Mushrooms, Toadstools and assorted fungi

Whenever the weather is a bit on the moist side, we can count on seeing members of that peculiar order of beings known as fungi. Whether you call them toadstools, mushrooms, or just pizza toppings these living organisms can be surprisingly eye catching or so innocuous that we miss them altogether.

For a long time scientists lumped in them in with the plant kingdom since they certainly aren’t animals and like plants stay put in one place growing out of the soil. But when DNA sequencing began maturing and a look was taken, it was revealed that these humble life-forms actually belonged in their own order separate from plants or animals.

Along with mushrooms, fungi include yeasts, molds and are the primary decomposers of organic matter. While most fungus are unobtrusive, that doesn’t mean they are small. In fact the largest known organism on earth is not the whale or the redwood tree, but the honey fungus. To understand how it achieves this distinction, it is important to realize that the mushrooms we see are actually the fruiting bodies of the fungus itself which lives below ground. Referred to as a mycelium, it forms an odd network of hyphae which looks like thread and can grow to enormous proportions all out of sight. We only become aware of them when they form the familiar looking mushrooms we see sprouting seemingly out of nowhere.

There is tantalizing fossil evidence suggesting that early in Earth’s history fungus could form huge structures that dwarfed the early land plants. While the jury is still out on whether the fossils were actually fungi, it does conjure up images of a bizarre world unlike anything we’re familiar with today. If you want to know what an alien planet might look like, just look back in Earth’s past.

Modern fungus, while not as brobdinagian as their ancestors, can often be arresting in appearance. Last summer I found a young morel just popping out of the ground.

I revisited it the next day hoping to get a better picture. However it turns out humans are not the only ones who relish morels. Something had partially devoured the unfortunate morel and by the next day it was gone altogether.

Up in the woods a few years back I found a species of bracket fungus called turkey tail mushrooms growing on a small birch log.

The log itself was only about six to eight inches in diameter so they weren’t very big but their colorful appearance made them stand out. This species of mushroom has also caught the eye of medical researchers who are studying its uses in boosting the immune systems of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Many species of fungus has properties which make them valuable to humans. Yeasts help bread to rise and wine to ferment. But science has recently uncovered their most vital contribution in the form of Mycorrhizal Fungi which live in symbiosis with 90 percent of vascular plants and are essential to their survival. They make it possible for plants to take in nutrients in a way similar to bacteria in our guts help us to absorb nutrients. Mycorrhizal fungi help gardens grow better and help plants to establish themselves in barren areas. If you’ve been fertilizing your garden like crazy but still can’t get things to grow well, you may very well be missing this vital link. In fact excessive fertilizing has been linked to the suppression of these fungi, compromising the long term fertility of the soil.

Preliminary tests suggest that plants grown with inoculants are more vigorous and disease resistant that plants grown without beneficial fungi. However caution is advised about obtaining inoculant as many gardening companies have jumped on the bandwagon and are offering products of dubious value. Chances are good that unless your soil is really crappy, you already have these fungi. It’s just a matter of encouraging them. A few years back I purchased inoculant for my wax beans and peas. They grew well but after reading about the above, I have gone several years without using inoculant and discovered the peas and beans grow just fine. Whatever they needed was already in the soil so I’ve saved a bit of money that way.

There are countless resources both online and in books about this subject. If you have a little garden space, experiment a bit and see what results you get. With a little help from your fungi friends of course!

Insect Encounters

While out for my morning walk recently, I happened on an insect that I know well but have never seen before. Sitting on the sidewalk, was a cicada warming itself. Fortunately, he was polite enough to pose for his picture. This little fellow is most likely Neotibicen canicularis, the Dog-Day cicada.  He was just over an inch in length, large enough to catch my eye. I have often heard these insects on hot summer afternoons, their high-pitched whine coming from somewhere up in the treetops. But this was the first time I actually set eyes on one. They are an annual insect rather than a periodic species like the seventeen year cicada, so their calls are a yearly occurrence here in New Hampshire. I was often told as a child that you could determine air temperature by the length of time they would call, the longer their whine, the hotter it was, but I haven’t found much online info to really collaborate that.

However I did find information indicating that the chirping of crickets is related to air temperature. The male cricket rubs part of his wing, which has a special structure called a scraper, against the other wing to make his distinctive sound. How frequently he makes it depends on how warm the air is. There are a variety of species in New Hampshire but the one I mainly see is the field cricket.

When crickets hatch out, they already resemble the adults but lack wings and are referred to as nymphs. They go through a number of moults before they achieve full size. One summer when an addition was being built for the place where I work, the construction activity stirred up a large number of these nymphs who because they were so small, were able to work their way into the building and the next thing we knew, we had tiny crickets running or hopping all about. One of the workers got upset at the sight of people trying to stomp them as she thought they were cute (which they are kind of). So she spared no efforts capturing the little guys and releasing them outdoors unharmed, where presumably they went on to live a long fruitful life, doing whatever it is crickets do besides chirping. I’m not sure she really endeared herself to her coworkers but she did generate a lot of good karma for herself.

Along with the usual bugs one sees during the summer, occasionally an odd one will pop up. Several years ago, I was washing up in the bathroom. I had the window open but the screen up (ThankGodThankGod….) when I heard what sounded like the Mother of all Bumblebees. An enormous beetle came and landed on the screen (outside..ThankGodThankGod!). This behemoth was easily over an inch and a half long, maybe two inches, like a June bug on steroids. Since I could only see the underside of it, I was not able to identify it and for obvious reasons felt no inclination to open the screen to get a closer look at him (yeah, yeah, I’m a wuss…). I gave the screen a twang with my thumb and forefinger which usually makes any unwanted insect visitor vanish like a ghost. Not this fellow. He was so big I was able to follow his progress as he pitched down into the back yard.

I wonder if that silly bug will remember he can fly?


No, guess not.

It’s hard to be sure what species this was as I only saw his underside. But there are some possible candidates. One is the rhinoceros beetle, Xyloryctes jamaicensis.

This distinctive looking bug grows to about 38 millimeters, and is found in southern New England southwest to Arizona. Given global warming, it’s possible a few have made it up here to Northern New Hampshire. Another possibility is the Eastern Hercules Beetle Dynastes tityus.

This species is found from New York state south to the Gulf states, so it’s not too far away from New Hampshire. Another is the Giant Stag Beetle of similar proportions, the male boasting huge antler-like mandibles. The bug I saw had no such mandibles so if it was a Stag Beetle, it would have been a female. These insects are said to be harmless, though they might give you a good pinch with their mouth parts.

Many years ago, my mother told me she had seen a bee cut out a piece of leaf and fly off with it when she was in the backyard. Curious, I went out and watched for a while. Sure enough, a small dark colored bee came visiting the jewelweed blooming beside the house.

She neatly cut out a small semi-circle of leaf and flew away clutching it in her legs. It helped explain the mysterious chunks cut out of various leaves I had seen. Leaf cutters bees are native bees, solitary, who do not make honey like honeybees but collect pollen to make into little pollen balls as food for their young. They use the cut-out leaves to line their burrows where they lay their eggs.

Sadly I haven’t spotted any in action recently.  Native bees here as elsewhere in the country are in distress. I have seen fewer and fewer bumblebees in recent years. Even the little sweat bees seem to be lacking this year.

I hope this alarms you as much as it does me. These valuable little pollinators are the canaries in the coal mine. What is happening to them will also be happening to us. Much can be done to reverse this trend; the planting of native flowers, reducing or eliminating pesticide use are two important things we can do. We won’t be just saving their lives, we’ll also be saving our own.

“Not a single bee has ever sent you an invoice. And that is part of the problem – because most of what comes to us from nature is free, because it is not invoiced, because it is not priced, because it is not traded in markets, we tend to ignore it.”
– Pavan Sukhdev, United Nations report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity.

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Footnote: I’m happy to announce my second story The Doctor Who Went Over The Mountain has been published in the latest issue of “Into The Ruins.” Many thank to Mr. Joel Caris!

More Wildflowers

Summer seems to pass way too quickly these days. Now we are into August and heading full tilt towards September. We haven’t been afflicted yet with the blistering hot temperatures that seem to be hitting other places but the weather is dryer than it was earlier in the summer (fairly typical for this time of year).

A previous posting highlighted the wildflowers of spring found here in Northern New Hampshire. The pictures I posted were plants native to the area. A steady succession of other flowers appear throughout the months of the summer straight through to fall. But anyone whose familiarity with flowers is confined to sticking them in a vase to set on the table may be surprised to discover that many of the blossoms they see are in fact not natives but immigrants from other lands.

Daisies and clover both are non-native, the daisy from Europe and clover which is native to both Europe and Asia. With other non-natives such as wild chicory, dandelions and forget-me-nots,

they all came over at various times with the Europeans, usually in the form of seeds and roots, mixed in with ship ballast or deliberately introduced by settlers who missed the plants they were familiar with. What many of these plants have in common and what allowed them to spread throughout the countryside is that they do well in disturbed soils, so whenever settlers cleared land or plowed, the damaged ecosystems left a wide opening for intruders to establish themselves.

A non-native plant is referred to as ‘naturalized’ when it’s able to grow on its own and reproduce without human aid. It becomes referred to as ‘invasive’ when it begins crowding out native species and altering the eco-system by sheer force of numbers. Kudzu is a good example of this. Without the natural predators and plant diseases that kept it in check back in Japan, it grows madly over everything in its path, causing some to refer to it as the ‘vine that ate the South’

New Hampshire has its share of invasive non-native flowers, the most notorious being purple loosestrife. It favors marshy areas and any spot with a bit of dampness. The drought last year severely curbed their growth so I hardly saw any. But this year with the return of the rains, loosestrife is once again blooming in profusion. As with other invasives it threatens to crowd out natives that many animals depend on for food, shelter and nesting material. Efforts are underway to reduce its impact through biological control such as insects that specifically attack the loosestrife, careful application of herbicides or by simply going out and physically pulling up the plant.

The list of flowers along with other plants that are invasive can get pretty depressing to look at when you realize the sheer number of them ensures we will never be able to completely rid ourselves of them. I have been engaged in a never-ending battle with a plant called Bishop’s weed, sometimes referred to as goutweed. It can take over a garden with amazing speed if you don’t stay on top of it. With three-lobed leaves and a flower umbral resembling Queen Anne’s Lace, the plant can form small carrot like roots and you must be careful to try and get every speck of root or it will regenerate itself before you can say &%!*. I have seen some areas in other parts of town covered in a solid mass of these plants and quite frankly am surprised not to see them on the New Hampshire invasive list. After fruitless years of trying to eradicate it, this flower is definitely in the pest category.

This summer I spotted several flowering plants in the backyard that were clearly orchids.

The orchid family is the second largest (about 20,000 species) after the sunflower family with a number still undescribed by science, so for a few brief ecstatic moments I harbored notions of a newly discovered species with a Latinized version of my name attached to it. Alas, no. This small orchid, the blossoms not much more than an inch or so in length, already has a name and it is called Helleborine. Even worse it’s a non-native plant. Evidently brought over from Europe as a medicinal and ornamental plant, it escaped from the gardens it was planted in and has established itself over New England and Canada. It is listed as a restricted plant in Wisconsin but apparently is not enough of a pest to be listed as an annoyance in other areas.

Preserving local ecosystems is high priority for those who love nature but saving dwindling birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects can only happen if the plants they depend on are preserved as well. The population of Monarch Butterflies is crashing towards extinction because they only feed on milkweed which imparts a bitter flavor to the caterpillars making them unpalatable to hungry birds. Now these vital plants are being plowed under and replaced by monoculture crops doused with toxic herbicides. Passenger pigeons became extinct not only because they were overhunted but because vital habitat was destroyed.

Invasive plants of any sort compromise our ability to maintain important habitat for our fellow creatures. There’s a lot everyone can do to reverse this. Educate yourself on what native plants you should expect to see in your area. Pull up noxious invasive weeds (no matter how pretty they are), then plant and support native plants. Countless resources can be found to provide information. These issues cropped up because of the thoughtless actions of our ancestors. It’s high time we began rectifying them.

“My special cause, the one that alerts my interest and quickens the pace of my life, is to preserve the wildflowers and native plants that define the regions of our land – to encourage and promote their use in appropriate areas and thus help pass on to generations in waiting the quiet joys and satisfactions I have known since my childhood.”
– Lady Bird Johnson


Spring this year in northern New Hampshire has been pretty much on the cool and rainy side with only fleeting glimpses of sunshine. However that hasn’t stopped trees from leafing out and wildflowers emerging. So I thought I would go about taking pictures of the flowers that pop up around where I live. (Please bear with me on the quality of my pics. Ansel Adams I am not.)

Bunchberries are members of the dogwood family. They are a common wildflower with four white ‘petals’ which are actually leaf bracts which frame the tiny flowers in the center. Come fall they produce a small compact cluster or bunch of red fruit. They are edible though relatively tasteless to many who are more accustomed to the more pronounced flavor of domestic fruits. Bunchberries do have mild medicinal properties and were used as both food and medicine by Native Americans.

Starflowers (Trientalis borealis) are common in my area though they are becoming rare in places like Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee. It prefers acidic woodlands and spreads via rhizomes. While it has little in the way of medicinal value, its main appeal, at least to me, is the unexpected appearance of this simple but lovely delicate flower on the forest floor where you mostly would expect to find dead pine needles, sticks and leaves. The Japanese have a word for this: shibui.

The pink lady slipper or moccasin flower is the state flower of New Hampshire and while it is still fairly common here, it is regarded as ‘of special concern’. Because it requires forested areas and is nearly impossible to transplant, I strongly recommend that you not attempt to dig them up in a misguided attempt to introduce them to whatever patch of woods you happen to have, especially if the plants are not specifically native to your area. Trying to dig up lady slippers almost invariably kills them. Contact your state forest department who will be able to steer you in the right direction of how to get these members of the orchid family started. Otherwise you are better off just leaving them where they are, which is really all they would ask of you if they could talk.

I had a dickens of a time getting my dinky little camera to get a reasonably focused picture of this particular flower: the wild sarsaparilla. Its tiny nondescript flowers are easy to miss, overshadowed as they are by the large compound leaves and I often see ants climbing around on them. However I don’t know if they are attracted by the flowers or play any role in their pollination. The plant itself has an interesting medicinal history which may be what is drawing them.

Wild sarsaparilla spreads all over the place around the edges of the woods about my house which I don’t mind as it is often hard to get anything to grow well in the shade. The berries are said to be edible but I haven’t tried them yet so I don’t know if they taste any good or if they fall in the Steve-don’t-eat-it category.

Jack-in-the-pulpits are members of the arum family and are related to skunk cabbage, a plant I talked about in the previous post. They prefer woods and moist areas but can be grown in your garden. There are a number of online sources for acquiring this distinctive looking plant. Like skunk cabbage, the fleshy root can be eaten but must be cooked first as it too contains oxalate crystals which can only be destroyed by cooking. This also is the sort of plant you would really only consume in hard times anyway. Far better to leave it be and just enjoy the funky flowers and the bright scarlet berries that appear later on.

There has been a growing interest in cultivating native flowers and plants as more people become aware of the importance of biodiversity. Too many plants sold at the nursery prove to be invasive or provide no benefits to local animals and birds. Wildflowers, particularly the native ones, have their own special subtle beauty which can be overshadowed by the garish overbred blooms often found in so many nurseries and plant catalogs. Local plants are already adapted to the area they live and require little if any maintenance.

Compare this to a typical house lawn which is targeted by commercial lawn fertilizer companies that use the classic weed and feed scam convincing you to kill off the clover in your lawn because it’s a ‘weed’ while neglecting to mention clover is nitrogen fixing which eliminates your lawn’s ability to fix its own nitrogen. Hey, but that’s ok. The Weed and Feed guys also include the fertilizer to make up for that. They separate you from your money and you wonder why your lawn gets crappier every year. So you buy more weed and feed and – well you get the picture.

Mother Nature has been at this way longer than we have and has it all down to a fine art. All we have to do is follow Her lead. The benefit of that is getting to see more wildflowers and enjoying their unobtrusive elegance.

Skunk cabbage and other edibles

With the arrival of spring, plants start emerging as the snow melts back and the weather warms. Would-be foragers begin searching for some of their favorite spring goodies such as ramps, dandelion greens, fiddlehead ferns and lambs quarters. Many of these early greens are surprisingly nutritious and tasty so it’s easy to see why they are so eagerly sought out. They are sufficiently popular to begin showing up on groceries shelves. But for many going out and gathering them directly from the wild is a traditional rite for welcoming in spring. This having been said, there are some important things to remember about foraging safely.

While a number of wild plants are edible, some are more edible than others. From time to time I hear or read about skunk cabbage being listed as an edible plant. Skunk cabbage is a member of the Araceae or Arum family with the scientific name of Symplocarpus foetidus. It is a distant relative of the corpse flower which occasionally appears in the news when a greenhouse hosting the flowering plant is deluged with curious visitors determined to see if it actually smells as bad as its name (according to reports, it does). Likewise skunk cabbage, while not quite as odorous, will release the characteristic aroma the plant derives its name from when the leaves are crushed. While the dried leaves can be used in soups and stews, it is not recommended that you eat it raw as it contains oxalate, a chemical the body uses to make kidney stones and can cause burning of the mouth and throat. It is reputed to have some medicinal properties but is not something you would want to consume on a regular basis. Among Native Americans, it is used as a famine food (one of those things you eat when all the good stuff is gone and you don’t want to start in on the family pets and kids just yet…)

Skunk cabbage is also a good example of a plant many people are vaguely aware of and think they know what it looks like but really don’t. Many think the first large green woodland plant they see growing in the spring is skunk cabbage but it almost certainly is not. The weird arum flowers appear first with the greens only poking out afterwards.

Being able to positively identify any plant you find growing in the wild is absolutely essential before you should even think about harvesting anything. One mistake can very quickly put you in intensive care or worse. My late mother who worked as a nurse in the local hospital years ago, used to tell the cautionary tale of an out-of-state couple who had gone camping in Franconia Notch State Park. It was early spring and the husband spotted some large showy green plants which he was convinced was skunk cabbage. As he had heard it was edible, he was determined to give it a try. I’m not certain what sort of cooking he did (if any) to prepare this plant however when he offered some to his wife, she was quickly put off by its extremely bitter taste and refused to eat it. Her husband, on the other hand, ignored the bad taste and proceeded to eat some of it (no doubt to show his spouse what a wuss she was).

My mother said when they brought him unconscious into the hospital, he had no blood pressure. They were able to save his life, but the doctor on the floor remarked that if the husband had eaten closer to the stem, he would not have survived. The plant he had carelessly consumed was in fact false hellebore, a highly toxic plant not related to the skunk cabbage. The alkaloids in the plant were what nearly killed him. They have a bitter flavor but the husband was apparently oblivious to the warnings his taste buds tried to send him. Fortunately he lived and hopefully learned an important lesson.

This, more than anything else, should make clear why it’s so important to familiarize yourself with your local environment. Attending classes given by plant experts, or just simply buying a copy of a guide book of edible wild plants can get you started on learning to clearly distinguish between what is edible and what should be left alone.

Also it isn’t enough to just learn what the plant looks like, it’s necessary to learn what habitat it prefers as that can sometimes help you separate a wild edible from its toxic look-alike. Since guide books often only show the plant when it is fully grown, make a point to observe its life cycle through the season so you can see its growth pattern. What does it look like when it first emerges, when it matures, what do the flowers (if any) look like and what kind of seeds does it produce? If this sounds like a lot of work, perhaps it is but it’s what needs to be done before you can safely make use of any plant for food or medicine. This is something you don’t want to cut corners on.

Once you do learn what grows in your area, there is another thing to consider. Thanks to pollution and loss of habitat, many wild plants are having a difficult time of it. But overharvesting is one of the biggest problems struggling native flora has to deal with. While the encroachment of civilization has been going on for several centuries here in New Hampshire, the issue has been getting worse in recent years. Too many people are pursuing their favorite plants in wild areas that are dwindling in size and diversity.

Whether it’s for food or medicines, many plants once abundant are vanishing from our fields, wetlands and forests. More people want to engage in wild foraging as a way of reconnecting with nature which is understandable. But rather than harvesting these plants, it would be far better not only to leave them alone but help create more habitats for them so they can spread and restore themselves. Good stewardship is one of our responsibilities, especially if we want to leave anything for our descendants.

“If we do not permit the earth to produce beauty and joy, it will in the end not produce food either.” – Joseph Wood Krutch