Creeping along the forest floor are small (6” high), evergreen perennial plants that resemble mosses or miniature conifers. Their leaves are usually narrow, shiny and pointed and frequently of similar size. These fern allies (not true ferns) are referred to as clubmosses. What look like individual plants often are upright stems that come off of one horizontal stem that grows along or under the ground.
Clubmosses evolved some 410 million years ago as one of the earliest groups of vascular plants (plants with special tissues, xylem and phloem, to conduct water and food, respectively). Roughly 300 million years ago, tree forms of both clubmosses and horsetails along with ferns dominated the great coal swamps of the Carboniferous geological period. Fossils reveal that tree forms of clubmosses once reached heights of 100 feet.
Pictured is Bristly Clubmoss (Spinulum annotinum, formerly Lycopodium annotinum). Like all ferns and fern allies, it reproduces with spores, not seeds, and thus has no flowers. The spores are borne on the single cone, or strobilus you see at the tips of the upright stems, and they are maturing now. A slight tap at this time of year will produce a voluminous cloud of yellow spores.
There is a group of evolutionarily ancient ferns referred to as “Grape Ferns.” Although they are true ferns, they are only distantly related to the ferns growing today. They derive their common name from the resemblance of their (spore-producing) sporangia to a bunch of tiny grapes. Grape Ferns have two blades. One is sterile and does the photosynthesizing; the other is fertile and bears the grape-like sporangia.
Different species of Grape Fern mature at different times during the summer. Leathery Grape Fern (B. multifidum; Sceptridium multifidum) is the largest of the Grape Ferns. Its triangular, sterile blade is very leathery and fleshy. If the fern is growing in full sun, the stalk of the sterile blade is usually quite short, and the branching, fertile blade rises above it. The spores on the fertile blade mature in late summer or early fall.
If anyone reading this blog considers fungi too boring to be of interest, they may be about to experience a change of heart. A group of fungi known as “stinkhorns” generate a lot of interest, mostly because of their appearance and their odor. These fungi vary in color, shape and size, but they all share two characteristics. All stinkhorns begin fruiting by sprouting an “egg” from which they erupt, often as quickly as overnight, and a portion of their fruiting body is covered with slime (gleba) which contains spores.
Many species of Stinkhorns have a phallic form, including Ravel’s Stinkhorn (Phallus ravenelii). Brown, foul-smelling, spore-laden slime is located at the tip of this fungus. Attracted by the odor, insects (mostly flies) land and feed on the slime. With bellies full and feet covered with spores, the flies depart, serving as efficient spore dispersers.
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.
The fungal family Clavariaceae includes simple, unbranched upright clubs and fleshy, intricately branched, coral-like forms. This family includes several groups of fungi that, due to their appearance, are commonly known as coral fungi. Coral fungi come in every color imaginable and among them are “fairy clubs” – small, mostly fragile fungi that live off of dead or decaying organic matter. They are found on the ground or occasionally on rotting wood. These delicate fungi are usually unbranched or sparingly branched and shaped like slender, erect clubs. Appearing in late summer/early fall, they are often found growing in clusters. Due to their small size and fragility, they are not considered to have any food value.
Hay-scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) is well-named, for when the leaves, or fronds, are brushed against or bruised, they release a fragrance reminiscent of fresh mown hay. This fern often grows in colonies, spreading from rhizomes underground. Hay-scented Fern is easily detected at this time of year because the fronds turn beautiful shades of pale yellow. It can be found in both dry and moist soil as well as in full shade and full sun. Hay-scented Fern often thrives in wooded areas where there is a high population of White-tailed Deer, as it is not a preferred food source.
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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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