Tamaracks, or American Larches (Larix laricina) are non-flowering plants (often found growing in bogs) that reproduce using seeds that are borne on the woody scales of cones. Conifers (Tamarack is one of about 20 deciduous conifers, but the only one in New England) have both male and female cones. The male cones produce pollen which is distributed by the wind and the female cones contain ovules which, when fertilized, develop seeds.
The male (pollen-bearing) cones look like little, round buttons (less than 1/5th of an inch wide), and consist of brown to yellowish pollen sacs with papery scales at their base. After maturing in early spring, they shed their pollen and then wither. The female cones of Tamarack are also small – less than ½ inch – and initially resemble tiny, maroon roses. As in all conifers, the scales open temporarily to receive pollen, then close during fertilization and maturation, and then re-open again at maturity to allow the seed to escape.
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Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you may come upon a circle of mushrooms in the woods or in a lawn. To some, these are Fairy Rings, where the fairies dance. To those more scientifically minded, they are the fruiting bodies of an underground fungus (mycelium) that is growing outward in all directions from an initial spot (in the center of the ring), feeding on nutrients in the soil. As it grows, the mycelieum secretes enzymes into the ground ahead of it. These chemicals break down the organic matter, releasing nutrients so that the mycelium will have food when it reaches this area. When conditions are right for spore production, the active mycelium produces a circle of mushrooms just behind its outer edge. Growth of the mycelium continues, accompanied by the formation of wider and wider circles of fruiting bodies every year.
There are roughly 60 species of fungi that produce Fairy Rings. As a rule they form these in evenly composed soil, such as lawns and less frequently in woods. It’s possible to recognize Fairy Ring evens when they haven’t sent up mushrooms, as they form rings of grass up to 15 feet in diameter that have a distinctly different color or texture than the grass inside or outside of the ring. (A Fairy Ring in France measured 2,000 feet in diameter and was estimated to be 700 years old.) (Photos by Julie George)
Sac fungi, or ascomycetes, are a group 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 (as well as Green Elfcup or Green Wood Cup). Most of the time you do not see the actual fruiting bodies of these fungi. More often you come across the brilliantly blue-green stained wood (often rotting logs of poplar, aspen, ash and 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 may make wood less appealing to termites and has been studied for its cancer-fighting properties.
Ferns are non-flowering plants which reproduce by spores, not seeds, and have a vascular system that transports fluids (unlike mosses, algae and liverworts). Spores are typically located inside a capsule, or sporangium. In many species of ferns, clusters of sporangia, called sori, are borne on the underside or margins of their fronds. Often an indusium, or protective flap of tissue, covers each sorus, protecting the developing sporangia. If you like to be able to give a fern a name, you will find that the shapes and arrangement of sori are a valuable identification tool.
Northern Lady Fern, Athyrium filix-femina, is a fairly common fern found in moist woods, swamps, thickets and fields. It appears quite lacy and often grows in a somewhat circular cluster. There are two distinguishing characteristics which are particularly helpful in recognizing Lady Fern. One is its eyebrow-shaped sori. If you look on the underside of a spore-bearing frond you will find that each sori is slighted curved, or arched, like an eyebrow. The other diagnostic feature is the scattered thin, dark brown scales that are found on the stipe – the section of the fern’s stem between the ground and where the leafy frond begins.
This time of year, when the spores of many fern species are maturing, is a good time to learn the different ferns in the Northeast. There are many excellent field guides to ferns. One that you can easily tuck into your pocket is Lynne Levine’s Identifying Ferns the Easy Way.
Puffballs are aptly named. When their spores mature and the fruiting body splits open, rain drops, an animal passing by, or the wind cause puffs of spores to burst into the air, dispersing them far and wide. While puffballs vary tremendously in size, most would fit in your hand. Exceptions include Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), one of which was collected in 1877 in New York state and measured 5 ½ inches by 4 ½ inches by 6 ¾ feet. The greatest recorded weight for a Giant Puffball is 44 pounds.
The production of spores takes place on basidia – club-like structures inside the fruiting body. The number of spores that these fungi produce is impressive. Mycologist Henry Buller estimated that a Giant Puffball measuring 16” x 11” x 8” (a fairly typical size) would contain more than 7 trillion spores. (If you want to grow your own Giant Puffball so you can count the spores yourself, you can even purchase seeding spores online!)
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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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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.
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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When it first appears above ground in the spring, the club or 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 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.
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.)
Horsetails 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 )
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)
Five 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.
The 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.”
Common polypody (Polypodium virginianum), also called Rock Cap Fern, is a perennial plant found most often growing on rock surfaces usually in moist, shady woods. Being a fern, Common Polypody reproduces by spores. Structures that produce and contain spores (sporangia) are found on the undersides of the fertile frond leaflets. The sporangia form round clusters called sori. The sori of Common Polypody are orange-brown when mature and lack the protective covering (indusium) that some other fern species have. At this time of year, the mature spores are being dispersed by the wind.
The ability of Common Polypody to tolerate extreme desiccation (the leaves roll up when moisture isn’t as available, and resume their normal state when moist conditions return) means it is well adapted to the extreme moisture fluctuations of rock surfaces. Its evergreen fronds are consumed in the winter by Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, and White-tailed Deer.
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)