Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mushroom, my book review

Santa was kind, and read my Amazon wish list, and brought me a shiny new copy of Nicholas Money's new book Mushroom.   Now, I have a shelf full of books about mushrooms, and another shelf or two about other fungi that don't produce mushrooms, so I wasn't sure what to do once I had the thing in my hand.   A couple of points in the interest of full disclosure: 1. I haven't read all of my mycology books thoroughly, there just aren't enough hours in the day and there is lots of redundant information, so I don't feel like a bad person (or Persoon?) for this. And 2., I haven't read Mr. Bloomfield's Orchard, also by Dr. Money, nor either of his other books, though I feel as though I should now, since I enjoyed Mushroom so thoroughly.

Yes, having the book in my hand, and having some time between semesters, I did what a scholar should do when not teaching or out in the field (looking for fungi) or in the lab; I read the book.  And what a joy it was!  In spite of my beef with other reviews of the book which had nothing at all to do with the book itself,  I found it to be a good read on many levels (namely three).

It's educational. Even to a trained mycologist such as myself, I found much that I did not previously know within its pages.  He incorporates modern research as well as historical details about mushrooms and their academic acolytes.  That said, the writing, I think, isn't restricted to an audience of mycologists, but is accessible to a lay audience (though perhaps one that at least passed a course in biology).  As evidence of this, a friend who is an academic though not a scientist picked up the pick and started reading delightedly.

It's funny.  And no, he doesn't resort to cheap laughs so much as humorous imagery to illustrate points (such as Angelina Jolie flying through the air into a... not going to spoil the ending).    The hackneyed "fun-guy" reference is avoided, mercifully.  Most mycologists I've met have had a healthy sense of humor, and Dr. Money is no exception.

His views on the public perception of mycology succinctly defined and girded my own.  Mushrooms and other fungi have generally had two strikes against them in the eyes of the laity.  1.  They are bad, agents of sickness, decay and disease, and 2. Mushrooms are strange and magical, a window to the supernatural realm.
As to the first point. There is a common perception that mushrooms will kill you dead as soon as look at you.  True enough SOME mushrooms contain toxins that will either kill you or make you wish they had killed you, but the generalization of mushrooms being bad and poisonous has been exaggerated.  If you went out in the woods collecting mushrooms, and tried to eat all of them, it would be an act as indiscrete as saying you wanted to go hunting mammals in the woods with your bare hands.  Maybe you'd find a squirrel, but maybe you'd find a porcupine, or a mountain lion.  The potential results are the same.  Maybe you find a meal, but maybe the quarry would hurt or kill you instead.

As to the second point. (2. Mushrooms are strange and magical, a window to the supernatural realm)
Mushrooms and the fungi that produce them do have value ecologically, as well as having potential application to problems of humanity (both in the sense of those problems we cause and the problems we face in our quest for survival). However we should approach these solutions with a scientific mind, not by suggesting the fungi have a source of magic that we can tap if we all just wish hard enough.

For both of these points, the real problem is ignorance, and the real solution is a scientific approach.

In summary, if you have an interest in mushrooms (which well you might if you are reading this), then you will likely enjoy this book.  It won't tell you how to identify mushrooms (here you will need to fill your own bookshelf with other works), but it will hopefully explain why you should try.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Fungal news

I've been meaning to post a bunch of pictures of things I've been finding around my home, like those two Amanitas.  We had a week of moist and warmish conditions that allowed lots of mushrooms to come up.  But I've also been keeping half an eye on the fungal news.

In research news, an article just came out in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, showing that the spicy heat of chili peppers is related to the moisture of the home range.  Why? because the more moist the area, the greater the risk of infection by fungal pathogens, and the greater need for protective secondary compounds like capsaicinoids.  Here's a pop-sci wrap up of the research, which talks about the seed pathogen, a species of Fusarium, as 'the Fusarium fungus'.  There are many species of Fusarium, and they are a notoriously difficult genus to work with taxonomically.

Another article touts another medical benefit of mushrooms.  A diet high in selenium and nickel has been linked to a decrease in risk of pancreatic cancer, so a mushroom omelette is indicated by this newspaper, eggs being rich in selenium, mushrooms in nickel. Bonus: reference to the original article in the medical journal, Gut.

Monday, December 12, 2011

...and Amanita muscaria

Found a nice patch of these just a mile from my home here in Auburn, right near a stand of loblolly pines.  It's an amazing trove of sporocarps in all stages, from the just emergent buttons to large individuals with planar pilei and the warts on the caps washed off.  These are your poster children for the mushroom.  If you see a mushroom represented in the media, it's usually one of these guys.  From the home of the Smurfs to Mario Bros and on and on and on.  
I went out looking just in the neighborhood with one of my friends, and we can upon scads of things.  More to follow...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Amanita citrina!

I came across this mushroom while I was depositing a check at my credit union. The willow oak in the background is in an island of asphalt, and is most likely the host for this ectomycorrhizal species.  It had been warm and rainy over the previous couple of days, and I was getting mushroom vision:  seeing mushrooms everywhere whether they were there or not.  I had a lot of work to do to finish out the term, getting final exams ready, etc, but I knew that the mushrooms were coming up and the freeze was coming too.  Fortunately I happened upon this fellow.  It looked very Amanita-y from the top,  warty veil remnants on the cap, brilliant white stipe, and with a little digging, you can see the volva at the base.  The cap had a pale yellowish green cast to it.  Weber and Smith helped get this very quickly to Amanita citrina.  The volva sure enough looked like a sliced loaf of bread, and the cap smells like raw potatoes, and I got a nice white spore print from it. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Damn you, faint praise!

I received this in my news alerts. And now I know what I'd like Santa to put under the tree for me. It's certainly not the review, but the item being reviewed.

Frankly, I take offense at some of Scicurious' comments. And I will tell you that I am refraining from expressing many of my true sentiments. My hope is that she someday learns that her fellow scientists share her passion for their own subject, and that most of us have the courtesy not to malign the research interests of other scientists.

Speaking of respect for scientists working in different areas, I recently got sucked into History's documentary series, "How The Earth Was Made". It brought back a lot of memories of my foray into geology, which mainly involved a textbook and some spare time back when I had some. I highly recommend it, and it made me think about some interesting directions for my own research. Details to come, perhaps?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fungi music!

This popped up in my news alerts. In the British Virgin Islands, they have a musical genre called Fungi music. There is also a dish called fungi, but neither the music nor the dish seem to have anything to do with the subject that I prefer to blog about. It's pretty sweet though, as this YouTube clip demonstrates!

New era in mycoblogging for me

Wow. So with the new iPhone I can talk and it will write down what I am saying to put on my blog. That is super cool but can I say fungal terms like coronaria send (NB. Cortinarius) basidiospore and have it understand? Okay, not quite. Quarts in the area's courts in areas CEO RTI and ARI US. How about amanita? (Doesn't capitalize) How about Armillaria? Hi pozzolana (Hypoxylon) crepitus (Crepidotus) try Caloma (Tricholoma) them out Aloma (Naematoloma) Agaricus boletus from a Topsys (Fomitopsis). Oh okay not perfect but still a pretty funny thing. (And it doesn't punctuate very well, either. Parenthetical remarks are my edits)

Friday, November 11, 2011

What was the rust?

After posting yesterday, I was thinking about the great Alaskan orange goo story, and I tried to see if anyone has followed up.  Nope.  I was unable to find an answer as to what rust fungus produced that great cloud of orange that had Kivalina residents so concerned.  It is often a simultaneous joy and sorrow to find the holes in the Internet. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Long time no posts!

I now see that my last post was on August 8th?  Crikey! It's been a while.  Not that I haven't been out and about looking for mushrooms and other fungal pursuits,  I've just been busy busy busy.  I'm teaching a Principles of Biology course and it's taking a lot of my time.  I try to use a few fungal examples every now and again, but for these folks fungi are just something that you put on pizza or perhaps something that spurs you to throw your bread away.  

I've been adding a few things to my bookshelf as well, including Bessette et al.'s North American Boletes, and the How To Identify Mushrooms series.  But to be honest, I haven't been able to look at them much yet.  Also, I got my compound microscope fixed up, so I'm able to look at some fungi on the scale at which they typically operate (remember, fungi are fundamentally microorganisms!).  Hopefully, I'll be able to put some of my photomicrographs up soon enough.  Okay, back to the lecture writing.  Holler at ya, later, Blogosphere.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Strange news

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook; an article about some orange goo washing up on a beach in Alaska.  At first they thought it might have been microscopic eggs of things.  Now they are saying that it's actually spores of a rust fungus.  Rusts are notoriously difficult fungi to work with because, for one thing, they have up to five different spore stages, and another, they are biotrophic, meaning they require a living host to survive and reproduce.  So if you don't have a living plant host, identification is especially difficult.   This is indeed some very strange news!

Update: 8/19/11.  Looks like I beat MSN to the punch! They're running the story on their front page today, though with few details.  Believe me,  I'll tell you what this thing turns out to be when I find out.  If I may stand on my soapbox for one small minute, this is an excellent example of why scientific illiteracy is a significant problem in our world. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Fastest Living Thing in the World

Once again, fungi are collecting superlatives. I had to check to make sure it's still considered a zygomycete (it is) but Pilobolus (not to be confused with the dance company) is reported to be the fastest living thing in the world. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Zora Neale Hurston, author, secret Alabamian, zombie hunter; PvZ

I apologize for the hiatus.  Actually, there have been lots of mushrooms coming up gangbusters all over, with the passing rainstorms we've been getting, and I've been meaning to post pictures and comments.  So what shook me out of my quiescent period?  It was this YouTube video I stumbled upon, an interview with the author Zora Neale Hurston about her experiences with zombies (yes, real zombies from Haiti).  Though she claimed to be from Florida, Ms. Hurston was actually from just down the road in Notasulga, Alabama.

On rather tangentially related topic, I've become quite enamored of the video game Plants vs. Zombies, which features both zombies (not the real but the fictionalized type) and mushrooms! I know I'm rather late to the party with this.  The designers are quite creative in ascribing zombie-killing powers to an array of plants and mushrooms. In the iPhone version, you can cultivate a Zen garden, including a special section just for your mushrooms.  And it's got a catchy theme song you can hear when you defeat the game.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Life imitates art (?)

Mycologists love to put the fun in fungi.  Dr. Dennis Desjardin is definitely up there in my book of the funniest mycologists I've never met.  He named a species of Phallus after a colleague (noting "with permission" in the manuscript), and now, he's added another species description to his credit, which he's named after Spongebob Squarepants, Spongiforma squarepantsii.  Desjardin participated in the description of the genus in a previous paper, which indicates just strange this group is.  At first glance, even the expert mycologists could not tell if the specimens were ascomycetes or basidiomycetes!  Closer inspection by microscopy and even closer via DNA sequence analysis revealed Spongiforma to be basidiomycetes, actually gasteroid (truffle-like) boletes.  The basidiocarps are sponge-like in appearance, and the authors thought the photomicrographs resembled Bikini Bottom, thus the new species was named for the world's most famous marine fry-cook.

So far, the group has only been found in southeastern Asia and the adjacent super-archipelago. S. squarepantsii was found in a dipterocarp forest on the island of Borneo.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Spore print technique

I recently invested in one of Taylor Lockwood's DVDs on mushroom identification.  One reason was to address the lack of nature documentaries on fungi being used in the class I taught last term.  In the video, he suggests collecting spore prints in a different way.  Instead of using contrasting black and white pattern (as I have done), he suggests using aluminum foil.  I tried it out with these two sporocarps I collected yesterday, and both great to me, though the spore print on this mushroom is pretty unambiguously dark brown.  I can see a couple of advantages to the aluminum foil technique.  For one, the spores don't adhere to the paper fibers, meaning it's easier to scrape the surface to make a slide of spores.  I can see where it may be helpful in determining spore color in some ambiguous cases as well, and it would be easier to mold a piece of aluminum foil around a mushroom in the field than a piece of paper.  Both formats are easily recycled, so it's a draw on that point. 

In other news, I found a nice fairy ring on campus that sprang up after the rainstorms we've had recently.  We've been in severe water deficit here, and need the rain very badly.  So it was nice to see that it was at least enough for this group of mushrooms.  I collected a couple, just to test the foil method, and to see if they were not Chlorophyllum molybdites, which is what I've seen most frequently around here in fairy rings.  You can see from the photo above that the spore print is most definitely not green but chocolate brown.  Thus, those are more likely a species of Agaricus (which one? I need to delve a bit deeper!)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Happy Birthday to a prominent Alabamian?

Today would have been the 97th Birthday of jazz artist Sun Ra, who first appeared on Earth in Birmingham,AL on this day in 1914 with the name of Herman Poole Blount.  After an experience where he claimed a passage to the planet Saturn, he later legally changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra, and lived in the persona of an intergalactic traveller. 

Sun Ra was a pioneering musician even within the highly creative medium of jazz.  His song titles and lyrics often feature clever word play and focus on the themes of space travel, the empowerment of African Americans, and Egyptology.  His band, the Arkestra,continues to play today, and contains the forward and reverse of his adopted surname (RA), as well as supporting the idea that his intergalactic travels were like those on a great Ark such as Noah's, or that the entire Earth exists as just such an Ark. 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Cryptomycota! The new, new thing

The mycologists I've worked with, in contrast with many of the botanists I've worked with, tend to be more comfortable saying "I don't know" if they can't identify a specimen of their chosen taxonomic interest.  It is a necessity, as we like to believe that most of our plant species (at least in the temperate regions) have been described, while we admit that alpha-taxonomy of fungi is far behind.  Fungi are essentially microorganisms, with reduced morphology (fewer distinguishing characteristics), and we often rely on what we can culture, which is a small proportion of the total diversity, as DNA techniques demonstrate. 

Thus, I am surprised and not surprised to learn of a new lineage of fungi, just published in the current issue of Nature.  I am not surprised that it has been found, but I am surprised at the proposed diversity of this new lineage, which the authors claim may approach half of the total diversity of kingdom Fungi.  This new lineage appears to ally with basal lineages of fungi, (e.g. the chytrid genus, Rozella), and members have been found in an amazing diversity of habitats, from marine sediments, to eutrophied freshwater, treated drinking water, and soil around the roots (rhizosphere) of corn and aspen.

These fungi appear to be capable of producing a flagellum, like the chytrids (but lost in the other lineages of fungi), and don't have a chitinous cell wall, but they do appear to have assimilative feeding, like good and true fungi do. 

This is a watershed event for mycology, folks. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Get rich quick hunting mushrooms!

TRUE STORY:  A Springfield, OH woman won $100,000 in a raffle, and found out just as she was about to go out hunting for morels.  Upon calming down from the excitement, she did get out on her foray, although the article stops short of telling if she found any. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, I thought I'd share one of my favorite words to say, "HUITLACOCHE"! (Wheedle-la-CO-chay).  Try saying it.  Try not enjoying it.  What can I say, it's one of the most spirited words I know that pertains to the fungal kingdom.

What is it? We do have it here in the US, including Alabama, and it's actually a fungal sign of disease on ears of corn.  It's caused by Ustilago maydis, which is a smut fungus. Smuts are basidiomycetes, which makes them close kin to rusts, mushrooms, polypores, jellies, and sundry others.  Close is a relative term, here.  This article says it's in the mushroom family. No, it's in the mushroom Division, if you want to split hairs, which I clearly do.  But the recipe looks tasty! In here they suggest that the name is from the Aztec language of Nahuatl, meaning "raven poop". You can even buy it in a can. OK, that's soup, but I know you can get the straight stuff in a can as well. 

I did try eating it once, and it is not what I'd call a good experience.  I was working on a farm and would occasionally sample some of the corn fresh off the stalk, in the field, raw.  A little bit is okay, and very sweet. Anyway, I found a smutted ear and tried a little taste.  It was rather grainy.  The smut I tried was black, which is apparently better if you cook it, while the white stuff is better raw. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

New book for me to peruse/ Other fungal news

A new book on one of my favorite subjects has just come out.  I've just ordered it, even though I have a shelf full of mushroom and fungus books. While the old saw tells us we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, it does appear to have a very nice cover, and being written by a pair of old hands from the British Mycological Society, I have high expectations.

In other fungal news, fungi appear to be on the move again.  I got this through my news-alerts and attempted to chase the rabbit down the hole to the original source, only to find my library doesn't subscribe (frown). However, the article suggests that truffles have been found in an area in previously not known to have them, north of the Alps. They hypothesize the cause is climate change.  Click on that link if you want to see a cute dog with a gigantic truffle.

I also learn in this article of the existence of a breed of dogs known for their ability to hunt truffles: the Lagotto Romagnolo.  At $2500+, I don't think I'll be getting one any time soon, though there is a club (actually two clubs) for their people here in the US.

While Australians may have been salivating at the thought of a bumper crop of pistachios, Colletotrichum acutatum seems to have gotten to them first, unfortunately.  This fungus, which causes an anthracnose, affects a broad range of plant hosts, including Pistacia vera (Anacardiaceae).  The article goes on to suggest that this isn't the only fungal disease outbreak occurring in Australia this year.  Blame it on the rain

"Worm-grass" is neither worm nor grass, but as you can guess from its mention here, is a fungus.  In this article, about Cordyceps spp.(though it is not mentioned by name), it is suggested that harvesting of this fungus may be threatening the delicate ecology of the Tibetan Plateau.

And finally in this installment of the Fungal News, another item that I have WANT for, a Super Mario Mushroom lamp.  While the article claims it is a 1UP lamp, it appears to come in PowerUp as well.

I'm okay, lots of other Alabamians are not.

While I tend to focus more on fungi than the state where I live and blog, we've just faced a terrible tragedy here in Alabama.  Myself and the area immediately around me were spared, but there are many people in Alabama who were not so fortunate.  Please consider those impacted by the tornadoes, and give whatever you can to help.

Thank you.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

WOW! Cool fungus-orchid news

In my inbox, I found an article from PNAS via Discover's blog.  I've currently having a bit of a nergasm, this is so cool.  I've recently started collecting orchids, which are about as strange as fungi (and intimately associated with fungi, by the way), so this really caught my eye.  A rare orchid's leaves look like they're infected with a fungus, both macroscopically and microscopically, attracting flat-footed flies to pollinate them.  The flies are attracted to sick and rotting vegetation feeding on the spores, so the orchid has evolved to look just like an infected plant, even when healthy.  The flies visit, pick up pollen, and move on to the next orchid, effectively transferring pollen.  The orchid's leaf hairs even look like spores of a fungus, and the scent produced by the flower is similar to that of the fungus, further developing the ruse.

Part of me thinks this may be an April Fool's Day joke, though that would be highly irregular for a journal such as PNAS.  Orchids are notorious for their ability to mimic other organism's for the purpose of achieving cross-pollination, here's a video of some bee-mimic orchids.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Old Fisheries Pond

I went out after a wet weekend to see if anything had come up. I did find a few things, like this lovely little Scutellinia scutellata, the eyelash fungus. This cute little asco is not in Bessette et al. or Weber and Smith, for some odd reason.  But it's here, for sure. 
Scutellinia scutellata, Pyronemataceae, Pezizales, Ascomycota
It seems as though Monday has been giant storm day over the past few weeks, with storms rolling in overnight and taking down trees.  All the moisture has had the cedar apple rust going gangbusters as well.
Telial horns out the wazoo! I did get a peak under a compound scope and saw the two-celled teliospores, which look like two cones facing each other.  I didn't see any basidia or basidiospores that I could discern, though.  I'll take another look later today.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mobile Leprechaun Remix

Happy St. Patrick's Day, y'all!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Looky here!

Tomorrow is, of course, Saint Patrick's Day, and while I don't have any Irish blood that I know of, I do like to look twice at clover patches for items such as those seen in the picture above.  I know it's not related to fungi at all, unless I start blathering on about the various fungi you might find on clovers, and there are a lot. A search just for rusts on genus Trifolium yields about 1200 records in the SMML Fungus-Host Distribution Database. Anyway, perhaps it's because I spend quite a bit of time looking down at the ground for fungi that I also like to look at clovers.  Observe that there are at least 2 four-leaf clovers in this picture.  Where are they, you may ask?  Do you think I'd tell?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Busy busy busy

A nice little Pluteus cervinus on an old rotten log
It's been raining, so I've been out hunting mushrooms.  As I mentioned previously, I went out on the Tuskegee National Forest with some of my students, out on the Bartram Trail (or Bertram Trail, if you believe the sign, which you shouldn't).  That was a couple of weeks ago, now, and already I've been at it again.  Last week I gave a talk to my new friends in the East Alabama Orchid Society about mycorrhizal fungi and orchids (a very cool story I'll elaborate on later, I promise).  Earlier this week I gave a talk to my daughter's kindergarten class about mushrooms, and this morning I went out to the Alabama Nature Center in Millbrook, AL to talk to some of their nature educators about identifying mushrooms and other macrofungi.  They do have a beautiful site out there, so I'll be sure to head back, and I suggest you do too.  After me flapping my lips for close to two hours, we got to go looking for some mushrooms.  Even though it had only rained yesterday (and some last week) we saw some neat stuff out there: Cortinarius (pictured, species?  not sure I even want to go there), Hygrocybe chlorophana (I called it Hygrophorus, which it used to be, same family, still a waxy cap, nice yellow thing) Hypholoma fasciculare (sulfur tuft, formerly known as Naematoloma), and lots of polypores and what-not.  It looks like we're getting more rain, which is good news!  And to top it off, I just got a copy of Taylor Lockwood's Mushroom Identification Trilogy in the mail.   I'll let you know what I think of it by and by.  Good times!

Cortinarius sp., with fresh cortina!

Friday, March 4, 2011


A modest milestone finally met
For mushrooms on the internet
Thanks to all y'all who visit
To read of a Kingdom, exquisite
Passing through, or for many a year
Y'all come back, now, y'hear?

Friday, February 25, 2011

George Washington Carver Museum

Bust of George Washington Carver outside the museum

 Yesterday my daughter's second grade class went on a field trip to the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site just a bit down the road from here.  Even though I had a field trip of my own to contend with in the afternoon (keep posted, details after the second trip today), I had to go for at least part of the trip, as George Washington Carver is a hero of mine.

Peephole into pictures of mushroom!
 I was pleasantly surprised to find a lovely display of mushrooms and other fungi displayed prominently near the entrance.  Fungi were one of Dr. Carver's many interests, and his Master's of Agriculture from what is now Iowa State University was in Plant Pathology.
Another peephole

 I especially appreciate that the macrofungi were separated into their proper divisions,
 And I also liked this illustration of a powdery mildew cleistothecium.  As well as being a botanist, agricultural chemist, philanthropist (within his means), and inventor, he was also something of an artist. 
One of Dr. Carver's illustrations of a powdery mildew ascoma.
  I didn't remember the fungal display from my last visit, which was many years ago, but it just reinforced my fondness for this great man. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

For Valentine's Day, poetry

Not so long ago, I mentioned my blog to a friend who is in the humanities.  She noted that Sylvia Plath wrote a poem called "Mushrooms" (1959), which I would share here, but it is easy enough for you to click the link and read it for yourself without me risking copyright violation.  I have seen where some have interpreted this poem as a metaphor for feminism, and I can see that being an underlying theme.  I, being admittedly male, don't believe I can speak to this interpretation of the poem.  As a mycologist, however, I appreciate the tone of the poem, especially when juxtaposed with another mushroom-themed poem

Let us consider the work of another great American poet, Emily Dickinson. She too penned a poem about basidiocarps, posthumously titled "The Mushroom is the elf of plants" (published in 1924 many years after her death in 1886).  You'll not be surprised to hear that I do not like this poem so well.  Though Ms. Dickinson was a student of botany, she much maligns the fungi. I am stung by the final lines "Had nature any outcast face, Could she a son contemn, Had nature an Iscariot, That mushroom, -it is him".  To be fair, this was the prevailing attitude of the 19th century.  For one, mushrooms and other fungi were considered to be plants, and it was also thought that their only role in nature was as agents of disease and decay.  What a difference the better part of a century makes!

I feel as though Plath must have been intending to author a revised view of Dickinson.  Both poems are relatively short works; five stanzas of four lines for Dickinson, eleven stanzas of three lines for Plath. In Dickinson's poem, the protagonist is addressed it the third person.  Dickinson refers to a single male mushroom.  "That mushroom, it is him".  As if referring to the mushroom as nature's Iscariot wasn't enough of a display of enmity, this poetic relationship only reinforces her disdain.  Plath, by contrast, refers to mushrooms in the first person plural ("We shall by morning/Inherit the earth/Our foot's in the door").  I especially admire the phrase 'our foot', suggesting many individuals sharing a single member.  To me, it symbolizes simultaneous unity and multitude, another fungal oddity. 

I apologize to any devotees of the humanities who may feel that I am blindly making a foray into comparative literature and sounding like a novice at best.  I am the first to admit that I am not a poet nor an experienced literary critic.   As a mycologist, though, I definitely prefer Plath's sympathetic treatment of fungi to Dickinson's unsympathetic treatment.

Ironically, on the cover of this book of Dickinson's poems is a flower that appears to me to be Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), which is an achlorophyllous plant that is absolutely dependent upon fungi for its nutrition.  Monotropoid plants take mycorrhizas to the next level, in that they don't provide the fungus with, well, as far as we currently know, anything.  They somehow "convince" the fungi to provision them with photosynthate (sugar) from other plants, as well as other nutrients.

 Follow up: 2/15/11.  I just found this anthology of mushroom-inspired poems entitled "Decomposition".  Clever title, that.  I just hope it's better than this album of mushroom-inspired songs.  I haven't actually listened to the whole album, to be fair, but the style is not my cup of tea.  Perhaps, as Mark Twain said about Wagner's music, it's better than it sounds.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Kingdom for a day

I received command of the lectern yesterday, to present the Organism of the Day (Exidia recisa, pictured above) and to lecture on the biology of my favorite Kingdom, the Fungi.  It was certainly a fevered race to present information about five phyla in about 40 minutes (minus the spiel on E. recisa).  In the earlier section, I did manage to get time at the end to discuss two grades of fungi (grades being groups that are share similarity but not by recent common ancestry, e.g. winged things), the lichens and the imperfect fungi.  The latter section was much more hurried, and I think many student hands were strained by furious notetaking, and my own vocal cords by the shear tumult of words such as ascocarp and basidiospore and dikaryon.  While I loved the opportunity to share information about the Fifth Kingdom, it would have been nice to slow down and languish on the finer details.  The students have an exam tomorrow, and in order to keep up with our semester-long march through life's rich tapestry, we needed to soldier on. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The latest in the fungal news...

All that snow that folks have been getting up north? It's been buckets of rain down here.  Now if it would just warm up a bit, we could have some spring mushrooms popping up.  Hopefully toward the end of this month we'll see some (fingers crossed). 

In the meanwhile, some mushroom news.  In Iceland, a mushroom book has won the 2010 Icelandic Literary Award.  "Sveppabokin" or "The Mushroom Book" has become the fifth natural history book to win the prize. 

In other news, fungus-based plastics could be a new green technology to be used in cars.  This article is vague, and talks about mushroom roots, whatever those are.   My guess is that the researcher used the term to dumb it down a bit for either the reporter of the general public, and was referring to mycelium.  This writer from the UK seems to cater to a bit more intellectually mature audience.

Unfortunately, the White Nose Fungus has been found in southeastern Indiana, in spite of the closure of public caves to the public.  I'm heading up to some north Alabama caves in early March, and I'll be sure to ask about the prognosis up there.  In other invasive animal pathogen news, chytridiomycosis (which affects frogs) has also been found in Nantucket. The article quite WRONGLY refers to it as a "deadly virus". 

Sigh,  so it goes.  That's enough for now, I think.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Site Redesign

Yes, I've been quite active in the blogosphere recently, and have just redesigned this site. Prominently featured are: a new background featuring some nice LBMs I found here in a lawn, and a new masthead featuring an anomalous mushroom, Phylloporus rhodoxanthus, the gilled bolete. Boletes typically have tubes, but the trait of having a lamellate hymenium (a.k.a. gills) is polyphyletic, which means that not all things with the trait have it by common descent. A familiar animal example of this would be wings, a character shared by birds, bats, and insects; the three groups are only distantly related, with lots of unwinged taxa in between.

Gills are found in the traditional Agaricoid fungi (with some losses of gills), and in many (but not all) Russuloid fungi (which look like agarics to most folks). Gills are also found in some polypores, like Lenzites and Daedalea (the latter really being an in-betweener), as well as the split gill fungus, Schizophyllum commune (below). Interestingly, none of the Ascomycota have gills.

Back to P. rhodoxanthus, you can see in the picture that the gills are a bit different, in that they have little stubs, like they want to fork or form tubes, but then they don't. Paxillus spp., also in the order Boletales, tend to have forked gills too.

Anyway, I hope you, dear reader, appreciate the new look. Hopefully I'll keep posting new stuff with some frequency. We've been getting a lot of rain here, so perhaps if it warms up a bit I'll be posting some of my discoveries along the way.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Just found this site via...

Mycorant. In the class that I'm currently teaching, Organismal Biology, one of the assignments that students are engaged in is the watching of nature videos and reporting on them. In nature videos, there is a strong bias towards 1. Mammals, and 2. Animals in general. There are a handful of good plant videos, but the number of good fungi videos I've seen is scant, to be judicious.

However, thanks to Mycorant, I've found Fungal Visions, a blog that has some nice videos of fungal biology. One of the first ones I watched, showing the divisions of the Fungi, is quite dated, though. So, perhaps if I get another lifetime, I'll dedicate myself to making films about fungi. I doubt that's going to happen, though.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Organism of the Day: Armillaria mellea

Yesterday I presented the Organism of the Day to my Biology class, and selected one of my favorites, Armillaria mellea. First, the complete classification.

Armillaria mellea (Vahl.:Fr.) Kummer (common names include: oak root fungus, honey mushroom)


Physalacriaceae (it was Tricholomataceae when I first learned it, but we all knew Tricholomataceae was a dumping ground for white-spored mushrooms)






Why should you care about A. mellea? Well, first it's an important plant pathogen, infecting hundreds of plant species, though mostly noticeable on woody species. Even though it's called oak root fungus, this is clearly a misnomer. It can also survive on dead plant material, as a saprobe.

It does produce mushrooms, being an agaric, but these are analogous to the apples on the tree, they are just a way of getting around. The mushrooms are fairly typical, with a pileus, a stipe, and a partial veil. Like most common mushrooms, the fertile part or hymenium takes the form of gills, or lamellae. The spores produced rain down and you can see deposits of them on the caps of some of the other mushrooms. Notice that it’s white, the color is an important diagnostic feature as well.It also produces structures called mycelial fans, under the bark of trees that it’s infecting, which is an important structure for feeding the organism.

But another interesting feature is the bioluminescence. This is present in many species of mushrooms (at least 70 species) and other organisms, many animals. The glow of Armillaria mellea has been observed since ancient times, and has the common name foxfire. There’s a town called Foxfire in North Carolina, and Mark Twain in mentions the boys using it in Huckleberry Finn. In some fungi, the mushrooms glow, but in Armillaria, it’s the mycelium and rhizomorphs.

Perhaps the neatest thing about Armillaria is this item. In 1992 it was reported that a single clone of Armillaria gallica was estimated to cover an area of 15 hectares (or about 37 acres), weigh over 10,000 kg (about as much as a blue whale), and be over 1500 years old. And you would have never known it, because it was underground and under bark, and much of it was made up of microscopic threads.

The researchs who discovered the humongous fungus baited for the fungus using poplar sticks, buried under ground, and tested for somatic incompatibility. Basically, if the fungal isolates were genetically distinct, they would repel each other. If they fused, the isolates recognized each other part of the same whole. Comparison of genes further demonstrated that it’s all one big thing. The folks in Michigan are proud of their humongous fungus and celebrate it every year.

But the story doesn’t end there. Later that year, another humungous fungus was claimed near Glenwood, Washington, that was supposed to be 600 hectares, 40 times bigger than the one in the upper peninsula. Though the evidence wasn’t as strong, the question arose. How big can these things get?

In 2003, a paper was published demonstrating an even larger Armillaria clone, in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon. This one was found to be even bigger than the purported thallus of Glenwood, 965 hectares, or 2385 acres. Though the estimates of the age are variable, it's thought that the Oregon Armillaria clone (actually A. ostoyae) could be as old as 8650 years. Can you imagine? An individual organism that might predate the Egyptian pyramids?

Does this seem like deja vu? I just realized that I blogged about this before, and not too long ago. But not as a prestigious Organism of the Day. That part is new. I still think it's one of the coolest stories in mycology. I also think Tom Volk tells the story better, but there it is.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Another fungi in Alabama story

While waiting for the white nose fungus to come flying in from the north, Alabama has been hit by another newsworthy fungus in the south. This one has been around for a while, but is approaching epidemic proportions in the marshes near Mobile and adjacent Mississippi. Claviceps purpurea, which is better known as ergot, affects many grasses, and was the original source of lysergic acid, a precursor of LSD. Now it is hitting Spartina alternifolia, one of the two main grass species in the area.

The fungus doesn't kill the plants though it does render them sterile, which in an evolutionary context is just as bad. Many questions remain unanswered. For example, was the Gulf oil spill an important predisposing factor? Also, is it from the G3 group, considered a different variety of the fungus, which seems to affect Spartina more frequently than other grasses? Probably so, which would be good seeing as the G1 and G2 groups affect some of our economically important grasses. Clearly, this story is developing, and it is far to early to consider what the impact is or may become.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bear eating fly agaric

Came across this video depicting a bear cub eating fly agaric and having a little trip. I do not endorse the feeding of fly agaric to animals, but this is interesting and I haven't posted in a while, so there it is.