An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide


Scouring Rush – Ancient Lineage Tracing Back 350 Million Years

11-26-14 Scouring Rush 141 Scouring Rush (Equisetum hymale) belongs to a group of non-flowering, spore-producing plants that are known as horsetails. The group is named after some of the species in it that are branched, and were thought to resemble the tails of horses. There are several species of horsetails, including Scouring Rush, that do not branch. Three hundred and fifty million years ago horsetail relatives dominated the understory, with some individuals growing as high as 100 feet.

Scouring Rush’s rough stems terminate in a pointed cone within which spores develop. Their evergreen, hollow stems are jointed (stem can separate easily into sections by pulling at joints) and their leaves have been reduced to small sheaths encircling each joint. Scouring Rush is often found near streams and ponds, and can form large colonies.

The stems of all species of horsetails contain silica. Those of Scouring Rush, as one might gather from its name, were bundled together and used as a fine abrasive for scouring pans. In addition, they were used for sanding wood and smoothing reeds for woodwind instruments.

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Dead Man’s Fingers Fruiting

10-10-14 dead man's fingers 082When it first appears above ground in the spring, the club/finger-shaped fruit of Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) appears powdery white from the asexual spores that cover its surface. As it matures, it acquires a crusty, black surface. This is the sexual stage. The interior of the fruiting body of this fungus is white; just inside the outer surface is a blackened, dotted layer containing structures called perithecia which hold sacs of sexual spores. Dead Man’s Fingers, unlike most fungi (which release their spores in a few hours or days) releases its spores over months or even years. It can have many separate “fingers” and sometimes the fingers are fused, causing it to look somewhat like a hand. Look for this fungus growing on hardwood stumps and logs, particularly American beech and maples.

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“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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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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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.)

A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


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