Sometime over the winter, a tree fell in the woods (no, I’m not going there) across the main pathway from the house to the dogs’ favorite walk around the access road. All spring the dogs and I have hopped over it. Around a week ago we headed out for our walk and came upon what I thought was an astonishing sight — one end of the fallen tree had sprouted a white fungus that resembled flower petals on steroids. Within days, the enormous bulbous blooms wizzled into a brown gooey-looking mess that seems like it would be as sticky as caramelized sugar if touched. I chose not to.
Fungi are all around us. When I was in high school and did a little mountain climbing with a few other people, one of our party used to choose a couple strategically shaped shelf-like mushrooms — tan on one side, white on the flat side — off the side of a tree on the trail, let them dry out a little and then use a wood burning tool to burn the mountain name and date we climbed it.
In a very wet late spring, the kind anyone with horses hates to see knowing how difficult it will be to make hay, fungus of a wide variety sprout in our woods. Small button mushrooms, large deadly Amanitas or Amanita-mimicking fungus, low-to-the ground fungi — the number of fungi I’ve seen on walks just in our woods is astonishing. They seem to appear out of nowhere, dormant spores cast off from the fins on the underside of a mushroom cap biding their time in the soil and then immediately making use of their damp good fortune.
One of my favorite “fungus” is the matchstick, Cladonia cristatella, which is technically both a lichen and a fungus living together. You will readily find clumps of these growing on the tops of rocks or old stumps. According to several sources online, the “stem” is a lichen and the red head of the “match” is a fungus. The lichen stem provides a place for the fungus head to live and the fungus in turn provides the lichen with food. A nice little win-win situation found throughout the natural world.
Another of my favorites — and another lichen/fungus relationship — is the lovely little Indian Pipe. Like the black and white warbler, this was an early identification success in my youth that brought me great satisfaction and inspiration. I was amazed by this little cutie popping up from under the leaves throughout the forest floor (watch for them any time now). It’s the kind of sighting that makes you think you must be the only person in the world to have seen it only to find that it is all over the identification books and on websites. Although at first that seems disappointing, ultimately I am always happy that it means one can glean a lot of information.
Despite its paleness, the Indian Pipe is not a fungus but actually a flower — a flower lacking chlorophyll that causes green color. Chlorophyll not only makes a plant green but it is the necessary ingredient for a plant to make its own food, a process we learned about in grade school biology called photosynthesis. So how does the little Indian Pipe flower get food? Through a symbiotic relationship, says an article on the Bedford (NY) Audubon website, with, yup, our friend the fungus. “The fungus forms a connection with both Indian pipe and with nearby trees and transfers some of the photosynthate [a product of photosynthesis] it derives from the tree roots to the Indian pipe.” Even more fascinating, the site says that these plants were once called “saprophytes,” believed to have gotten their nutrients from the forest floor; once experiments that proved the uptake of nutrients from fungi were conducted, the term “saprophyte” was actually retired.
Lastly, this fascinating little plant with its drooping single stem/single flower and no leaves (which apparently you don’t need if you have no chlorphyll) gets pollinated in some way still not known for sure and then turns black and raises its little flower straight up to the sky. A busy season even for a flower and fungus!
My last column on moths received a surprisingly large response. One reader wanted to make sure everyone who is interested in moths knows that July 19-27 is National (in fact, international) Moth Week — who knew? Go to nationalmothweek.org for all sorts of cool information about moths and moth events.
I would also like to reiterate Nature Talks columnist Stacy Cole’s promotion of the interesting NH Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program where the state matches private donations to support nongame species programs and management. With the state fiscal year ending June 30, you still have a couple days to donate for the current fiscal year. They are not set up to accept donations online but if you go to wildlife.state.nh.us and click on the “donate to the nongame program” button, you will come to a page to print out and send in your tax-deductible donation. This program is worth checking out whether you donate this fiscal year, next, or not at all.
Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.