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.)
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.