Thursday, March 31, 2011

Scarlet Cup and Black Knot

Sarcoscypha sp
Apiosporina morbusa
I think you can tell which is the Scarlet Cup and which is the Black Knot.

These two funguses are members of the fungal phylum Ascomycota.  There are many member of the Ascomycota that are well known and common in our lives.  Morels and truffles are some famous edible ones.  Apple scab, ergot, and powdery mildews are diseases on plants important to us.  Penicillium is an Ascomycota.  And many of the lichen forming fungi are in this group.  But most, in general,  are not well known to us.

All Ascomycota share a common feature called an ascus.  An ascus is the microscopic structure that produces spores.  An ascus is describes as sac-like and the spores are produces internally This is in contrast to the Basidiomycota, i.e. gilled mushrooms, where the spores are produces externally on a club-like structure called the basidia (as for the other fungal phyla I don't know, or what they are, and can't say I've ever met one in person).  On a Scarlet Cup, the asci are on the upper, bright red surface of the fungus.  As far as I know, asci are found on the whole surface of a Black Knot.

Scarlet Cup Sacroscypha dudleyi and S. austriaca grows on buried or fallen hardwood sticks and branches.  It is a saprobe (decomposer).  I notice it in Minnesota in late March and early April, around the time we tap maple trees at Westwood.  You need a microscope to distinguish between the two species. 

Black Knot, Apiosporina morbusa, is a disease of cherry and plum trees (Prunus spp).  It can be fatal (to the tree).  My friend and fellow naturalist, Amy identified it for me.  I searched the internet using phrases like "black lump an twig", but didn't find a match.  I've notice it a lot the past few weeks.  It's harder to see when there are leaves on the trees. 

I knew the Scarlet Cup was an Ascomycota before writing this, and I suspected Black Knot was too (call it fungal intuition).  Initially I thought about how cool it was that two very different looking organsims were in the same taxonomic group (I was thinking about other cool stuff too, like . . .).  But then I realized that the taxonomic level of phylum is pretty broad.  As a comparison, humans (us) are in the phylum Chordata, but so are birds, reptiles, fish, and anything else with a backbone (and so are lancelets and trunicates, whatever they are).  And even though many of us have been compared to the above groups (I believe a high school economics teacher called me a trunicate after I skipped his class for a few months), the differences are probably greater than the similarities. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Silver Maple Flower

Here's a picture of a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) flower that was on the ground at Islands of Peace Regional Park.  Silver Maples flower before they leaf out, and they flower very early.  You may be surprised to learn the Silver Maples flower, since the flowers are so small and they emerge so early in the year (that's snow in the background).  But Silver Maples are Angiosperms, or flowering plants.  Most plants are Angiosperms.  There are plants that don't flower, such as mosses, ferns, and conifers (not a complete list).  But most plants that are noticeable, or that you call a plant or a tree, do flower, even if you don't notice the flower.  I notice Silver Maple Flowers for a number of reasons.  First, they are one of the first spots of color in Minnesota's white and brown winter to spring transition.  Second, because we have a big Silver Maple in our front yard, and Silver Maples are brittle trees that drop a lot of their flowers (and twigs and branches), I find a lot of flowers on the ground.  Third, they produce a lot of flowers that fall on our roof, that then roll down to clog up our gutters.

(skip to the last paragraph if you'd like to avoid a technical discussion of flowers)

Flowers can be either female (pisitillate), male (staminate), or both (bisexual).  Bisexual flowers are bisexual plants.  But plants that have separate female and male flowers are either:

  • Monoecious, the plant in question has separate female AND male flowers on the same plant, or
  • Dioecious, the plant in question has only female, OR only male flowers. 

Except for the exceptions, like the Silver Maple, and many others (plants are like that).  Silver Maples are:

  • Polygamo-dioecious,  one tree usually has only female flowers OR male flowers, but sometimes a Silver Maple will have more of one type of flower, and only a few of the other (i.e many female flowers, and a few male flowers).  And they occasionally may have some bisexual flowers.

I've never been able to keep the terms monoecious and dioecious straight.  Though I can seem to remember the meaning of more esoteric terms like cyme, strigose, or farinaceous (spell check liked that sentance).  Anyway . . .

. . . I hope you get a chance to enjoy some Silver Maple flowers, especially if spring has been delayed as it has been in Minnesota.  And I plan to take some more pictures of Silver Maple flowers in the next few weeks, to see how they grow and develop, and to admire some early spring color.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Little Brown Mushrooms #2

The phrase "Little Brown Mushroom" doesn't mean much other than the obvious.  It doesn't tell you much about the mushroom, nothing about it's habitat preferences or it's ecological role, it doesn't give you any taxonomic information, or whether it's edible or poisonous.  It sort of means I've seen a mushroom that's small, drab, and I don't want to take the time to learn much more about it.  However, there seems to be an abundance of LBMs in the world.  Why so many mushrooms that are little and brown?  Someone looking at the question from an evolutionary perspective might wonder what advantages there are to being a small, brown, and overlooked mushroom.  Maybe it's just that you can more easily avoid being eaten by (small, brown and hungry) fungivores.  From a more spiritual perspective, one might wonder why the creator (etc) has a fondness for the small and brown.  Whatever the reason, LBMs are everywhere, and yes they are important, quietly and inconspicuously doing the work of decomposing, parasitizing, or mycorrhizalling the world.

I think they are great, partly for the reason that they are everywhere and not many people look at them, partly because it's a fun challenge to try to ID them (I know how to have a good time), and partly because some them are really interesting, even if you don't care about mushrooms.  LBMs have a lot going against them as far as popularity contests go:

  • Little is not generally admired; maybe if they were SSBM, Super-sized Brown Mushrooms, they'd get more attention.
  • Brown is not one of most people's favorite colors.
  • Mushrooms (at least in this country) are feared and reviled.   
    But below I present four LBMs that I think could interest even the most Big-admiring, Colorful-loving , Mushroom-hating individual around (maybe)

    Marasmius oreades

    • It's edible (rated good to delectably delicious by various sources). 
    • It grows in fairy rings, which evokes mystery and fantasy.
    • It can dry out and then completely revive after re-wetting, even producing spores again. 

      Galerina marginata

      • It's poisonous.
      • Deadly poisonous.
      • One of the most poisonous mushrooms you can find.

        Pislocybe cubensis 

        • It's hallucinogenic.
        • It's used by some to commune with the divine.
        • It's used by some others for "recreation" (or to simulate, imitate, or pretend to commune with the divine).
        And finally . . .

        Panaeolus foenisecii 

        • It's small.
        • It's brown.
        • It's a mushroom.
        It grows every summer around the swing set in our backyard.  We call it the "Lawn Mower's Mushroom", the common name given in the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to Mushrooms by Gary Lincoff.  It's small.  It's ubiquitous.  It's sort of a friend.  And it has a role to play.

        As you may have noticed, there's no picture of it; it's because you have probably never noticed or heard of this mushroom.

        By the way, the mushrooms in these pictures have been painted with a complete disregard towards accuracy and detail.  They are the based on the product of an afternoon drawing with my five year old daughter Naomi and were done entirely for the sake of fun and imagination.

        Some LBMs and a puffball at sunset, by Naomi Feinberg (yes, she knows what a LBM is).

        Thursday, March 17, 2011

        Fallen Oak Branch with Lichens

        Two pictures of lichens (and some moss) growing on a fallen oak branch.  I opened up my copy of Lichens of North America that my parents gave to me one birthday a few years back.  I intended to start learning how to ID lichens, but like every time I open the book I read a little, glaze over and end up just looking at the great lichens photos (which isn't a bad thing). 

        Lichens are everywhere, very much overlooked and under appreciated.  Look out for them on your next walk around your neighborhood.  See how many you can find.  See how many colors, textures and patterns you can find.  They are so often overlooked, but so rich to one who stops to notice and who can appreciate.

        Wednesday, March 16, 2011


        Here are some conks growing on a Basswood tree at Westwood.  Conk is a generic term for any tough, woody, shelf-like or stemless mushroom growing on a tree or log.  Conks are typically members of the Polyporaceae, or polypore mushrooms.  Polypores have pores instead of gills.  There are no rules or exact definitions for what makes a mushroom a conk or not, it just describes the look (sort of like a toad is a bumpy frog that hops instead of jumps).

        Below are a few smaller mushrooms I found growing on a log.

        I wouldn't call these conks.  They are on the paper side of woody.  My generic term of choice would be shelf fungus.

        On the same log I found another group of mushrooms.

        These I definitely wouldn't call conks.  They are too fleshy, and you can see in the top mushroom, they have gills.  I would call these little brown mushrooms!

        Back to the first mushrooms.  I plan on revisiting them throughout the year to see if they grow.  Some conks are perennial fruiting bodies that continue to grow every year and you can sometimes see rings that indicate this growth, like in a tree.

        I've said nothing as to these mushrooms actual identity.  The names I've used (conk, shelf fungus, little brown mushroom) really tell us nothing other than a vague description of their appearance.  I don't know what they are, I was looking at them in a more aesthetic frame of mind.

        Saturday, March 12, 2011

        Moss Watching

        It's another chilly day.  I'm looking forward to some warm and sunny days. 

        More on moss and some of my favorite places to go moss watching in Minnesota in a future blog.

        Tuesday, March 8, 2011

        Little Brown Mushrooms #1

        Can you guess which of the above four mushrooms is the poisonous one (answer immediately below)?

        Answer:  There is no way you can successfully guess, intuit, or speculate about a mushroom's edibility.  There are no tricks that reliably tell you if a particular mushroom is poisonous (i.e. heating a poisonous mushrooms and stirring it with a silver spoon will turn the spoon black).  Each mushroom has to be studied on a case by care basis until you're certain of it's identification.  You have to observe carefully and do your homework!  So you can learn them, but you can't guess (and you can't learn them by looking at a few pictures on the internet). 

        So I don't know which of the above four is the poisonous one, because in this case I didn't carefully observe the mushroom or do my homework (ok, honestly they are from my imagination).  But the litlle ones on the lower left do look awfully suspicious . . .

        So can you touch poisonous mushrooms without getting poisoned (or can you touch unidentified mushrooms without worrying about getting poisoned)?

        Yes you can touch them; no mushrooms causes poisoning by touching them.  you have to ingest them.

        However, that being said, you probably shouldn't touch unknown mushrooms and then put your fingers in your mouth, or let those that are prone to putting their fingers in their mouths touch unknown mushrooms, like little kids.

        However, that being said, last year, me and my two daughters, three and five years old, often picked mushrooms on hikes and on walks around the neighborhood (we got some interesting looks from people passing by who saw them with mushrooms, and saw their excitement with the mushrooms they had found).

        However, that being said, I've done my homework, and I am familiar with many poisonous mushrooms, and decide on a case by case basis if they can touch or pick.  If I'm not sure, they don't touch it.  The rule is that they don't touch a mushroom unless dad says it is OK.  It might be over cautious, but they do put their fingers in their mouths at times.

        And finally, there are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.

        Monday, March 7, 2011

        A Walk at Crosby Farm

        I went bird watching at Crosby Farm this morning.  I didn't see many birds, but it was a relatively mild March morning, with fresh snow on the ground.  I walked for about two hours and didn't see another person, which is amazing given that both downtown St Paul and Minneapolis are minutes away, and Crosby Farm is bordered on one side by an interstate.

        A Cottonwood with a big crack in the base caught my attention.

        I looked inside and found the following mushrooms.

        These mushrooms are probably a kind of polypore, a mushroom with pores under the cap, instead of the more familiar gills.  There are a lot of different kinds of polypores, but they can hard they can be hard to ID (like most mushrooms really).  Here's a discussion on polypore ID from Tom Volk's website (a favorite of mine), and another one from Michael Kuo's Mushroom Expert website (another favorite)

        Here's another picture "looking" up into the hollow space of the tree (I couldn't fit, I just held the camera and pointed up).
        The white area is probably a spot where a fungus that degrades lignin has been at work, leaving behind white cellulose (maybe the fungus I was looking at).  Lignin and cellulose are both components of wood.  Lignin is only degraded (or "eaten") by a few groups of organisms; bacteria (they can do anything, can't they), fungus (polypores being a big one), and possibly some insects (but possibly only with the help of bacteria or fungus in their gut).  The mushroom that we see is just a part of the organism, with most of the fungus doing the work of living inside of rotten wood, living trees, in the ground, etc.  In a way, I'm surprised that there aren't more groups of organisms that can break down the various components  of wood, given how widespread trees are, but maybe that has something to do with the fact that trees are so widespread.  But luckily (or whatever) there are bacteria, fungus, and maybe insects that can do it; they recycle nutrients into the soil, play a role in the carbon cycle, and contribute to the beauty of our world (I like rotten logs).

        Anyway, here are a couple more photos of the rotten life of this tree

        Now go forth and enjoy your own rotten tree!

        Sunday, March 6, 2011

        Chestnut-marked Pondweed Moth

        Chestnut-marked Pondweed Moth Parapoynx badiusalis
        A long name for something so small.  Its wingspan is only about 20 mm.  But fairly common at certain times in the summer at Westwood (if you choose to look).  I've seen these moths for years, but only last summer took the time to try to ID.

        The caterpillars of this moth are aquatic.  They eat pondweed (not seaweed, as I hear most kids refer to green stuff in the pond),specifically members of the genus Potamogetan.

        Potamogetans are commonly known as pondweeds, but not all plants we generally call "pondweed" are Potamogetans.  At Westwood the kind of pondweed growing in the lake is called Sago Pondweed, P. pectinatus.

        Something we don't notice eating something else we don't notice.

        But actually Sago Pondweed is more than some green stuff floating in the water, or a little moth caterpillar's lunch, it's extremely important to waterfowl.  All parts of the plant are eaten by various waterfowl.  It's so important, that the migration pathways of some ducks follow large bodies of water that contain plentiful Sago Pondweed.  Click here more information about Sago Pondweed.

        There are a number of different Potamogeton species in MN.  One of them, the Curly-leaf Pondweed is an invasive.  As I was reading about pondweeds I found a very unhelpful picture.  My sketched version is to the right.  I wonder if the Chestnut-marked Pondweed moth eats this nonnative Potamogeton?

        Below are two more sketches,

        Sago Pndweed

        Chestnut-marked Pondweed Moth