Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Jelly ear fungus


Last week, it rained every afternoon in southeast Missouri. Of course, fall rains come a little too late to affect the fall color display; white oaks and hickories are quickly turning brown in southeast Missouri, reminding everyone of the hardships our natural world encountered this year. The growing season began with a killing frost on Easter weekend and continued with an extended drought that lasted almost all summer. Of course, the recent rains saturated the farm fields, brought the bayou behind the house up to full pool for a few days and refilled the park's water features, making it possible to boat around the moat again. Also encouraged by the rain was a full suite of fall mushrooms, all bursting out of decaying wood and leaf litter.

The most common mushroom in the woods these days, jelly ear, is common throughout North America. It can be found primarily on dead elms and elders, but also on cedars. Jelly ear fungus belongs to a group of sabropic (word of the day! a wood-rotting fungus that lives on decomposing wood) mushrooms called the Basidiomycetes. Members of this group don't merely leave their spores hanging around to set up shop, but physically catapult their spores from small spore holders. The part of the mushroom that faces downward is fertile, springing forth new spores before they dry out; the upward facing part of the jelly ear is sterile.

Within the Basidiomycetes, jelly ear mushrooms belong to the family Auriculariales (pronounce every syllable slowly and drag the accent to the penult), which includes other gelatinous fungi that lack stems. They are featured prominently in Asian cooking, where they soak up other flavors rather easily. Jelly ears are a staple in sweet and sour soup. Eaten raw, jelly ear mushrooms have the consistency of Gummi Bears (the original ones by Hairbo, not the knock-off American candies which have more granulated sugar) and taste like soil, which can be nice if that's what you like.

Jelly ear fungus has a second name which reminds us all of the early American taxonomist's propensity towards antisemitism and imagination: "Jew's ear" or "Judas' ear." Apparently, it has been surmised that Judas hanged himself on an elm tree, the host plant to the fungus. Yesterday, when I asked thirty-seven 4th graders if they had ever heard of Judas (supposing their parents might have shown them the fungus that grows prolifically in the park and given it the alternate name), none of the Bible-belt students raised their hands. "He...." I stammered, "was this guy...who liked elm trees...?" and I left it at that. When we passed the stand of jelly ears on our way out of the park, I asked the students crowded around me what it was called. In unison, roughly 20 kids hollered out, "jelly ear fungus!"

(I wonder, sitting at home a day later, why on earth would I have mentioned to these impressionable kids that a. Judas hanged himself, b. that antisemitism was so widely accepted that a common name for a mushroom reeks of it and c. that more than one name is accepted as a common name? Isn't that precisely what I despise? Hrmph.)

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