Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 29, 2007

Ghost Image

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:29 pm

  I came upon a statement – I think it was one of those Wikipedia gems – that said scientists estimate there are some 1.5 million species of fungus out there but only 70,000 of them have been officially discovered.  That means something like 80% of the known fungi in the world are unknown.  How can anyone know what we don’t know? If we state something, even as an estimate, then it becomes something we pretty much know, right? Confused?  So am I!  It is better to simply state the plain simple fact that fungi own the planet and we will never know how many there aren’t, er….I mean are.

  I have long known that saprobic mycelium have integrated every inch of my yard, but could not possibly guess how many of them I don’t know. Saprobic means something that derives nutrients from the dead remains of others and mycelium are the fibrous growth tissues of the fungus clan. There are shelf fungus, puffballs, and death angels to represent the known fungi that inhabit my corner of the world.  They feed off of decaying leaves, roots and wood. As mushrooms, all of these things live as clusters of obscure thready mycelium in the soil or rotted wood.  Once a year they decide to erupt out of the ground as fruiting bodies that we recognize as a mushroom or toadstool.  The above ground “mushroom” portion is like the flower portion of a geranium with the rest of the geranium hidden underground.

  One of my previously unknown fungal yard residents popped into view last week.  A cluster of coral red and pumpkin orange mushrooms appeared overnight under one of my maple trees. Take a look at them here and here and I think you’ll agree that they were worthy of notice. I’ve never seen them before in my yard or anyplace else for that matter.  This was a good opportunity to go through the proper steps of mushroom identification and see if I could reduce them to a select group of known fungi. 

  Mushroom identification can be a tricky business – made even riskier by the fact that people like to eat mushrooms. As culinary representatives of the fungal kind they can range from extremely edible to extremely toxic.  Although I recommend sticking to morels and puffballs as food and leaving the rest alone, your choice may be different.  Having no intention of eating my mystery mushrooms or testing their hallucinogenic properties, I resorted to sheer knowledge for the sake of knowledge and noted several features. 

  In this day and age, we can Google anything and bypass the technical manuals.  I typed in “red mushrooms” and looked over a plethora of pretty pictures offered on the screen.  There are a lot of red mushrooms in this world, but believe it or not I came to an answer within a fairly short time with this hit or miss effort. In order to make the final determination, however, I had to look under the mushroom hood for starters.

  The underside portion of the ‘shroom will be either “gilled” or “pored.”  Take a look at this picture and you’ll see the underside of one of one of my yard ornaments. This one is a good example of a “gilled mushroom” where the bottom side looks like so many fish gills (the pored ones have a solid surface with thousands of tiny holes or pores). I could therefore limit my search to gilled mushrooms, which brought things down to a comfortable half a million kinds.

  Noting the firm surface, general shape (in this case cone-like), and general tendency of the older caps to turn black and oily put me into a group called the Waxy Caps.  From there it was a process of elimination to arrive at one type called the Witches Hat, because they are the only waxy caps that turn black when bruised.  If they turned black and blue, that would be a different beast entirely, by the way.

  At this point I was happy with calling them Witches Hats (Hygrocybe conica). That is a wonderfully descriptive common and scientific name. They indeed look like the conical leading edge of a curious witch poking out of the ground. I did have one more thing to do in order to put these into the select group of 70,000, however.

  If you are curious about other features of the Witches Hat, including the debate about whether they are edible or not, check out MushroomExpert.Com for some browsing.  This is a great site with some entertaining writing for all levels of interest.  At the bottom of each page of mushroom descriptions you will see a reference to something called a spore print.  In the case of the Witches Hat, the print is supposed to be white.

  Making a spore print is a frightfully easy thing to do.  Take your mushroom cap, cut it in half and lay one half on a white sheet of paper and the other on a dark sheet. Place the parts gill side down so that the magic can occur.  Put a cup over each half while placing your finger on your nose and dancing a jig. O.K., forget the jig and just let things sit for 12 hours.

  The mushroom gills shed millions of microscopic spores into the atmosphere.  This is their whole purpose in life. By blocking off the air flow with the cup, the spores are allowed to drop straight down and coat the paper below it. After a day and a night the spores will leave a distinct pattern and color. Dark spores will show on the white paper and light spores on the dark paper (I’ll bet you really needed me to tell you that didn’t you?). In my case I didn’t bother with the white paper because I had a reasonable assumption that things would turn out all white.

  Well, after dancing the jig until I was exhausted and occupying myself with other activities for the remaining 11 hours and 59 minutes, I lifted the cup off my Cap.  Voila – a white spore print (take a look here).  The resulting print was an appropriately ghostly image for a bewitching mushroom.

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