An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Non-flowering plants

Green-capped Jelly Babies Fruiting

9-1-16  green-capped jelly babies IMG_4411

Typically found growing in clusters, this diminutive fungus, Leotia viscosa, stands between one and three inches tall. These rubbery fungi have yellow, orange or white stems, and green caps. Their slippery, jelly-like texture and variety of cap shapes have earned them the common names Green-capped Jelly Babies and Chicken Lips.

Green-capped Jelly Babies are saprophytes, living off dead or dying organic matter, and are often found growing under conifer trees or on dead logs. They are a type of sac fungus, and their microscopic spores are borne not in gills, but inside elongated cells or sacs known as asci that cover the outside surface of their cap. Thus, underneath the irregular caps the surface is smooth rather than being gilled.

( Naturally Curious posts will resume Monday, September 5.)

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Dead Man’s Fingers

7-27-16 dead man's fingers IMG_6258

When it first appears above ground in the spring, the club or finger-shaped fruit of Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorphaappears 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 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, sometimes fused together to resemble a hand.  Look for this fungus growing on hardwood stumps and logs, particularly American beech and maples.

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American Caesar’s Mushroom Fruiting

7-19-16  American Caesar's mushroom 026At 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.)

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Horsetails & Scouring Rushes

5-20-16  equisetum044Horsetails and Scouring Rushes are in a primitive genus (Equisetum) of non-flowering plants.  Most of their stems are hollow and have distinct nodes, or swollen areas, where branches are sometimes attached.  Both stems and branches have vertical ridges and grooves.  Silica, embedded in the ridge tissue, led to the stems being used to scour pans as well as an abrasive for burnishing brass and finishing violins.

Equisetum leaves are barely recognizable as leaves – these pointed structures fuse into small sheaths surrounding each node.  A spore-bearing cone forms at the tip of the fertile stems.  If you look closely you will see that hexagonal plates (modified leaves) cover the surface of the cone.  Underneath these plates are the sporangia, in which spores are produced.  Upon maturation of the cone, the sporangia expand, split open and release their spores. (photo: Variegated Scouring Rush,Equisetum variegatum )

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Mycorrhizal Relationships

12-15-15 white pine 047The 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)

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Maidenhair Spleenwort Greening Up the Woods

ebony spleenwort 083Five species of spleenworts (genus Asplenium) can be found in New England. Most of these small, native, evergreen ferns are found growing among rocks or on cliff faces. The Greeks believed that a species of spleenwort was useful for treating diseases of the spleen. The genus name Asplenium is derived from the Greek word for spleen (splen).

Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) is divided into two subspecies, one that grows in crevices of acidic rocks and one that grows on more basic (alkaline) rocks. It grows in tufts and has long (three to six inches), delicate fronds made up of short, round leaflets paired from the central dark reddish-brown stem (stipe and rachis). If in doubt as to whether or not a spleenwort is Maidenhair, examine the stipe and rachis with a hand lens; if there is a narrow wing running the length of the fern frond, it is A. trichomanes.

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Jelly Fungus Fruiting

11-15-15  jelly fungus IMG_1009The term “jelly fungus” is an informal one applied to species of fungi that have a gelatin-like consistency. The reason for this texture is that the structural filaments, or hyphae, of these fungi have walls that are not thin and rigid as they are in most other species, but instead shrink and expand in response to moisture. The hyphae are expanded and gelatinous when moist, but during dry periods they collapse and become rather hard and resistant to bending. These tissues are able to exist in a dry state for many months and, when exposed to moisture, quickly expand to full size. They may be among the earliest fungi seen in the spring because they have remained dry and inconspicuous all winter, only to revive with the first melting snow or during winter thaws. Jelly fungi come in several colors. Some of the orange and yellow forms found growing on deciduous trees, especially oaks and beech, are called “witches’ butter.”

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