Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) is a perennial evergreen orchid found growing in deciduous and coniferous forests, often in dry, sandy soil. While its hairy (downy) stalk of delicate, white, late-summer flowers is eye-catching (see 8/20/13 NC post), the leaves of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain are also works of art. Rosettes of bluish-green leaves emerge at the end of horizonal rhizomes, or stems, that are usually covered lightly by leaf litter.
The common name “plantain” has been applied to diverse, unrelated plants that have broad, flat leaves, the word being derived from the Latin word planta, referring to the sole of the foot. “Rattlesnake” alludes to the resemblance of this plant’s prominent reticulated veins to the scaly skin of snakes.
As is typical of orchids, the roots of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain have a mycorrhizal relationship with fungi that assists the plant in the acquisition of moisture and nutrients, while the plant provides products of its photosynthesis to feed the fungus. Also typical of orchids, the seeds of this species are minute and dust-like, bearing few nutrients to assist in the establishment of new seedlings. Seedling establishment requires assistance from soil fungi, from which the orchid derives the organic molecules it needs until it can make its own food via photosynthesis in its leaves.
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This slimy, purple mushroom belongs to the genus Cortinarius, the largest genus of mushrooms in the world. Mushrooms in this genus have partial veils, or cortinas – tissue that covers and protects the spore-producing gills, and they also have a rusty brown spore print and mature gills.
While it is relatively simple to determine that a mushroom is in this genus, identifying one down to species can be difficult. Two identical-looking species, C. iodes and C. iodeoides, can be found in the Northeast – both are purple and have slimy caps. Mycologists distinguish them by the size of their spores. For those more daring than I, there is a licking/taste test — the slime on C. iodeoides is said to be more bitter tasting than that of C. iodes.
Both species are mycorrhizal with oaks, in that both benefit from an association with each other. The mushroom helps the tree absorb water and nutrients while the tree provides sugars and amino acids to the mushroom. It is estimated that about 85% of plants depend on mycorrhizal relationships with fungi.
Deer and White-footed Mice are viewed negatively due to their association with Deer, or Black-legged, Ticks, carriers of Lyme Disease. However, these mice are also beneficial, not only as a staple prey food for many predators, but as a vital contributor to the health of our forests.
Mice help spread various kinds of fungi by eating the fruiting bodies (which contain spores) and eventually excreting the spores. Certain fungi colonize the root system of trees, creating a symbiotic relationship called mycorrhizae. The fungus provides increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities to the tree while the tree provides the fungus with carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis. For many temperate forest trees, these fungi have been shown to be an essential element in order for them to prosper. By consuming fungi and dispersing their spores, these small rodents are inadvertently contributing to the vitality of our forests. (Note: look for the tiny incisor marks of mice in the devoured fungus.)
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Flowering plants have a variety of ways to obtain food. Most have chlorophyll and thus are capable of photosynthesizing their own nutrients. A majority of these plants (90%) are also associated with mycorrhizal fungi – fungi which attach to the roots of other plants, often trees, with which most have a symbiotic relationship (both benefit). The plant receives minerals and water from the fungi, and the fungi feed on carbohydrates and other nutrients the plant produces.
Flowering plants with no chlorophyll cannot make their own food and must rely completely on other organisms for their nutrients. Some of these parasitic plants get their nutrients directly from the roots of another plant (Beechdrops) and others (Indian Pipe and Pinesap) receive food indirectly from fungi which get their nutrients from a photosynthetic plant. In these situations, the mycorrhizal relationship between the non-photosynthetic plant and the fungi is not mutualistic, as only the chlorophyll-lacking plant benefits. (Photo: Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora (one flower per stalk) and (insert) Pinesap, Monotropa hypopitys (many flowers per stalk).
At the risk of boring readers with a repeat post, I seem unable to come across an American Caesar’s Mushroom without photographing it and somehow justifying its worthiness as a Naturally Curious post, even in consecutive years (a practice I try to avoid). Simply put, the beauty of this non-flowering fungus rivals that of any flowering plant I can think of.
American Caesar’s Mushroom (Amanita jacksonii), a member of the Amanita genus found in New England, 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, leaving a remnant white cup, or volva, at its base.)