Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Cultured Fungus: Fungi in D & D

I'm planning to do "The Cultured Fungus" as a semi-regular feature.  I'm not referring to fungus in a petri dish, but fungi in culture, such as depictions of mushrooms in paintings, or references found in literature, or even the role of fungi in rituals and ceremonies.  But it won't be restricted to the more sophisticated and intellectual aspects of culture, but will contain plenty of material drawn from popular culture: cartoons, rock-n-roll, advertising, and even . . .Dungeons and Dragons.

If you don't know what Dungeons and Dragons is, too bad, you'll have to read someone else's blog.  It's sort the game that lead to the current gaming culture.  I'm pretty much clueless about modern gaming and video games in general, but I did play D & D as a youth.  To be honest, I think it had some positive effects on my development such as . . . well . . . like . . .  I know lots of big words now (hey, I knew what the word "charisma" meant in the 5th grade or something - even though I had zero of it), it led to more worldly outlook by becoming familiar with various mythologies (I totally understood "Clash of the Titans", the first one), and, um, other stuff too.

Anyway, mushrooms and fungi did haven't a huge role in D & D, but it showed up here and there.  Below are the instances I remember.

Whoa,  check out the cover of this D & D adventure module!  Gladiator dudes fighting evil mushroom men!  No wait, they were escaped slaves battling lawful neutral mushrooms guys.  I guess don't really remember what it was all about, but this picture is totally cool.

Below, a couple more pictures of myconids that I came across online and that I vaguely remember.

Visit the AD&D online Monster Manual for more detailed information.  Though the idea of a race of intelligent, peaceful (though misunderstood by most humanoids) fungus beings is pretty awesome, there are a few things about their actual execution in the game that sort of bother me; the creators of the myconids sort of got their facts mixed up.  Ok, I know that Myconids are part of a fantasy game, and that most of it probably isn't real anyway, but some of the details of their existence just don't work for me, such as:

  • They are described as having a honeybee like cast system, with different duties assumed as the myconid ages.  They also have a king, though unlike the honeybee queen, he doesn't seem to be the only one responsible for reproduction.
  • Spores aren't used only for dispersing, they are also used for communication, defense, and in the semi-religous melding ceremony.
  • They farm fungi.  There certainly are species of fungi which grow on other types of fungi, either as parasites or as decomposer.  But for a race of peaceful, communal fungus beings I'd think they would have a more mycorrhizal society, promoting the well-being and harmony of the forest, or cultivating conditions for the creation of woody decay.
  • And what bothers me the most, they are classified as plants!  There's nothing plant-like about them!
Onwards with the survey of fungi in D & D. 

Here's another cover from an adventure module featuring mushrooms and stuff.  I remember absolutely nothing about it except the cover.

An older version of the same adventure, before my time.  Cooler picture I think.  It leaves a little more to the imagination and depicts a better sense of adventure in my mind

There were also a handful of monsters that had more of a slime mold or amoeboid like disposition in the game.  So strictly speaking, they aren't fungus, but I suppose some myco-wizard in the game would study or cultivate them.

They were harmful in a variety of ways that seemed involved some combination of paralysis, engulfing, poisoning, and eventual digestion.  The ones that I remember are Green Slime, Grey Ooze, Black Pudding and Ochre Jelly (and I'm still not really sure what color ochre is).

I found the following pictures of these creatures online, but I recognize them from when I played.

D & D lives on, though my involvement with the game ended sometime in the mid to late eighties.  I imagine it's changed a lot and it has probably added a slew of new fungoid monsters and adventures.  Maybe someday I'll do the research, but I have other cultured fungus topics in mind that I need to make time for.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Little Brown Mushroom Watcher is on Facebook

I've created a Facebook page to go along with the Little Brown Mushroom Watcher blog.  It's called Distracted Naturalist.  I'll be sharing all my blog posts to the Distracted Naturalist facebook page, so you can follow (or ignore) either one.  I also plan on offering some prints for sale (see An Apple Book for Preschool post), and "Do Not Step on the Mushrooms!" shirts and will make their availability known through facebook.  I also take a lot of pictures and have lots super insightful thoughts while wandering around, so the facebook page will allow me to share these - since I usually get distracted by something shiny (or small and brown), and the thought is lost forever . . . or later on I wonder why I took 42 pictures of a twig.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Turkey Tails

Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Turkey Tail Day!

I'm not really a big fan of thanksgiving or eating turkey, but I am a fan of turkey tail mushrooms and thankful that they can usually be found when it's to cold for other mushrooms, since the fruiting bodies tend to be more durable then those of other mushrooms.  So consider this the first ever, thematically appropriate, holiday edition of the Distracted Naturalist blog (but don't expect anything for xmas!).

The name turkey tail can refer to any mushroom with the following features:
  • shape is semi-circular, fan shaped or similar, and with no stem
  • thin and tough
  • concentric zones of color
  • inhabits wood
The different species that might go by the name turkey tail are not necessarily closely related, belonging to a few different families and even between two fungus orders (Polyporales and Russulales).  Turkey Tail also specifically refers to the fungus Trametes versicolor, considered the "true" turkey tail.

Telling the different species apart isn't easy at first, since they all share the same general appearance and habitat, and many of the features are variable within a species.  The best place to start is by looking at the color and texture of the lower surface.

Below, I offer pictures of a variety of fungi that could go by the name turkey tail.  You could probably find these on a thanksgiving walk in the woods.  And at the end of the post (for no extra charge) is a handy, quick reference ID chart to bring with you!

Turkey Tail - Trametes versicolor

The true turkey tail.  It seems to frequently grow in a rosette pattern as in the first picture.

"Downy" Turkey Tail - T. pubescens

I almost didn't include this one, it's a little on the thick side and doesn't show any color zones.  But it's got a little fuzzy "mustache" on the upper surface, which is cool, and it's in the same genus as the true Turkey Tail so here it is.  Not pictured is T. hirsute, but it is listed in the reference chart below.  It's supposed to have a hairier cap.

Mossy Maze Polypore - Cerrena unicolor

Despite the name it's usually covered in algae, not moss.  Some of these other species can show green coloration too.  The pores often erode away to a tooth-like or maze-like pattern.

Thin-maze Polypore - Daealeopsis sp

The underside looks like gills, but they are not, they are actually pores.  The pores develop into a maze-like pattern.  Sort of confusing - I imagine the pores would be more visible when viewed under magnification.  Lenzites betulina (not pictured but listed below) is supposed to be even more gill-like in appearance.

Violet-toothed Polypore - Trichaptum sp.

I played with the color to get the teeth a little more violet colored.  It looses this distinctive color as it ages.

False Turkey Tail - Steruem ostrea

I happened to have a lot of pictures of this mushroom so I included three of the upper surface to show how much variability there is in color.  The last picture shows the smooth under surface.  This fungus and the next are parchment fungi in the order Russulales, where as the rest are polypores in the Polyporales.  Interesting how these two different groups of fungus developed similar habits and forms.  I wonder if they decompose the same part of the wood.

Crowded Parchment - Steruem sp

Three (or more?) species that are very similar.  Sometimes they just develop mostly affixed to the branch or log.  Some of them "bleed" a red fluid.

As previously noted, there are some mushrooms on the ID chart below, that aren't pictured above.  An explanation of the chart follows.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Recent Mushrooms - November 2013

I found all of these mushrooms at John A Latsch state park.

Mossy Maze Polypore - Cerrena unicolor

Coral-pink Merulius - Phlebia incarnata 

Pictured with False Turkey Tail, Sterium ostrea, which Coral-pink Merulius often grows with.  It's sort of strange looking at this stage, but from other pictures I've seen, it'll grow and expand into more of a typical polypore shelf-shape

Trembling Merulius - Phlebia tremellosus

Resinous Polypore - Ischnoderma resinosum?

This mushroom is often pictured with a white margin, and dark-colored droplets on the pore surface.  The droplets are only present when the mushroom is fresh, and I think the white margin must darken with age.  It's pretty soft for a polypore, almost in a cuddly sort of way.

Pear-shaped Puffball - Morganella pyriforme

One of the few puffballs that grows on wood.

Little Brown Mushrooms

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Black Spots on Silver Maple Leaves

Known as Tar Spots, these black splotches on the leaves of Silver Maples are caused the fungus Rhytisma acerinum.  The fungus doesn't affect the overall health of the tree.
The black spots are the spore producing structures of the fungus, and are only seen in the fall.  The rest of the growing season the fungus is living within the leaf tissue, unseen.  It overwinters with its fallen leaf host until spring.  Then the spores are released, with some of the spores being carried by the wind to new leaves to start a another generation.
Tar Spot and galls of the Maple Bladdergall mite (Vasates quadripedes) together on the same leaf.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Recent Mushrooms - October 2013

Elm Oyster - Hypsizygus ulmarius

Pictured here as you are likely to encounter it, high up in a tree.  The species name "ulmarius" refers to the fact that Elm trees re one of its hosts.  I think I've only found it on Box Elder trees. 

Orange Mock Oyster - Phyllotopsis nidulans

 Carbon Balls - Daldinia concentrica

Stinkhorn - Phallus sp.

This is the "egg" stage of the stinkhorn before it fully develops and assumes the shape that the genus is named for.

Honey Mushroom - Armillaria sp.

Panaeolus sp.?

Black spore print.

Unknown mushroom

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Crows Flocking in the City

Yesterday evening was the first time this year that I witnessed one of my favorite bird events - the daily flocking of crows during the cold months of the year.  Crows roost together in large groups for the night during the winter.  They are very noticeable converging on their roosting location every evening, and dispersing in the morning.  I'm sure there isn't one day when all the crows decide that it's time to start the winter roosting behavior; it must be a gradual process of more and more crows joining the roost as the days get shorter and colder.  But yesterday was the day I first noticed the behavior; I'm sort of an observant person, so I'm guessing the flocking has just recently started in earnest.

I think one of the reasons that I enjoy watching the crows streaming into and out of the city is it's such a lively activity during an otherwise mostly quiet time of the year.  I find it a welcoming and warming commotion on a frigid winter morning, and in the evening it's something to look forward to, instead of just grudgingly accepting the fact that the sun really is just making a brief appearance, again, for the day.

Minneapolis is home to a few winter crow roosts every year.  My understanding is that the location of these roosts isn't always the same from year to year.  A website called has maps of reported crow roosts from around the country.  I think there's usually a roost somewhere along the river in my neighborhood of NE Minneapolis, but it doesn't seem to be reported; I'm not sure where it is exactly - I might have to look for it this year.  For some information on why crows roost in large winter flocks, and why they might do it in the city, visit the Frequently Asked Questions About Crows page from the Cornell Bird of Ornithology.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Are Mushrooms Poisonous to Touch

No, mushrooms are not poisonous to the touch.  Even the most poisonous species can be handled with no ill effects.  However, use some common sense.  A couple of cases come to mind:

  • Small children.  Since mushrooms are ok to touch, you don't have to freak out if you see your toddler handling an unknown mushroom.  But of course little kids like to put things in their mouths.  So like any outdoor exploration, supervision is highly recommended.  In my own case as a father, my kids are supposed to ask before handling any mushroom (they are always very excited to share their finds with me).
  • Mixing species in your collection basket (or hat, donut bag, guitar case, whatever you might happen to have).  If you have collected a bunch delicious edible species, don't mix in unknown species.  Why take the chance of overlooking it or a piece of it later in the kitchen and accidentally cooking up something poisonous, deadly or otherwise.
  • Tasting for identification. A lot of field guides often list taste as a feature to consider for identifying a mushroom.  I taste unknown mushrooms occasionally, but never did when I first started learning about them.  But for me, a taste test comes with some already good ideas as to the mushroom's identity.  And it's taste only, not ingestion too.
 So if mushroom study is something you're interested in, handling should be fine for closer study.  Or if you just enjoy mushrooms for their aesthetic value, you can expand your appreciation tactically.  And while you're at it, don't forget aromas, many mushrooms have distinctive smells.

And don't forget to wash your wands.  But you should be anyway, right!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Backyard Native Weeds: Three-seeded Mercury

Three-seeded Mercury, Acalypha rhomboidea is a relatively common plant generally found where soil has been disturbed.  I have it growing in my yard in some of the less tended corners.  It's generally considered a weed, which are typically undesirable, but it is also a native plant, and native plants are usually considered desirable.  So which is it?
I look at it this way - weed status is a state of mind, there's no hard and fast definition of what makes a plant a weed; a weed is a plant growing someplace where someone doesn't want it.  When a plant is called "native" it's a bit more objective, based on historical records of one sort or another, that the plant has been present in the area for quite some time (usually if the plant was here when Europeans arrived and described it, it's considered native).

So it's not a weed in our yard, it's part of the garden.  It does require some, um, weeding, since it does produce quite a few seeds and spreads, but what else would I do with myself if all the plants in our garden grew where we thought they should?

Since it is a native, it's probably used by some wildlife.  There are some references to the seeds being eaten by certain birds, and more than likely insects of some sort or another use it, though the plants growing in our yard appear mostly untouched.
In my opinion, the plant doesn't really live up to its name.  The name Three-seeded Mercury has a dramatic or mysterious sound to it, one that seems indicate some sort of place in human history, but it seems to be, well, just a weed.  The term "mercury" has numerous associations, but none seem to quite match the plant.  There is a related genus of plants, Mercurialis, that has some relevance to people, with one species being poisonous, and another with homeopathic properties.  But I still have to wonder about the overall relationship of this plant to any of the many meanings, associations and uses of the word "mercury".  Lost in time perhaps