Sunday, October 7, 2012

28. Slime Molds, Stinkhorns, and Other Friends of Mine

When I hike outdoors I have lots of friends – wildflowers, birds, trees, moths, and butterflies, and assorted beetles and other bugs – but slime molds and other fungi have a special place in my heart.  These organisms are part of the vast world of nonflowering plants – plants that don’t bear flowers or produce seeds – a world that includes fungi, mosses, ferns, lichens, and algae.  But my special affection goes out to various fungi and I shall talk about them here. 

“Slime molds” – with a name like that you sure could use a friend.  But I won’t start with them, I’ll save them till last.  So where should I begin?  How about a mushroom whose name can also put you off -- elegant stinkhorn?  Of course it has a scientific name, Mutinus elegans, but there’s something so deliciously improbable, so oxymoronic (or just moronic?) about “elegant stinkhorn,” I wouldn’t dream of calling it anything else. 

File:Elegant stinkhorn - Washingon DC - 2011.jpg
                                                                Tim 1965
So here we go.  Imagine a pink tapered finger of a thing, four to seven inches long and open at the top, poking up out of leaf litter or wood debris in woods and cultivated fields, its top third or so covered by a greenish slime that stinks, and you’ve got the essence of elegant stinkhorn.  The stinkhorn part of the name is clear enough, but what, you may ask, is elegant about it?  Darned if I know; you’ll have to ask the guy who named it, if he’s still around.  I’ve seen (and smelled) it mostly on a certain woodland path on Monhegan Island in Maine, but since it’s often found in parks and gardens in urban areas, I’m sure it’s lurking somewhere hereabouts; you have only to go looking and sniffing for it.  And that stinky green slime has a purpose, being a mass of spores that attracts insects (in nature there’s no accounting for taste) and then sticks to them, so that when they fly off, they spread the spores far and wide, thus guaranteeing the stinkhorn a rich progeny.  And if the thing strikes you as looking slightly wanton, all I can say is, that’s nothing compared to another stinkhorn that goes by the name of Phallus impudicus, which I shan’t presume to translate.  (Nature’s morals leave a lot to be desired.)

           Next, how about the puffballs?  (Please, no jokes.)  These little guys can show up from summer to late fall (assuming a fair amount of rain, to be sure) on lawns and in parks and open woods, and even in deserts and mountains.  Spherical and usually stalkless, they are sometimes the size of golf balls, though I’ve seen them even smaller, and in the case of giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea), which I’ve never seen but want to, as big as a soccer ball.  Why the “puff” in “puffball”?  Because, if you touch them when they’re mature, the spore mass escapes in a smokelike puff through a tiny hole in the top of the sphere.   Most puffballs are considered choice edibles when young, but I’ve never indulged, since my appetite for fungi is strictly visual; not having had a course in mycology, I might make a mistake, and such mistakes (as I’ll soon show) can be fatal.  I look, but I don’t taste or devour, though those who do say that mushrooms and other edible fungi are a rare delight.

File:Lycoperdon pyriforme, Stump Puffball, UK.jpg
                                                                    Stu Phillips

         There are many kinds of puffballs, but the one I’ve seen most frequently, in dense clusters on wood, decaying logs, and debris, is pear-shaped puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme), often only an inch in diameter, pear-shaped and smooth, 
and yellow-brown to gray in color.  Widespread  throughout, it strikes me as the commoner of the tribe.  

                                                                    Jason Hollinger

Another one, and to my mind more elegant, is gem-studded puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum), a slightly larger round to turban-shaped white mushroom with tiny conical spines that account for the “gem-studded” part of the name, though to my eye they look more like tiny warts.  Still, if pear-shaped puffball is a commoner, gem-studded puffball comes off as a prince.  

                                                                      Stan Campbell

          Finally, akin to puffballs, and sometimes classified with them, are the earthstars, puffball-like spheres atop a bunch of starlike rays, found in open woods.  Alas, I have never seen one, know them only from pictures in books. 

File:Tremella mesenterica or Witchs Butter.JPG
                                                                            Rosser 1954
          Another fungus that I've often seen on deciduous wood both in Maine and down here is witches’ butter (Tremella mesenterica), a common jelly fungus that appears as bright blobs of yellow, ranging from globular to brainlike; it adds a vibrant bit of color to dark and soggy woods.  And the name?  In European folklore the appearance of the fungus on your gate or the entrance to your house meant that a witch had put a spell on you; to get rid of the hex, you had to prick the fungus with a pin, causing its juices to leak out.  Superstition, of course; but if strange yellow blobs ever appear on your property, have a good supply of straight pins handy.  (Advice from a guy who every day eats garlic, not because it’s supposed to ward off vampires, but if it does, I say so much the better and sleep easier at night when the window is open.)

Perhaps the most prized edible wild mushroom in the world, chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) is a beautiful vaselike mushroom, bright yellow or orange, with ridges descending its stalk and a fragrance like apricots; I have often seen it around New York growing alone (it likes its space), though often with some cousins nearby, on the ground under oaks and conifers.  That something so bright and graceful should exist in the same world as slime molds and stinkhorns amazes me, but such is the crazy diversity of the universe of fungi.  Though I’ve never tried it, 

Chanterelle or Jack O'Lantern?  Can you tell the difference?
Jack O'Lantern.  The one above is chanterelle.
I’m sure it is delicious as a food, unless of course you’ve picked by mistake its orange-to-yellow look-alike, Jack O’Lantern (Omphalotus olearius), in which case you’ll be sick to your stomach for up to two days.  One more reason why I look at mushrooms but don’t pick them to eat.  As for Jack O’Lantern, it’s a groupie that grows in clusters on stumps and buried roots, and lacks the apricot-like fragrance of chanterelle.  For the name there are two explanations: its orange color suggests pumpkins; when picked fresh and placed in a dark room, its gills give off an eerie green glow.  I found it once in Pelham Bay Park and brought it back to test its bioluminescence (yes, that’s the word for it), but got nothing; maybe it wasn’t fresh enough for the gills to glow.

Shaggy manes, in various stages of deliquescence
                                                                                 H. Krisp
For masochism it would be hard to surpass the inky caps, mushrooms whose gills liquefy on maturing, dissolving the cap into an inky black fluid-- a kind of fungal hari-kari unique in the universe of fungi.  I have seen one species, shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus), under oaks in Van Cortland Park, sometimes cylindrical, shaggy, and white; sometimes with the cap expanding and not at all shaggy, as the gills turn black from the edge of the cap inward; and finally, after liquefying, as a capless bare stalk that gives no hint of its prior shape and color.  It has a habit of turning up in numbers on lawns and in gardens, and can even push up through asphalt.  If picked when young, before liquefying, it is a highly prized edible used in stews and soups.  Its juice was once used as an ink for writing.

         Now we come to the dark tribe of mushrooms, the Amanitas, meriting the name not because they are dark in color – far from it – but because they harbor deadly poisons.  When I first encountered them on Monhegan Island, a friend told me how to tell them from seeming look-alikes --  useful advice, since in a rainy autumn they pop up all over the headlands and in the spruce woods of the island.  Amanitas are characterized by a universal veil that encloses the young mushroom when it first appears, but then breaks, leaving traces on the cap and base; a partial veil that shields the gills on the undersurface of the cap, which also breaks, leaving a ring or annulus on the stem; and a swollen base. 

         Armed with this knowledge, we shouldn’t have trouble recognizing these sinister characters, should we?  Ah, but what if rain washes away the ring, and the telltale patches on the cap and base?  Then the mushrooms are easily confused with other quite harmless species.  Ninety percent of fatal mushroom poisonings can be attributed to these guys, so picker, beware!  One way to identify them is to make a spore print, placing the severed cap on a sheet of paper with the undersurface facing down.  The spore print of Amanitas is white, the color of purity and innocence (no comment).  That and a few other technical details should settle the matter, at least 
for experts.  One local expert you can trust is Steve Brill, the go-to guy for foraging, mentioned in post #23 (go to

1. Puffball or Amanita?  Take a guess.
                                                                      Wang-Chi Poon
       A further complication: when Amanitas first appear, egglike in their universal veil, they resemble puffballs, those fetching little edibles mentioned earlier.  If, when gathering puffballs, you accidentally toss in an Amanita or two, your next meal may be your last.  Yet another reason for amateurs to leave well enough alone.
2. Again, puffball or Amanita?  Answer at the end of the post.
                                                                             Sanja 565658

                                                   Jason Hollinger
       I have encountered many Amanitas.  Yellow patches (Amanita  flavoconia) is a common small species with bright yellow patches on an orangeish cap; I’ve seen it both on Monhegan and in parks down here.  Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) often appears on and near the headlands of Monhegan, its blood-red cap six inches or more in diameter and covered with pyramidal white patches – the showiest Amanita, in my experience, and easily recognized.  In an open area near the shore on Monhegan I once saw no less than twenty-five, though such conglomerations are rare.  The  name comes from the mushroom’s use in former times as a preparation to ward off flies.  (Maybe we should give it a try today.)

File:Amanita muscaria fungi in the Frame Heath Inclosure, New Forest - - 261251.jpg
                                                    Jim Champion
         My favorite Amanita is Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa), one of the deadliest of the tribe, which I’ve seen many times in the spruce woods of Monhegan, though rarely down here. “Destroying” is obvious, you may say, but why “angel”?  To understand that, you need to see it as 
I have, shining  white against a dark backdrop of spruce tree trunks, usually alone, offering  the typical mushroom form in classic simplicity.  For sheer beauty I rank it with chanterelle.  A sinister beauty, to be sure, and cunning, for its symptoms of poisoning – severe vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps -- are followed after a day or so by a remission that reassures the victim and gives hope of recovery, followed in turn (barring treatment) by kidney or liver failure and death. 
         Even though they contain both male and female organs, we think of flowers 
 as being inherently feminine; everything about them suggests it: the colors, the fragrance, the enticing vaginal depths.  Mushrooms, on the other hand, often assume phallic shapes, as for example the Phallus impudicus mentioned earlier, and another Amanita named Amanita phalloides, not to mentioned the puffballs and stinkhorns.  So of course they strike us as being inherently masculine, poking up brazenly all over the place when conditions are ripe.
         But wildflowers are always present from early spring through the end of fall, whereas mushrooms are mostly found in late summer and autumn, up until the first deep frost.  And in a dry season you will find few or none, since it takes a heavy rain, and ideally several days of it, to provoke these penile insurgencies.  One very rainy August years ago I encountered thick growths of mushrooms in and around the city in places where I’d never seen them before, though when I stopped to examine them, I was immediately beset with swarms of mosquitoes.  Which is why soggy autumns, especially late autumns, are the best time for mushroom hunting.

For the hardy few:  My poem "Blond Brain, White Tongue," first published in The Chattahoochee Review, tries to convey the mystery of mushrooms.  See the post "Poesy 2."
         And finally, the slime molds: not mushrooms, but blobs and smears and tiny balls and curlicues and crusts – molds that undergo such changes in their brief life cycle that you can know one stage and not recognize another that develops a few hours later.  On a stump in the spruce woods of Monhegan I have seen scrambled-egg slime (Fuligo septica), a fluffy yellowish mass that does indeed, at this stage, look like scrambled eggs, though it later becomes crusty and black.

                                                                        Jason Hollinger
         Also on a dead log in the spruce woods of Monhegan I have found wolf’s-milk slime (Lycogala epidendrum), little puffball-like pink-to-gray balls or cushions exuding a pink paste that resembles toothpaste.  More than one hiker, on first encountering the stuff, has taken it for someone’s old bubblegum deposited on a bit of rotting wood.  But what the connection with wolf’s milk is, I haven’t been able to discover.  
Coral slime
                                                                       Jason Hollinger
         These two slime molds are a worthy and transforming experience, but what really haunts me are the names and color photos in the Audubon field guide to mushrooms of the slime molds I have never seen.  Just listen to these names: carnival candy slime, coral slime, red raspberry slime, Japanese lantern slime, yellow-fuzz cone slime, pretzel slime, tapioca slime, white-footed slime, chocolate tube slime – what a feast for the imagination, what evocations of color and texture and shape!  They induce in me fantasies of candy and pretzels and weird underwater formations and ripe berries and cottony masses and strange globs of protoplasm creeping silently over dead things – fantasies that aren’t so wide of the mark, when you see their color photos, which have added to my repertory white icicles and brown cigars. You may think that my imaginings far surpass reality, but no, having glimpsed a few of these mysterious organisms, I can assure you that seeing them in their gooey, sticky flesh transcends even the most vivid imagining.
         In closing I’ll add this salient fact: transient as they are, and parasitic, sucking nutrients from rotting leaves and wood, slime molds are agents of decay, doing their part in the endless cycle of death and life and death and life again that encompasses all nature, ourselves included.  They are part of us and we are part of them, like it or not: a cycle that is simultaneously awesome, fascinating, relentless, and terrifying.  
I think of all these forms of life – slime molds and mushrooms and puffballs and stinkhorns and the rest – as friends, because to do otherwise would acknowledge them as enemies, and workers of our destruction and dissolution, which indeed they are, or will be.  But if we all work together in this fantastic pageant of life, and see each other as partners and sharers and collaborators, the beauty and mystery for me outweigh the dread and horror.  All these varied life forms are indeed beautiful and mysterious, and worthy of our attention, our respect, and even, I hope, our love. 
A hopefully relevant aside:  My world of lovable creatures includes not just fungi but also snakes (mostly harmless) and spiders (good guys who eat flies and mosquitoes), and yes, even poison ivy and stinging nettle.  But I’ll admit that I draw the line, when it comes to flies and mosquitoes and roaches.  I want to believe William Blake’s luminous assertion, “Everything that lives is holy,” but the holiness of a few pesky life forms does, as of this writing, escape me.  But then, I never said I was perfect.  Not yet, at least.

Answer, puffball or Amanita?  1. Puffball.  2. Amanita -- in fact, the deadly Amanita virosa or Destroying Angel.

Thought for the day:  Slime fungus is your cousin; mold, your blood brother.

                                         © 2012  Clifford Browder

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