natural world. It is formed by unseen organisms at a specific time and place that only it knows.” (Thanks to John Gutowski for yesterday’s yellow birch mystery photo and the HobbitHouse for the bowl photograph.)
Have you ever noticed that the color of some lichens is a more intense green after they get wet? There’s a very good explanation for this phenomenon. Lichens are made up of an alga or cyanobacterium and a fungus. The alga or cyanobacterium makes the food, and the fungus absorbs the water. A typical lichen has a three-layered structure. A middle layer containing algal cells entwined in threadlike fungus fibers called hyphae is sandwiched between two layers of fungal tissue. Lichens that turn bright green after it rains contain green algae which contains chlorophyll, a green pigment. When it rains, the fungus (which surrounds the algae) soaks up water like a sponge, causing the fungus to become more transparent, which allows the green pigment of the algae to be seen more clearly.
The Yellow-orange Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria var. formosa) is common in New England, especially where conifers grow. Out West this mushroom is often a bright red color, but in the East it’s typically orange/yellow. When certain gilled mushrooms, including many Amanita species, first form, they are encased in a membrane called a “universal veil.” As the mushroom enlarges and matures, the veil ruptures, with remnants of it remaining on the mushroom’s cap. Fly Agaric fungi got their name from the custom of placing little pieces of the mushroom in milk to attract flies. The flies supposedly become inebriated and crash into walls and die. This mushroom is somewhat poisonous (as are many Amanita species) and hallucinogenic when consumed by humans. The toxins affect the part of the brain that is responsible for fear, turning off the fear emotion. Vikings, who had a reputation for fierceness, are said to have ingested this mushroom prior to invading a village.
If you see a bright orange and yellow shelf fungus on a living or dead tree, chances are that it is Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). It can grow in fairly impressive clumps of up to 100 pounds. The pictured shelves of this fungus extend well over 20 feet along the rotting tree trunk, and this was only half of total amount present. Chicken of the Woods doesn’t appear until well after the fungus has attacked the tree, and because it causes heart rot, the center of the living tree on which it grows is often hollow. Young Chicken of the Woods (particularly the growing edge of the fruiting body) is considered a great find by fungi foragers, as its taste resembles chicken – hence, its common name. Although it’s been considered one of the “foolproof four” fungi that can be eaten, similar species have recently been found which are not edible, so some people advise foraging with caution. (Thanks to Hilary Hamilton for photo op.)
There is a group of fungi known as tooth fungi, due to the fact that they produce spores on tooth-like projections, not pores or gills. Bear’s Head Tooth Fungus, Hericium americanum, also known as Lion’s Mane, Monkey Head or Icicle Mushroom, is a tooth fungus that is fruiting now. This delicious (its taste is somewhat reminiscent of lobster) fleshy fungus is among the safest, most unmistakable of all of North America’s species of edible wild mushrooms; it looks like a cluster of white fungal icicles hanging off a decaying log, stump, or dead tree trunk. Bear’s Head Tooth Fungus fruits on a number of different kinds of deciduous trees, particularly beech, maple, birch, oak, walnut, and sycamore. Distinguishing between the species of Hericium can be tricky, but all species are edible and tasty. Even so, I recommend having someone very familiar with edible fungi along to confirm identification the first time you harvest it. (Thanks to Peter Stettenheim for photo op.)
There are several species of Grape Ferns in the Northeast, all of which are true ferns, but they are not closely related to the plants we generally think of as ferns. Like other ferns, Grape Ferns do not have flowers; they reproduce with spores, not seeds. A single shoot divides into two blades – one of which is sterile and does the photosynthesizing, and one of which is fertile and bears spores. It is the resemblance of this plant’s clusters of spore cases to miniature clusters of grapes that gives this group of ferns its name. Cut-leaved Grape Fern, Botrychium dissectum, (in photograph) is one of the most common species of Grape Ferns in the Northeast. It’s roughly 6” to 8” tall, evergreen and has yellow spore cases and spores which are mature at this time of year.
This is the time for Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) to magically appear in fields and meadows overnight. Puffballs are different from most fungi, in that their spores are all contained within them, as opposed to being produced by gills under a cap. Giant Puffballs more than deserve their common and scientific names — they can reach a diameter of five feet and weigh up to 44 pounds! Some foragers do eat immature puffballs, but beware, as they closely resemble a poisonous mushroom at this stage, and once their spores mature, they can cause digestive distress. (Thanks to Knox & Harmony Farm for photo op.)
Liverworts, along with mosses and hornworts, are classified by botanists as bryophytes – non-flowering plants that lack vascular (conductive) tissue. It is possible, even likely, that liverworts were among the first plants to make the transition to life on land. Their appearance varies according to the stage in which you see them, but the plants we think of when we think of liverworts are very small (less than an inch in diameter and about 4 inches in length) and can be relatively flat, growing very close to the ground. Liverworts have two basic stages, the dominant one being the flattish, leaf-like gametophyte. It produces male sex organs (antheridia) which produce sperm and female organs (archegonia) which produce eggs. The stalked, fringed, palm tree-like structures in the photograph are egg-producing archegonia, and the stalked, lobed structures are antheridia. Both are less than an inch tall and are produced on the same plant (unlike 80% of liverwort species that produce their sex organs on separate plants). The sperm must reach an egg in order for fertilization to take place, and it usually does this by swimming through rain water or dew. Once fertilization occurs, the second stage of the plant, or sporophyte, develops. The sporophyte produces spores, some of which will grow into gametophytes and the cycle (called alternation of generations) will repeat itself.
4-11-12 Field Horsetail – Equisetum arvense
Look for this perennial non-flowering plant by the side of the road, where its fertile stalks are starting to poke up through the soil. A relative of ferns, horsetail reproduces by means of spores which are located in the cone-like structure at the tip of the fertile stalk. The green, bristly vegetative stalks that give this plant its common name will soon appear. Horsetail’s use as an herbal remedy dates back to ancient Roman and Greek medicine. It was used traditionally to stop bleeding, heal ulcers and wounds, and treat tuberculosis and kidney problems. Because of the silica in this plant, horesetail is used today by organic farmers to rid soil of the effect of excess moisture that promotes the growth of fungi. Relatively recently horsetail has been suggested as a treatment for osteoporosis, also because of the silica it contains, a mineral needed for bone health.
Dog-tooth lichen (Peltigera canina) is often found growing on lawns and rocks. Like all lichens, it consists of an alga or cyanobacterium and a fungus living together in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus provides a structure for taking up moisture and nutrients; the alga or cyanobacterium is capable of photosynthesizing and producing food for both itself and the fungus. The brown structures in the photograph are the fruiting (spore-producing) bodies of this lichen, and their resemblance to dog teeth gives this lichen its common name. In the Middle Ages, dog-tooth lichen was used to treat rabies — it was felt at the time that this lichen’s resemblance to dog teeth indicated that it could cure dog-related ailments.
Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) is a fungus that can be found growing from the bases of rotting stumps, and gets its common name from the way its fruiting body pokes up through the ground like a dead man’s fingers. “Xylaria” refers to growing on wood and “polymorpha” means many forms. This species has a very variable fruiting body, sometimes with many separate “fingers” and sometimes with the fingers fused into something more like a hand.
If you take a walk in the woods right now, you’ll find that overnight the fruiting bodies of a wide variety of fungi have popped up all over the forest floor, none more obvious than the white Comb Tooth fungus (Hericium coralloides). It is delicately branched and covered with fleshy spines most of which are under half an inch in length. Look for Comb Tooth on fallen hardwood branches, logs and stumps, particularly those of American Beech and maples. If you are with someone whose fungus identification skills you trust, and they confirm that you have found Comb Tooth (the fungus it most resembles, H. americanum, or Bear’s-head Tooth fungus, is also edible), you are in for a treat, for it is one of our tastiest fungi.
The Chanterelle family of fungi includes some of the best known edible wild mushrooms. The chanterelle pictured, Cantharellus cibarius, is considered a delicacy, but there are poisonous mushrooms that look very much like this chanterelle, so you should only consume one if someone you trust has identified it. Most chanterelles are either convex or vase-shaped, and instead of true gills, these mushrooms often produce spores on ridges or folds. Most chanterelles grow on the ground and appear at this time of year.