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.
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.
Mushrooms in the genus Amanita typically have “warts” on their cap, a sturdy ring around their stem, and a distinctive stem base that is quite shaggy. They can grow to be quite large — up to a foot high with caps as big as dinner plates. This genus includes about 600 species, some of which are edible, but some of which are the most toxic mushrooms in the world. Amanitas are responsible for approximately 95% of the fatalities resulting from mushroom poisoning. Amanita muscaria (pictured) is commonly known as the fly Amanita, because in some regions little pieces of the mushroom are placed in milk to attract flies. The flies supposedly become inebriated and crash into the walls and die. This species is poisonous and has hallucinogenic properties. It often has a red cap, but this yellow-capped variety is more common in New England. CAUTION: DO NOT EAT ANY AMANITAS. Edible and poisonous species are too similar!