There are a group of fungi known as stinkhorns — aptly named, as their foul odor can be detected even by the human nose. All stinkhorns first appear as an “egg” which can be up to two inches high. When the eggs rupture, the appearance of the different species of fungi in this family (Phallaceae) can differ dramatically, but many have a phallic-like shape. At maturity, all stinkhorns produce an olive-green to olive-brown slimy substance that has a putrid smell (to humans), but is very appealing to many insects. This slime is loaded with the fungi’s spores. Insects landing on a stinkhorn get their feet covered with the spore-laden slime while they are busy ingesting it. Once the insects depart, the spores are dispersed far and wide.
Stinkhorns appear suddenly, and their growth can almost be observed, as they go from the egg stage to maturity with impressive speed. While these fungi are not poisonous, it is doubtful that having smelled them, anyone would desire to eat them. (Photo: Dog Stinkhorn aka Devil’s Dipstick, Mutinus caninus)
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The observant eye may have spied what look like miniature bird nests filled with tiny eggs growing in gardens and wood chips this time of year. They are a type of fungus that forms fruiting bodies that employ a “splash-cup dispersal” mechanism in order to disperse its spores.
The nests (peridia) serve as splash cups; when raindrops strike the nest, the eggs (peridioles) are projected into the air. In some species, each peridiole is attached to the inner surface of the cup by a slender, hollow stalk which contains an inner, coiled, threadlike “funicular cord.” The fragile outer layer of the stalk is easily ruptured, thus releasing the inner, coiled cord. When wet, the cord elongates greatly and may reach a length of 6-8 inches. The base (hapteron) of this elongated cord is very sticky and adheres readily to solid objects after it is released from the cup. Like a wad of glue, the sticky cord base strikes a solid object, such as a nearby plant, adheres to a branch, and as the peridiole continues in flight the cord expands to its full length. Then the peridiole winds around the branch where the hapteron has become attached and is suspended in the air. Upon drying, the peridiole splits open, releasing its spores.
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If you should detect an odor reminiscent of a decomposing carcass, it may well come from the spores of Netted Stinkhorn (Dictyophora duplicata) – the slimy, olive-green matter on the head, or top portion, of the fungus. When mature, the spores have a fetid odor which successfully lures insects, especially flies, to the fruiting body of this fungus. Some of the spores stick to the legs and mouth parts of the flies. Eventually the flies land on some real rotting material and the spores are transferred to a substrate they can grow on. Although it’s not too discernible in this photograph, Netted Stinkhorns derive their name from a fishnet-like veil, or skirt, below the head of the fungus.
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Boletes are fleshy terrestrial mushrooms that have sponge-like tubes, not gills, as most mushrooms have, under their caps. (Polypores also have tubes, but are tough and leathery and usually grow on wood.) Spores develop on basidia (club-shaped, spore-bearing structures) which line the inner surfaces of the tubes. Because the basidia are vertically arranged, the spores, when mature, drop down and disperse into the air.
The majority of bolete species are edible, but there are two reasons not to harvest them unless you are with an expert. One reason being that there are some poisonous bolete species. The second reason is that because they are large and fleshy, larvae can often be found inhabiting them, as well as parasites.
The woods are filled with all kinds of plants – herbaceous and woody, flowering and non-flowering. Each plant appears to be independent of all others, but this is an illusion. In fact, most of the plants in a forest are physically connected to one another. How and why this is so is a little known fact.
Fungal threads called hyphae (the subterranean body of a fungus that we don’t usually see) run throughout the soil. Each one is ten times finer than a plant’s root hair. While some are digesting dead organic matter, others are forming a relationship with photosynthetic plants. This mutually beneficial relationship between fungi and plants is referred to as mycorrhizal.
The very fine fungal threads are capable of penetrating plant cells, allowing the fungus to receive sugars that the photosynthetic plant has manufactured. At the same time, the fungus provides the plant with minerals (especially phosphates) it has garnered from the soil. Nearly all plants have mycorrhizal fungi wrapped in or around their roots, and many of these plants cannot live without their fungal partners. The real work of a plant’s roots may well be to serve as the connector to this network of fungal hyphae that exists in the soil. (photo: Eastern White Pine,Pinus strobus)
Sac fungi, or ascomycetes, are a division of fungi, most of which possess sacs, or asci, in which spores are produced. The relatively common blue-green cup fungi, Chlorociboria aeruginascens and its close relative, Chlorociboria aeruginosa, are in this group and are referred to as Green Stain Fungi. (They differ microscopically by the size of their spores.) Most of the time you do not see the actual fruiting bodies of these fungi (see photo). More often you come across the brilliantly blue-green stained wood (these fungi grow on the rotting logs or barkless wood of poplar, aspen, ash and especially oak) for which these fungi are responsible. Woodworkers call this wood “green rot” or “green stain.” 14th and 15th century Italian Renaissance woodworkers used Chlorociboria-infected wood to provide the green colors in their intricate wood inlays. The blue-green discoloration is caused by the production of the pigment xylindein, which can inhibit plant germination and has been tested as an algaecide. Xylindein may make wood less appealing to termites, and has been studied for its cancer-fighting properties.
Northern Tooth Fungus, Climacodon septentrionale, is an unusual combination of both a shelf (also called bracket) fungus as well as a toothed fungus. Typically a shelf fungus produces spores inside pores located on its underside. Northern Tooth Fungus, however, produces spores on pendant, spine- or tooth-like projections on its underside (see insert). This fungus usually has several tiers of “shelves” that grow in tight, thick layers, and change from white to light tan as they age.
Northern Tooth Fungus is a parasite of living trees, especially Sugar Maples, and it causes the central heartwood of the living tree to rot. The only sign that a maple has this fungal parasite is the appearance of these shelf-like fruiting bodies in late summer or fall. Often trees with this fungus become weak and are blown over by the wind. As with most shelf fungi, it is considered to be inedible. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam for photo op.)
Velvety Fairy Fan (Spathulariopsis velutipes) lives up to its name. Its brown stalk is fuzzy, it is tiny and it is shaped like a fan. (It is also called Spatula Mushroom, for equally obvious reasons.) This fungus belongs to the order Helotiales, which also includes earth tongues, jelly drops and other small fungi that grow on plant stems, wood and wet leaves. Because of its diminutive size (3/8” high), Velvety Fairy Fan is often overlooked. The fruiting bodies are often found in clusters that appear in August and September.
American Caesar’s Mushroom (Amanita jacksonii), a member of the Amanita genus, differs from most Amanita species in at least two ways. It is one of the few edible Amanitas (most species are poisonous, so consumption is discouraged unless an expert identifies the fungus). Secondly, unlike many other Amanita species, American Caesar’s Mushroom does not usually have any warts or patches on its cap. The common name of this mushroom traces back to the fact that its close relative, Caesar’s Mushroom, Amanita caesarea, which grows in Italy, was a favorite of the emperors of the Roman Empire, the Caesars. Both of these species of Amanita are mycorrhizal, forming a symbiotic beneficial relationship with the roots of certain trees. Look for American Caesar’s Mushrooms under pine and oak. (photo: American Caesar’s Mushroom rupturing through its protective white membrane, or universal veil, as it matures)
It is very hard to miss a fruiting Cinnabar Polypore (Pycnoporus cinnabarinus) fungus due to its electric red-orange coloration (on both upper and lower surfaces). It is in a group of fungi known as polypores, which usually grow on dead trees, are shaped like shelves, not umbrellas, and have many tiny holes, or pores (as opposed to gills), on their underside, where the spores develop. Cinnabar Polypore is also known as White Rot Fungus, as it breaks down lignin and cellulose in dead trees, causing the rotted wood to feel moist, soft, spongy, or stringy and appear white or yellow. Look for it on dead cherry, birch and beech trees.
When 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.
There are several species of poisonous mushrooms in the genus Amanita in the Northeast that are referred to as “destroying angels” but the most widely distributed and commonly encountered is Amanita bisporigera. It has a smooth white cap, gills, a skirt-like ring underneath the cap surrounding the stem (annulus) and a swollen stem base enclosed in a cup-like structure (volva). As it ages, this mushroom often acquires an odor reminiscent of rotting meat. Destroying angles are mycorrhizal with oaks – the underground portion of this fungus surrounds a tree’s rootlets with a sheath, and help the tree absorb water and nutrients while the tree provides sugars and amino acids to the mushroom. Destroying angels are among the most toxic known mushrooms, and closely resemble other white mushrooms that are edible. Consult an expert mycologist before consuming any mushroom that even remotely looks like this!
A 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.)
This 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.
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.
Pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys), like its close relative Indian Pipe, is a flowering plant which has no chlorophyll, and therefore is not green. Often found under pine trees, Pinesap’s color ranges from yellow to pink, red, orange or brown or some combination of these. Because it has no chlorophyll, it also cannot obtain energy from sunlight. (Therefore, it can thrive in very shady areas.) Pinesap gets its nutrients from other plants’ roots, but not directly. Mycorrhizal fungi are the middlemen, connecting the roots of Pinesap with those of its host plant, allowing nutrients to be passed along from the host plant to the Pinesap. This fungi-dependent relationship is called mycotropism. Similar to Indian Pipe, during fruiting Pinesap’s previously-nodding stem straightens, becoming erect.
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.)
There are only about three short weeks in the late spring when the blossoms of Yellow Lady’s Slippers grace our woodlands and wetlands. The production of an orchid is a complicated process. If pollination and fertilization are successful, hundreds of thousands of some of the smallest seeds of any flowers are scattered by the wind. The seeds of Yellow Lady’s Slippers (and other orchids), unlike those of most flowering plants, contain no food for the seedling plant. In addition, the coating surrounding the seed is extremely tough, so much so that the seed can’t germinate until Rhizoctonia fungi digest the outer coating, which allows the inner seed to access soil nutrients. This can take two years or more and then it may take another few years for the plant to produce a flower.
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.