Saturday, October 1, 2011

Make Room for Mushrooms

Fungi are a great fall study.
[Originally published 2011 - posted to Simple Science Strategies Blog Carnival, September 2012 Edition]

On the news this morning, the weatherman said that we were 4 inches over our monthly average for rainfall, for September, and a whopping 20 inches over for the year, with the rainiest weather, and a chunk of snow, yet to come. No wonder I can't get my towels to dry!

The rain and our warmer than normal temperatures have produced an astonishing assortment of mushrooms, molds and other sorts of fungi and friends, and we've enjoyed greeting the newcomers each morning.

Here is a photocollage of our fall mushroom sitings, as well as some other creatures that are related to mushrooms, and some that aren't related at all! Come along...

Bracket and shelf fungi grow on dead trees.
Bracket (shelf) fungi are woody and tough, and grow on dead branches and tree trunks. Large ones, called artist conks, have a broad underside that darkens when etched with a sharp tool. They have been used as "palettes" by artists, because they dry and can be preserved indefinitely.

Bracket fungi are perennial -- you can observe growth rings in their flesh, especially on the larger ones. Individual specimens from 50-70 years of age have been collected. That's incredible!

Wayne's World has some great information on bracket fungi.

Indian-pipes are true plants.
If you are out on a mushroom hunt, you will probably spot these interesting specimens, called Indian-pipes. Although they look like fungi, they are actually true plants, but ones without any chlorophyll, the green pigment that allows plants to make their own food from sunlight. I have included them in this article, not just because they look like mushrooms, but because they depend on fungi to live.

Indian-pipes grown in woodland areas with a lot of dead and decaying leaves. However, unlike mushrooms and other fungi, Indian-pipes cannot digest the decaying leaves for food. And, as we already established, they cannot make their own food from carbon dioxide and sunlight. So the roots of the Indian-pipes grow on the mycelium (the hairy, underground "roots" of mushrooms) that live in harmony with the roots of some kinds of woodland trees (called mycorrhizal fungi). The fungus gets its food by digesting decaying plant materials, and the Indian-pipes siphon a little off for themselves. Ingenious!

Rare red form of Indian-pipes

We spotted a lot of Indian-pipes, but were thrilled to spot something I had never seen before -- a rare red variant of the Indian-pipes. I am not sure if it is localized, but there was a lot of it in the park where we hiked.

Indian-pipes turn black when they die back, but still look interesting.

Next time you are hiking in the late summer or early fall, look under pines, birches and other forest trees for these interesting, non-green plants.

Check out the great photos of Indian-pipes from Fairfax County Public School's website.

Mushroom that reminded me of shiitakes.

We spotted an interesting kind of fungus growing on the decaying trunk of a dead tree. It was not a bracket fungus, but a button type of mushroom. It reminded me very much of shiitake mushrooms.

Did you know that you can grow your own shiitake mushrooms, right in your back yard?  Shiitakes like to grow on wood, and all they really need is a wood pile and occasional watering. You can find lots of shiitake growing kits (minus the wood!) online, and can read more about how to grow shiitake mushrooms on the Mother Earth News website. This is actually on our list of things to try in our backyard (we have a beautiful saucer magnolia that creates too much shade for growing plants in one part of the yard, but would make a great mushroom shelter!). We'll keep you all posted!

We called this "The Puffball Stomp"
 Puffballs never cease to fascinate me. They come in all sizes, from the quarter-sized ones in the photo to the right, to ones the size of a dinner plate, as in the lead paragraphs of this article. My father-in-law used to collect larger ones when they were immature and still creamy white inside. He would slice them and saute them with butter (NOTE: We recommend hunting for mushrooms at your local supermarket, where it's safer!). When ripe, they develop a small pore on the top side, and discharge their spores by the billions when struck by raindrops, animals, or seven-year-old boys.

The world's largest puffball was spotted in England in 2010. Have a look!

Stinkhorns, the "back to school" mushroom!

We used to live in a house on a 2-acre wooded lot. Our driveway meandered between oaks to the road, where the two oldest boys would wait for the school bus. Every September, we would spot stinkhorns sprouting up alongside the driveway, as we stood waiting for the bus to take the boys to school. So, in my mind, I think of stinkhorns as the "back to school" mushroom. Weird, huh?

Stinkhorns begin their lives as a round ball, that resembles a potato that has been partially buried in the ground. By the next morning, the full stinkhorn has erupted forth from its papery sheath, and, by the next day, it has collapsed in a mushy heap. A far cry from the 50 years the bracket fungus hangs around!

Stinkhorns get their name from the nasty smell they exude, which smells like rotting meat, and which attracts flies and, especially, beetles, which distribute the spores.  Stinkhorns love to grow wherever you place woodchips as mulch.

The beginnings of a crop of stinkhorns.

The Mushroom Expert has some photographs of this incredibly diverse group of fungi. Despite their name (and their odor!), there are some truly beautiful members of this group. Check out the photos of the flies and other carrion eaters that are attracted to these malodorous fall fungi.

The end of the short life of a stinkhorn.

Wildman Steve Brill also has a great page on stinkhorns. Check it out. Believe it or not, people have tried eating these -- there are no known poisonous ones. However, they really do smell like something that you wouldn't want to eat, and they are covered with a slime when they emerge -- so I'm thinking Stop and Shop might be a better option...

Honey mushrooms

Honey mushrooms often are spotted growing in a ring that seems to spring up overnight. These rings of mushrooms have long been called "fairy rings," and are said to be the places where woodland sprites gathered the night before. In actuality, they sprout up in a ring because they grow on the decaying roots of a tree long since dead. They can form quite large rings in some places. There are many kinds of mushrooms that make "fairy rings."

Fairy Ring Folklore and Garden Fairy have more information about the origin of the folklore about fairy rings.

Actinomycetes, a fungus-like organism
There are things that grow in the soil that LOOK like fungi, but are not. When we were exploring for citronella ants last week, we discovered a beautiful specimen of actinomycetes, a fungus relative that grows like the mycelium of fungi, except does not typically produce what we might recognize as a "fruiting body," like a mushroom. Actinomycetes are the organism that is really responsible for decaying most woody plant material (in reality, fungi are not very good at this, but depend on actinomycetes to begin the job for them). These are also the microorganisms that let our noses know that it is going to rain. When the weather is damp, the organism grows rapidly, and produces that characteristic "rainy day" smell.

I just love the website How Stuff Works. Of course, it has an article on "What Causes the Smell After Rain?"  which gives some additional information about the biology of actinomycetes.


Okay, we just have to share this really gross but true biology story with you. My youngest son gets Ranger Rick magazine (a gift from Grandma). Whenever a new edition comes in the mail, he chooses that for his independent reading for homeschool. We were finishing our ant nature study last week, and had taken a bunch of photos of mushrooms for our mushroom study. So imagine our delight to find an article that combined the two. (But wait until you hear HOW)...

It appears that there is a kind of fungus, called Cordyceps, that grows in the tropics, that infects the brains of ants (and other insects). The infected ants become "possessed" by the fungus as it germinates and infects their brains, and they begin wandering, zombie-like, in search of a particular kind of plant, which the fungus needs to produce spores. With its last movement, it chomps down on a leaf of this plant, and becomes unable to move. What happens next is so bizarre, it is like something out of a horror movie.

As the ant sits paralyzed, the fungus produces its fruiting body, which erupts like a spike through the ant's head, spearing it to the leaf. The ant, now incapacitated, eventually dies. The fungus then produces spores, and starts the process all over again.

So virulent is this fungus, that ants who spot an ant "zombie" will quickly carry it far away from the colony, before the fungus can fruit and release its spores.

Isn't that gross?  But what a spooky "truth is stranger than fiction" story for your October science class... Check out this You Tube video to see Cordyceps in action...


On that note, tune in next week for a (hopefully) less gruesome study of the phases of the moon.