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Non-flowering plants

“Elfin Saddle” Fungi Fruiting

smooth-stalked helvellaIMG_1997A group of fungi called the Ascomycetes, or sac fungi, all produce their spores in sac-like structures. This group includes, among others, morels, false morels, cup fungi and saddle fungi. Sac fungi in the genus Helvella are known as “Elfin Saddles” — the caps of their fruiting bodies come in a variety of shapes, including ears and cups as well as saddles. Most are not brightly colored and are usually white, cream, buff, brown, gray or black. Helvella species grow on the ground or, in a few cases, on rotting wood. Species are defined by the shape of their caps and the texture of their outer surface and stem. (Thanks to Susan and Dean Greenberg for photo op.)

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Fern Balls

fern ball 216At this time of year, many new sterile fern fronds have “fern balls” at their tips – something has taken the last few inches of the tip of the frond and stitched it together into a ball-shaped shelter bound with silk. If you open one of these balls, you may find frass – droppings from the immature insect that was dwelling within the ball while consuming the terminal leaflets of the fern. Sometimes, but not always, you’ll find the larva responsible for the frass. Many species of ferns, as well as other plants, are host to many species of larvae, and many of these larvae are immature moths. Pictured is Christmas Fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, which is likely the host of the larva of Herpetograma sphingealis, the Serpentine Webworm Moth, or its close relative, H. aeglealis. Larvae live in these shelters for about a month before pupating and emerging as small, brown moths.

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Morel Mania

5-22-14 morels 105This is the time of year to visit old apple orchards, burned areas, dying elms, cottonwoods and ash trees in hopes of finding delectable Yellow Morels, also known as Honeycomb Morels (Morchella esculenta). Unlike many fungi, which produce spores through gills, pores or “teeth,” morels have tiny sacs along the insides of their pits or wrinkles in which spores are produced. These fruiting bodies are highly sought after, especially in Boyne City, Michigan, where they have a morel-gathering competition at their annual National Morel Mushroom Festival. At the start of a gun hundreds of people race to find and collect as many morels as possible in 90 minutes. The record for one person is more than 900 morels – impressive by any measure, but particularly for those of us who live in the Northeast, where finding a dozen or so in a single season is something to crow about! (There are several types of morels, some edible and others poisonous, so consult an expert if you’re not positive of the i.d. before consuming any.) Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo op.

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Leafy Liverworts

12-12-13 Frullaria 008Plants that have no conductive (vascular) tissue are referred to as bryophytes. They include mosses, hornworts and liverworts, all of which reproduce with spores and do not form flowers or seeds. Liverworts are common in the tropics, but certain species are plentiful in New England. They are divided into two groups: flat, leafless thallus liverworts and leafy liverworts, which typically resemble flattened moss. You can easily confuse leafy liverworts with mosses but there are microscopic differences between the two. If you examine them under a microscope, you will find that leafy liverworts have leaves that are arranged in two or three rows while the leaves in mosses are spirally arranged. Liverworts of the Frullania genus, such as the liverwort pictured in this post, are classified as leafy liverworts. They typically have a reddish-brown color and attach themselves to a tree or other plant, obtaining moisture and nutrients from the air.

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Giant Puffball Fruiting Bodies Appearing

10-14-13 giant puffball 051 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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Stinky Squid Fungus

7-16-13  Pseudocolus fusiformis 225There 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.)


Dead Man’s Fingers

6-17-13 dead man's fingers 028Typically 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.)


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