Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Knowing Your Trees

Lois Zerrer reviews Knowing the Trees: Discover the Forest From Seed to Snag by Ken Keffer.

I happened upon this book while perusing the “new arrivals” section of the Springfield Greene County Library. Being a self-proclaimed tree groupie, the title caught my eye. Thumbing through the book, it appeared to contain engaging information that might add to my knowledge of our trees.

After a brief introduction to the life cycle of the tree, the chapters are organized along the growth cycle of the tree – from seed and cone to the woody debris left behind at the end. Each chapter highlights interesting information comparing and contrasting different aspects of the life stage. For example, distinctions between types of seed, the purpose of cones, or how a stage supports wildlife are included. Also, anecdotes with unusual facts or stories are included to keep the reading light and entertaining. 

This is neither a scholarly work nor a primer. The author has done a good job of combining scientific substance with a style making it accessible to the lay reader. Along with scientific importance and ecological benefits, the author includes cultural references and some facts and details that “tree groupies” might not know. Some terminology that was new to me: 

  •  “doghair stands” – successional forests after old growth has been removed 
  • “krummholz” - the natural pruning process that occurs in the area between the subalpine and alpine zones which results in shrubby tree forms and branches that grow in the direction of the prevailing winds. 
  • “long leaf grass” - the seedlings of long leaf pine during their fire resistant growth phase 
  • Last but not least, the New York Stock Exchange was formed by an agreement signed under a sycamore tree in 1792. The Buttonwood Agreement was so called because the wood of sycamores was used at that time to make buttons. Author Ken Keffer is a naturalist and environmental educator. 

Knowing the Trees: Discover the Forest From Seed to Snag by Ken Keffer Illustrations by Emily Walker Copyright 2023 Mountaineers Books 

Editor's note:  It is available at the Library Center in Springfield.....after I return it.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Ode to a Hat-throwing Fungus

Pilobolus crystallinus

A special guest blog from our favorite mycologist, Dr. Mark Bower. But first read his poem, a paen in the Poop  to a fungus among-us.

 Fun with Da Dung Fungus

Searching for mushrooms is such a strain
As I sat for a while
To relieve the pain
I spot a brown pile

Lumpy it was and also quite stinky
Into the mass I stuck my pinky
As it happens, I shouldn’t have done that 
For I quickly found out it was a pile of scat

Mycelia feeding
But it’s had its fill
Time to throw hats
With the spores, if you will

Pow, pow, pow!
The sporangia explode! 

 Up to ten feet   
 The hats will be throw'd
 Out towards the sun 
 Soaring like a bird
 Hoping to land
 On another deer turd

Back to Mark's story:

I am always on the lookout for fuzzy poop, and was lucky to come upon this example at Bull Creek in September. I didn’t have my good camera with me, so the photos are of poor quality. Nevertheless, here is the story:
Pilobolus crystallinus, the hat-throwing fungus or dung cannon (seen in action here) is a decomposer of the dung of various mammals, in this particular case, whitetail deer. Its mycelium feeds on fresh dung. When the nutrients are depleted, or if conditions otherwise dictate, the fungus forms its spore-containing fruiting bodies (sporangia).

These sporangia consist of a fluid-filled globular structure sitting on a stalk. At the apex of the sporangium sits a black “hat” which encases the spores.

Sporangium- click to enlarge
Somehow, the fungal spores must find fresh dung in which to germinate. It has devised an ingenious method of doing so. The sporangium builds up hydrostatic pressure until it finally explodes, and “throws” the black "hat" spore case as far as ten feet. After landing on a blade of grass or a fresh leaf, it may possibly be devoured by a passing deer. If so, the spores will pass through the digestive tract of the deer, then be deposited in a fresh pile of scat. Spore germination occurs, and the cycle is complete.

But why does the hat-thrower go to such lengths to eject its spores? The reason for this is the following: deer, cattle and most mammals don’t like to browse near poop. By ejecting the spores far away, the probability of ingestion is increased. For the same reason, the fungal sporangia are phototropic, that is, the stalks orient themselves towards the sun. They only shoot their spores in the morning and evening when the sun is at an angle, which maximizes the distance they can achieve.

As if that isn’t weird enough:
Lungworms are parasites of various animals, and are commonly found in the lungs of deer. The adults can be as long as 3 inches. When the lungworms are ready to reproduce, they lay eggs in the lungs. When they hatch, the larvae infect the trachea and bronchi of the deer, causing a form of bronchitis. The deer cough up gobs of larva-containing phlegm and inevitably swallow some of it. The larvae are deposited in fresh dung where they feed and thrive. If the larvae are fortunate, the sporangia of Pilobolus will also be present in the dung. The larvae crawl up the stalk of the sporangium and curl up on the black spore case, awaiting lift off. As the spore case is ejected, the larvae get a free ride away from the dung pile. They are then ingested by a deer and enter the blood stream and lymphatics through the wall of the intestines. They then travel through the blood to be deposited in the lungs, to mature into the adult worms. These lungworms rely on Pilobolus to complete their life cycle. The fungus does not benefit and is not harmed by the association.

If you are ready for some more fungal-culture I would highly recommend this poem by Tom Volk.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Parasite of a Parasite

Honey mushroom

Mark Bower sent me these photos and facts which I have judiciously edited.

This honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea) can be found fruiting in large numbers at the base of hardwood trees in the Ozarks, exclusively in the fall (see photo). It is a parasite which attacks the roots and butt of the unfortunate tree. It also can spread under the bark of said tree or from tree to tree using rhizomorphs which look like tangled bootlaces.

Entoloma abortivum
Honey mushrooms aren’t the only parasites in the woods, however. The rather homely appearing mushroom to the right is called Entoloma abortivum. It ordinarily is a decomposing fungus of leaf litter. However, its mycelium are capable of parasitizing the honey mushroom, parasitizing another parasite. When it invades the honey mushroom, it grows into a distorted mess called shrimp of the woods (see photo).

"Shrimp of the woods"

Unbelievably, shrimp of the woods is considered a choice edible. Seriously? In addition to its homely appearance, it needs to be carefully identified to avoid poisoning by other lookalikes (as if there are others that are a less appalling / more appealing species.) As my mother used to say back in the 1940's, "There is no accounting for taste" said the woman as she kissed her cow!"

So now we have chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, shrimp of the woods and lobster mushrooms. What’s next? Mark has just identified this new species, the pig of the woods, Swinus silvae-bowerii.

Pig of the woods - Swinus arboritus bowerii

Editor's note: Actually, this is not a Missouri fungus.  Mark tells me this actually was Fistulina hepatica, the ox tongue fungus which he photographed in Tasmania. It was a young specimen and he added the features, like lipstick on a pig!