Friday, September 28, 2012


I have always loved puffballs.

I don't think there's "too old" to have fun making puffs of "smoke" come out of a puffball. So when I spotted this patch of puffballs growing at the edge of the parking lot, a little childhood thrill went through my heart.

Puffballs, one of my favorite fungi (Photo credit (c) 2012 Kim Bennett)

What's a Puffball?

Puffballs are mushrooms that are shaped like a somewhat round "egg", that release their spores through a pore at the top of the "egg," when mature. They are attached to the ground by mycelium, as are the gilled mushrooms.

Puffballs can be confused with the immature forms of other mushrooms. However, when you slice the mushroom in half, a puffball will just be flesh (if immature, like this giant puffball my little guy whacked open on a nature walk last year [top]), or will be a hollow sphere full of spores (if mature, like the ones in the bottom photo, below).

Immature puffballs have just creamy flesh inside (c) 2010, Kim M. Bennett
Mature puffballs are hollow "shells," with only spores inside. (c) 2012, Kim M. Bennett

In comparison, if you slice open another type of mushroom, the cross-section reveals the shape of the mushroom-to-come:

In this photo, you can see the "buds" of a new crop of stinkhorns, alongside one that is emerging. You can see that the "shell" is a leathery or papery sheath that encapsulates the stem and head of the stinkhorn (see the remnants of the shell in the stinkhorn to the left). What you can't see in the photo is that the shell is also full of a nasty gel -- not easily confused with the contents of the immature puffball, above.

Stinkhorn "eggs," in cross-section, reveal the stinkhorn within, encased in a gelatinous matrix. (c) 2011 Kim M. Bennett

Gilled mushrooms, as well, reveal the upcoming mushroom in cross-section, as an "outline" of the major veins of the fruiting body. The Mushroom Expert has a great photo of a poisonous Amanita in cross-section, showing the outline of the mushroom within the egg.

Why Call Them "Puffballs?"

Puffballs do not have gills -- they don't look like "toadstools" with a stem and a cap. In contrast, their spores develop inside the capsule of the puffball. When mature, it takes only a puff of wind, the tread of a creature, or (better yet) the taps of raindrops to release the spores into the air, emerging from the pore at the top.

Of course, little boys (and their moms) can also help...

(c) 2012, Kim M. Bennett

(c) 2012, Kim M. Bennett
(c) 2010, Kim M. Bennett

Studying Puffballs

Puffballs make a great study for "One Small Square" activities, as there's a lot going on in a small area (check out the photos, above). Because they develop quickly, you can revisit the same spot quickly, over the course of a couple of weeks, and see things changing (good for working with little ones who need quicker change). Our crop of puffballs emerged and matured within a few weeks' time. Even after they matured, the shells of the puffballs remained for a long time, and were fascinating to my 8-yr-old, who always managed to get a few more spores out of them!

[Submitted to the Simple Science Strategies September Blog Carnival, and the Outdoor Hour Challenge September Blog Carnival]

Stay Tuned...

My All-Season Indoors Kitchen Composter (fueled with bokashi) arrived! Stay tuned for a review of this product (from UncommonGoods) in a couple of weeks (I'm very excited -- anything to stretch the gardening theme into the fall and winter...).

The All-Seasons Indoor Composter, $48 from UncommonGoods

Nadene at Practical Pages shares a hollow log indoor garden, complete with little honey mushrooms, that one of her children created for a homeschool learning project -- see it at "Freedom Homeschool Brings."

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

The "One Small Square" Strategy: Mushrooms and Other "Fun Guys"

Mushrooms love the woodchips in my flower bed.
[Edited and re-blogged from "A Child's Garden," September 2011]

We originally completed this study last fall, but are re-posting this for the September Simple Science Strategies newsletter, because it made good use of the "One Small Square" Strategy, the focus strategy for Week 3 of the September Newsletter, and focused on mushrooms, the topic for Week 2!

We sure have had some wild weather here in New England at the end of the Summer of 2011. We have had so much rain that the crop of mushrooms sprouting up everywhere has been very interesting and incredible.

Fall, especially the Back to School time, is always a prime time to go mushroom exploring, with the warm days, cool nights and more frequent rain.  Also be on the look-out for mushroom cousins, the slime molds and actinomycetes, that you probably mistake for their more well-known family members. Here is a mushroom study that you can do for September.

Before You Go Outside:

    Tiny shelf fungi on a dead tree, Fenton-Ruby Park and Preserve.
  • Read up on mushrooms. The Handbook of Nature Study has a very thorough discussion of many of the types of fungi that you might see on an expedition, on pages 714-727. If you read a little further, you can learn about their indoor cousins, the bread molds (pp. 727-728).
  • The Handbook of Nature Study website has an Autumn Outdoor Hour Challenge on Mushrooms that has excellent links to videos, notebooking pages and other resources.
  • Gather materials you might need for a mushroom study: clipboards and pencils, hand lenses, a long plant tag or flag to mark your mushroom spot, plastic food service gloves.
  • Read Outdoor Hour Challenge #9: One Small Square for a description of how to carry out the observation activity. 
  • Prepare observation sheets for each child. 
  • Review routines: "How to Work With a Partner."
  • Teach safety rules about potentially poisonous plants.

Honey mushrooms in a shady flower bed.
Observing Mushrooms and Their Cousins:

A mushroom study lends itself well to a multiple-day observation, since the fruiting body of most fungi only remains for a few days, and changes considerably with time and the weather.

Step 1: Note the location of some fungi on a nature walk.

Some places to look include wood chipped areas of a school flower garden or playground, rotting logs, tree stumps, and places where a tree once stood. At this time of year, a whole crop can pop up literally overnight, so don't be discouraged if you don't see any on a particular day.

Be on the lookout for the little "buttons" of some mushrooms that look like tan bumps before they sprout up the next day.

Step 2: Use the One Small Square technique to sketch what you observe.

Step 3: Mark the location with a stick or "flag" so you can find it the next day.

Step 4: Return to sketch changes for the next few days, until the mushroom collapses.

Mushrooms change very quickly from day to day, which is exciting for kids. Note the weather each time you observe (that day's as well as the weather from previous days). These observation forms have a place to record the weather.

Each day you observe, ask the students some questions:
  • How did your mushroom change? Why do you think this happened?
  • What was the weather like the day before? How might that have affected the mushroom?
  • What type of weather do mushrooms prefer? If you don't know, how can you find out?
  • Where are the mushrooms growing? What is the ground like there? Are there any trees around? 
  • Do you see any insects around the mushroom? What are they doing?
  • Does your mushroom have a smell? (Make sure that children don't handle the mushrooms without wearing gloves, because some poisonous mushrooms resemble harmless ones.)
Classroom Follow-up: 

Study the Anatomy of a Mushroom --
  • Enchanted Learning has a diagram of a gilled mushroom that students can label, to learn the anatomy of one type of mushroom.
  • The Mushroom Lady has a pile of activities that will get your kids really studying mushrooms in-depth.
 Learn About Mushroom Relatives --
  • Here is a handy sheet of terms that you might want to study, so that you correctly distinguish between fungi, actinomycetes, slime molds and other fungus-like organisms.
Study Edible Mushrooms (and Eat Them!) --
  • Create a mushroom study station with stereoscopes and various edible mushrooms from your grocer's produce department: shiitake, oyster, portabella, white button, straw, crimini...
Fairy Rings, Faerie Houses and Other Literacy Connections --
  • Study the folklore surrounding fairy rings and faerie houses.
  • Build a faerie house (or two or 10...) along your school nature trail or in your backyard garden.
Faeries and other woodland creatures -- literacy connection!

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

September Wildflowers in Connecticut - Our Sock Walk

As part of our contribution to the September Simple Science Strategies Blog Carnival, my youngest son and I put on our socks (over our shoes, of course!) and headed out to document the steps to a great sock walk. Malik videotaped, and I shot photos, and the two of us are currently trying our hand at compiling these into a video -- no telling how long this will take, but we will be sure to post it for you!

Our sock walk was along the edges of a mixed grass meadow that had been recently harvested, and across the cut meadow to a wet area that the farmer had left uncut. I think this is important, because the kinds of plants we saw on our wildflower walk are either common meadow wildflowers, or noxious agricultural weeds.

Field bindweed, Convulvulus arvensis

Common Name: Field bindweed
Scientific Name: Convulvulus arvensis
Family: Convulvulaceae (the morning-glories)

Field bindweed, or wild morning-glory, has beautiful flowers, but is quite a noxious weed in farm fields, due to the fact that it seeds so mightily, and its vines can grow to 18 feet in a season, overrunning large areas very quickly.

On the plus side, it pulls heavy metal contaminants from soils, and has been used to clean up toxic waste sites in Spain.

Tall goldenrod, Solidago altissima
Common Name: Tall goldenrod
Scientific Name: Solidago altissima

Family: Asteraceae (Compositae)

There are over 100 different species of goldenrod in the United States, so we had a little challenge identifying goldenrod species.

Goldenrod reminds me of the wildflowers that used to grow along the edge of the railroad tracks behind my house when I was little. Goldenrod makes a deep-colored, strong-
flavored honey.

Annual fleabane, Erigeron annuus

Common Name:
Annual fleabane
Scientific Name: Erigeron annuus
Family: Asteraceae (Compositae)

Fleabane, like goldenrod, has many different native species in the United States. You can tell them apart by the arrangement of the flower heads, and their overall habit, or use this online site for identifying fleabanes. Like other asters, fleabane is a great plant for attracting butterflies, as the adults feed off the nectar in this late-blooming flower, and the larvae find the leaves tasty.

Like most asters, this is a late-summer to fall-blooming plant, and provides much-needed food for butterflies and bees as the summer wanes.

Common milkweed, Asclepius syriaca
Common Name: Common milkweed
Scientific Name: Asclepius syriaca
Family: Asclepiadaceae

I love milkweed  (read a childhood story about milkweed here). It gets its common name from the milky sap that oozes from cut stems. Milkweed (along with other species in this family) is one of the favorite all-time foods of the monarch butterfly, with adults enjoying the nectar from the beautiful purple flower heads, and the larvae devouring the leaves.  

Find sources of milkweed seed here.

Rough-stemmed goldenrod, Solidago rugosa
Common Name: Rough-stemmed goldenrod
Scientific Name: Solidago rugosa ssp. rugosa
Family: Asteraceae (Compositae)

Side by side in the same hedgerow, I think we can find five or six different goldenrod species. Here is another representative from our sock walk this month.

Goldenrod has long been used as a source of natural plant dyes, creating a warm yellow color in natural fibers.

Oriental bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus

Common Name: Oriental bittersweet
Scientific Name: Celastrus orbiculatus
Family: Celastraceae

Bittersweet is one of those plants that people either love or hate. That is because there are actually two species that you find in New England: one is a wonderful, harmless native plant, and the other is an introduced species that has become quite a noxious weed, especially in hedgerows and reclaimed fields.

It is a perennial vine, but the bright red seeds that are exposed when the yellow or orange shell cracks open are loved by birds, and I think every one germinates, especially if it lands in recently tilled soil.

It is sometimes hard to identify the two bittersweets.  

White clover, Trifolium repens
Common Name: White clover
Scientific Name: Trifolium repens
Family: Fabaceae (Leguminosae)

White clover is another wildflower and meadow flower loved by autumn bees, and it makes a clear yellow honey much milder in taste than the deep-amber honey of the goldenrods.

Clovers  and other legumes are a common addition to forage mixes, and used to be added to grass seed for its ability to fix nitrogen.

Red clover, Trifolium pratense

Common Name: Red clover
Scientific Name: Trifolium pratense
Family: Fabaceae (Leguminosae)

Red clover, like the other clovers, is loved by bees and a common type of autumn honey. If you go to your local farmer's market or orchard to pick apples, you'll likely find a variety of honeys for sale: goldenrod, white and/or  red clover, and mixed wildflower honey are common. You might also find tupelo or other types of honey, depending on the plants available near the hives.

Some folks like to plant fields and other areas not easy to plant, with legumes, such as the clovers. They provide a source of food for bees, butterflies and other wildlife, produce color in an otherwise barren site, and improve the soil.

Meadow evening-primrose, Oenothera pilosella
Common Name: Meadow evening-primrose
Scientific Name: Oenothera pilosella
Family: Onagraceae

Like many of the other wildflowers in this article, there are many (over 120) different species of evening-primrose in North America.

The name, "evening-primrose," is hyphenated, because this plant is not a true primrose, the genus of which would be Primula. Evening-primroses get their common name from their flowering habit: the flowers close during the day, and open up in the late afternoon and early evening hours.

Some evening-primroses have a nice red-purple fall color, as this specimen from our sock walk.

Lanceleaf plantain, Plantago lanceolata

Common Name: Lanceleaf plantain
Scientific Name: Plantago lanceolata
Family: Plantaginaceae

When my eldest son was a little boy, he used to make elaborate cities in the garden, with building made out of sticks and rocks, and roadways for his Matchbox cars. He used to pluck the fruits off the seed heads of plantains, and fill a tiny trailer full of them, pretending they were ears of corn for the market. Too clever!
Plantains are good food to attract butterfly larvae to your garden.

Bishop's flower, Ammi majus
Common Name: Bishop's flower
Scientific Name: Ammi majus
Family: Apiaceae

Queen Anne's lace is a beautiful roadside wildflower. Unfortunately, people who have loved it enough to try to plant it in their yards have often regretted it. This highly invasive species will come up in farm field, flower bed, lawn or anywhere else with soil. Its tap root makes it difficult to rogue out.

Fortunately, there is an annual relative, Bishop's flower, that gives the same affect, seeds enough to establish as a wildflower, but not so much as to invade your entire yard.

Queen Anne's lace is useful for many homespun projects.

Common Name: Poison ivy
Poison ivy, Rhus radicans
Scientific Name: Rhus radicans
Family: Anacardiaceae

We recently went for a walk in the farm pasture, about two weeks after the hay had been cut. We were appalled at the very hearty crop of poison ivy that was coming up over the entire field!

Poison ivy spends most of its life as a vine, but, once mature, forms a shrub, and the birds just love its berries. Hence, the great poison ivy crop in a farm field. The leaves are brilliant red in the fall.

Poison ivy has many poisonous relatives.

Common ragweed, Ambrosia artemisifolia
Common Name: Common ragweed
Scientific Name: Ambrosia artemisifolia
Family: Asteraceae

I come from a long line of hayfever sufferers. Most of us chug through the entire year until about August 20 (here in the Northeast), when we all, suddenly, take ill. This corresponds, within days, to the start of the bloom period for this wildflower, one of the ragweeds. Common ragweed is one of the most common reasons for fall hayfever and allergies.

Big-leaf aster, Eurybia macrophylla

Common Name: Big-leaf aster
Scientific Name: Eurybia macrophylla
Family: Asteraceae (Compositae)

The wild asters are some of my favorite late-summer and early fall wildflowers. Like the garden asters, these bloom all summer, but really show their stuff at the end of the year, when other flowers have given up for the season. For this reason, I rarely rogue them out of my flower beds when they come up: rather, I selectively pull ones that stray from the group, and leave them as fall interest.

We collected a lot of different kinds of plant materials from our socks after our sock walk, including some seeds which we couldn't identify.  We decided to plant one sock (from each pair), but I regret to inform you that the intense rains we had from the remnants of Hurricane Isaac flooded our seed trays. This was great for birdbaths and water dishes for our cats when they didn't feel like coming inside. But it wasn't so great for a follow-up investigation. Better results next time, maybe?

Our investigation...

Oh, well...
That's okay... muddy water always tastes better, says Rosie.

We had a great time with tie dye this summer, using a commercial dye kit. But we have really wanted to try our hand at some natural dyes made from plant materials. Perhaps that will be our next tie dye project? Stay tuned...