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Spores

Cut-leaved Grape Fern Spores Maturing

There are several species of Grape Ferns in the Northeast, all of which are true ferns, but they are not closely related to the plants we generally think of as ferns. Like other ferns, Grape Ferns do not have flowers; they reproduce with spores, not seeds. A single stalk divides into two blades – one of which is sterile and does the photosynthesizing, and one of which is fertile and bears spores. It is the resemblance of this plant’s clusters of spore-bearing sporangia to miniature clusters of grapes that gives this group of ferns its name.

Cut-leaved Grape Fern, Sceptridium dissectum, is one of the most common species of Grape Ferns in the Northeast. It is often found on disturbed land, is roughly 6” to 8” tall, and has an evergreen sterile frond that appears in July, turns bronze in the fall and dies back in May.  The fertile frond has branched clusters of yellow sporangia containing spores which mature at this time of year.

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Lady Fern Spores Maturing

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.

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Giant Puffballs Maturing

10-17-18 giant puffball IMG_4353Puffballs 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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Stinkhorns Maturing

10-5-18 dog stinkhorn IMG_9973There 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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Netted Stinkhorns Maturing

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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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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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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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Common Polypody Spores Dispersing

10-27-15 rock polypody 057Common 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.

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Scouring Rush – Ancient Lineage Tracing Back 350 Million Years

11-26-14 Scouring Rush 141 Scouring Rush (Equisetum hymale) belongs to a group of non-flowering, spore-producing plants that are known as horsetails. The group is named after some of the species in it that are branched, and were thought to resemble the tails of horses. There are several species of horsetails, including Scouring Rush, that do not branch. Three hundred and fifty million years ago horsetail relatives dominated the understory, with some individuals growing as high as 100 feet.

Scouring Rush’s rough stems terminate in a pointed cone within which spores develop. Their evergreen, hollow stems are jointed (stem can separate easily into sections by pulling at joints) and their leaves have been reduced to small sheaths encircling each joint. Scouring Rush is often found near streams and ponds, and can form large colonies.

The stems of all species of horsetails contain silica. Those of Scouring Rush, as one might gather from its name, were bundled together and used as a fine abrasive for scouring pans. In addition, they were used for sanding wood and smoothing reeds for woodwind instruments.

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Dead Man’s Fingers Fruiting

10-10-14 dead man's fingers 082When 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.

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“Elfin Saddle” Fungi Fruiting

smooth-stalked helvellaIMG_1997A 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.)

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Leafy Liverworts

12-12-13 Frullaria 008Plants that have no conductive (vascular) tissue are referred to as bryophytes. They include mosses, hornworts and liverworts, all of which reproduce with spores and do not form flowers or seeds. Liverworts are common in the tropics, but certain species are plentiful in New England. They are divided into two groups: flat, leafless thallus liverworts and leafy liverworts, which typically resemble flattened moss. You can easily confuse leafy liverworts with mosses but there are microscopic differences between the two. If you examine them under a microscope, you will find that leafy liverworts have leaves that are arranged in two or three rows while the leaves in mosses are spirally arranged. Liverworts of the Frullania genus, such as the liverwort pictured in this post, are classified as leafy liverworts. They typically have a reddish-brown color and attach themselves to a tree or other plant, obtaining moisture and nutrients from the air.

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Stinky Squid Fungus

7-16-13  Pseudocolus fusiformis 225There 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.)


Dead Man’s Fingers

6-17-13 dead man's fingers 028Typically 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.)


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Shaggy Mane

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Shaggy Mane, Coprinus comatus, is one of a group of mushrooms known as Inky Caps.  Both of these common names reflect the appearance of the mushroom at different stages of its development – the cap has white, shaggy scales, and as the mushroom matures its gills liquefy into a black substance that was once used as ink. Most Inky Caps have gills that are very thin and very close to one another, which does not allow for easy release of the spores.  In addition, the elongated shape of this mushroom does not allow for the spores to get caught in air currents as in most other mushrooms. The liquification/self-digestion process is actually a strategy to disperse spores more efficiently. The gills liquefy from the bottom up as the spores mature. Thus the cap peels up and away, and the maturing spores are always kept in the best position for catching wind currents. This continues until the entire fruiting body has turned into black ink.


Grape Ferns

There are several species of Grape Ferns in the Northeast, all of which are true ferns, but they are not closely related to the plants we generally think of as ferns. Like other ferns, Grape Ferns do not have flowers; they reproduce with spores, not seeds. A single shoot divides into two blades – one of which is sterile and does the photosynthesizing, and one of which is fertile and bears spores. It is the resemblance of this plant’s clusters of spore cases to miniature clusters of grapes that gives this group of ferns its name. Cut-leaved Grape Fern, Botrychium dissectum, (in photograph) is one of the most common species of Grape Ferns in the Northeast. It’s roughly 6” to 8” tall, evergreen and has yellow spore cases and spores which are mature at this time of year.


Giant Puffball

This is the time for Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) to magically appear in fields and meadows overnight. Puffballs are different from most fungi, in that their spores are all contained within them, as opposed to being produced by gills under a cap. Giant Puffballs more than deserve their common and scientific names — they can reach a diameter of five feet and weigh up to 44 pounds! Some foragers do eat immature puffballs, but beware, as they closely resemble a poisonous mushroom at this stage, and once their spores mature, they can cause digestive distress. (Thanks to Knox & Harmony Farm for photo op.)


Liverworts

Liverworts, along with mosses and hornworts, are classified by botanists as bryophytes – non-flowering plants that lack vascular (conductive) tissue. It is possible, even likely, that liverworts were among the first plants to make the transition to life on land. Their appearance varies according to the stage in which you see them, but the plants we think of when we think of liverworts are very small (less than an inch in diameter and about 4 inches in length) and can be relatively flat, growing very close to the ground. Liverworts have two basic stages, the dominant one being the flattish, leaf-like gametophyte. It produces male sex organs (antheridia) which produce sperm and female organs (archegonia) which produce eggs. The stalked, fringed, palm tree-like structures in the photograph are egg-producing archegonia, and the stalked, lobed structures are antheridia. Both are less than an inch tall and are produced on the same plant (unlike 80% of liverwort species that produce their sex organs on separate plants). The sperm must reach an egg in order for fertilization to take place, and it usually does this by swimming through rain water or dew. Once fertilization occurs, the second stage of the plant, or sporophyte, develops. The sporophyte produces spores, some of which will grow into gametophytes and the cycle (called alternation of generations) will repeat itself.


Field Horsetail – Equisetum arvense

4-11-12  Field Horsetail – Equisetum arvense

Look for this perennial non-flowering plant by the side of the road, where its fertile stalks are starting to poke up through the soil.  A relative of ferns, horsetail reproduces by means of spores which are located in the cone-like structure at the tip of the fertile stalk.  The green, bristly vegetative stalks that give this plant its common name will soon appear. Horsetail’s use as an herbal remedy dates back to ancient Roman and Greek medicine. It was used traditionally to stop bleeding, heal ulcers and wounds, and treat tuberculosis and kidney problems. Because of the silica in this plant, horesetail is used today by organic farmers to rid soil of the effect of excess moisture that promotes the growth of fungi. Relatively recently horsetail has been suggested as a treatment for osteoporosis, also because of the silica it contains, a mineral needed for bone health. 

 


Naturally Curious wins National Outdoor Book Award

I am delighted to be able to tell you that this morning I learned that NATURALLY CURIOUS won the Nature Guidebook category of the 2011 National Outdoor Book Awards.  I’m honored and humbled by this recognition.   http://www.noba-web.org/books11.htm


Dog-tooth Lichen

 

Dog-tooth lichen (Peltigera canina) is often found growing on lawns and rocks.  Like all lichens, it consists of an alga or cyanobacterium and a fungus living together in a symbiotic relationship.  The fungus provides a structure for taking up moisture and nutrients; the alga or cyanobacterium is capable of photosynthesizing and producing food for both itself and the fungus.  The brown structures in the photograph are the fruiting (spore-producing) bodies of this lichen, and their resemblance to dog teeth gives this lichen its common name.  In the Middle Ages, dog-tooth lichen was used to treat rabies — it was felt at the time that this lichen’s resemblance to dog teeth indicated that it could cure dog-related ailments.


Running Clubmoss, Lycopodium clavatum

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Common clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum) is, like most clubmosses, small, evergreen and perennial. Some species of clubmosses resemble miniature pine and cedar trees, or giant mosses. Common clubmoss’s horizontal stem creeps along the forest floor, with upright stems arising from it.  This “fern ally” (related to but not a true fern) reproduces with spores, not seeds, that are found in cone-like structures called strobili located at the end of stalks, looking somewhat like a candelabra.  At this time of year, if you tap one of the strobili, you may see a yellow cloud of spores released into the air.