Wednesday, October 31, 2007


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.)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Comet in Perseus

From Sky and Telescope, nothing to do with southeast Missouri directly, but I thought I'd share:

"Sudden Naked-Eye Comet Shocks the Astronomy World"

"A distant comet that was as faint as magnitude 18 on October 20th has
suddenly brightened by a millionfold, altering the naked-eye appearance of
the constellation Perseus.

This startling outburst of Comet Holmes (17P) may be even stronger than the
one that occurred 115 years ago, in November 1892, when the comet was first
spotted by English amateur Edwin Holmes.

According to IAU Circular 8886, issued Wednesday October 24th by the Central
Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams in Cambridge, Massachusetts, A. Henriquez
Santana at Tenerife, Canary Islands, was the first to notice the outburst
shortly after local midnight on the 24th. The comet was then about 8th
magnitude, but within minutes Ramon Naves and colleagues in Barcelona,
Spain, caught it at magnitude 7.3.

Internet discussion groups came alive with the news. 'To my amazement, 17P
had brightened to naked-eye visibility,' exclaimed Bob King when he spotted
Comet Holmes shortly before dawn in Duluth, Minnesota. 'What a sight!' he
posted to the Comets Mailing List. Alan Hale of Cloudcroft, New Mexico,
concurred. To Hale (well-known codiscoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp) it appeared
essentially starlike in a telescope until he switched to high power.

Then things only got better. As Earth continued to turn, nightfall arrived
in Japan. 'It is visible with naked eyes in a large city!' posted Seiichi
Yoshida, who observed the comet from beside Tsurumi River in Yokohama. By
17:15 Universal Time he was describing Comet Holmes as magnitude 2.8."

Much more ... with charts and pictures:
Look towards the northeast, just south of the delta Persei. Other reports claim that it can be seen despite the full moon!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Resurrection fern

Like the rest of the Eastern U.S. this week, southeast Missouri finally received rain and cooler weather. Storms traditionally rumble into the area over the park, sending leaves and branches flying off the drought-stressed trees. I'm never very eager to head into the park after a storm, mainly because I don't like seeing carnage: huge trees fall across the trail, enormous branches block the roads and shellbark hickory nuts make running the trails impossible. Usually the day after a storm, I have a date with a chainsaw.

Before I moved here, the National Champion Swamp Chestnut oak, the largest of its kind in America, lost roughly 40% of its crown during a storm. The large branches remain right next to the tree where they landed, ever slowly decomposing. Of course, the tree is likely no longer the National Champion (up for the title again in 2008) thanks to the missing branches. When the branches fell in what was surely a deafening crash, they brought to the ground level a thriving population of resurrection ferns.

Found only east of the Rockies, resurrection fern grows on the high branches of oaks and cypresses in humid regions. One of only two ferns recorded from the park, resurrection fern is particularly notable because it traditionally grows in old growth forests where Spanish moss grows. We don't have Spanish moss here, but we do have stately oaks and cypresses.

Resurrection fern is an epiphyte, which means it gathers its nutrients from the air, rainwater, and particles that happen to land on the bark upon which it grows. Epiphytes are unlike parasites in that they do not receive nutrients from their host plant. While most ferns dry up and reproduce by spores during times of drought, resurrection ferns can lose up to 76% of its water content and remain alive. Most other plants can only lose up to 12% of their moisture before they die.

During dry spells, resurrection ferns curl their fronds inward, allowing the underside to be exposed to air and available moisture. When it rains, the fronds unfurl and remain green for at least a couple of weeks. I've kept resurrection fern alive in a tank with dart frogs for about three weeks under constant hydration. The small fronds on a bit of live oak bark shriveled up after a month, despite having moisture. It probably realized that it was being held captive.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Squirrels fallen on hard times

Last spring, after the oaks and the forest understory had flowered, Missouri froze. A hard, killing frost reduced the spring woods to crinkly black leaves and desiccated flowers. Foresters speculated about the impacts such a late freeze would have on acorn production this fall. I didn't think we'd see a single white oak acorn, personally. My sister agency released the 2007 Mast Report last week and in it, they announced that white oak acorn production is down 58.5%. Even though their Mast Report only covered the Ozarks and other significantly forested areas (which leaves out southeast Missouri), I'm finding the same low numbers of white oak acorns in my small patch of woods as the rest of the state.

Red oak acorns, on the other hand, are only down 8% from last year's crop. White oak acorns are formed the same year as the flowers are formed. Red oaks, the group that includes scarlet oaks, Shumard's, and pins, take two years to produce acorns. This year's production is based on last year's flowering event. Of course, next year will be a bad one for red oak acorns since this year's flowers were killed by the frost.

As a courtesy to hunters interested in mast-eating mammals like squirrels and deer, foresters in my sister agency have produced Mast Reports since 1960. Foresters report that this year's production is the lowest in recorded history. Squirrels will be impacted more dramatically than deer. Squirrels distinguish between white and red oak acorns; red oak acorns are higher in fat, but also high in the distasteful tannins. White oak acorns have less fat and also fewer tannins.

While squirrels prefer fatty red oak acorns, if the white oak acorns are more abundant, they will eat more of them just after acorn drop. White oaks send out taproots days and weeks after they fall, while red oaks sprout the following spring. Since the tannins in white oak acorns are concentrated in the taproot, squirrels tend to eat them first, and store red oak acorns for the winter. Recent research has shown that squirrels will only eat the top part of the red oak acorn (about 60% of it) to avoid the concentrated tannins at the embyronic end. Even though squirrels eat the bulk of an acorn, the remaining part can still produce a tree. Estimates suggest that 74% of all buried acorns are never found again.

With white oak acorn populations impacted by the frost, squirrels will be forced to eat and store red oak acorns if they plan on eating this winter. If you live in an area impacted by the Easter freeze, I recommend stocking up on peanuts, suet and corn for your squirrel feeders. This winter, you should do it not just for selfish viewing reasons, but because they actually need the help.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Reynolds House

The city of Cape Girardeau can't handle money very well. Every week, another article appears in their fine Southeast Missourian about how the City Council allocated funds for one project, decided at the last minute to funnel it somewhere else, and now they're asking for tax dollars for the original project. This seems to happen all the time in Cape Girardeau. Ask anyone in Cape Girardeau Co. about the public swimming pool fiasco, and you'll get an earful.

Now, the only house in the area that represents the French Colonial Period in Cape Girardeau is in desperate need of a $3,000 roof. The city can't find the funds. Neither can the state's Historic Preservation group, and neither can anyone else, apparently. Read here a frustrating tale about a property of great historic significance that will fall to pieces within months if it doesn't get a new roof. Where are the public pleas for money? Where are the roofing companies who can step up to the plate, get great press and save a historic property in a few days? Where are the musicians for a benefit concert? $3,000? That will get you a one bedroom apartment in New Orleans for a month. Or an entire century of history in Cape Girardeau.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sand prairies in fall

Sand prairies are really dynamic year round, but in the fall, they're truly spectacular places.

Splitbeard bluestem, the dominant grass in most sand prairies, sends out white, fluffy seedheads every October. Jointweed and partridge peas bloom once the cooler nights arrive. Dusky hognose snakes and scorpions bask on the warm sand. Turkeys and quail hide among the tall grasses.
After the colorful display is over, sand prairies are burned, removing all cover for wildlife on the open plain, sending every animal into the nearby stands of oaks and hickories on the savanna.
From my friend A.J.'s collection, southeast Missouri's sand prairies and a savanna during October.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


Each spring, foragers of wild edible plants set out in search of spring greens. They generally collect the first tender leaves of dandelions, purslane, wild mustards and lamb's quarters, but the prized plant for the steaming pot of spring greens is pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Once the initial leaves are removed, more come up; fresh greens can be secured all spring if you're the one who located the plant. In the South, locals usher in spring with poke salat (not salad, like the song. I've also seen it spelled "salatt"), a scrumptious pot of greens that taste a lot like spicy mustards drenched in butter.

Preparation of pokeweed requires diligence. All parts of the plant are toxic to humans if eaten raw. Cook poke leaves in two batches of salted water; if eaten raw, they cause severe stomach distress. The stem of the young plant can be cooked like asparagus. In Louisiana kitchens, the stems are cut into rounds and fried like okra. Once the stem starts turning bright red, it is no longer edible.

The dark berries that suspend like grapes from the red stems every fall were once used to darken Portugese ports. They apparently lent such a bad flavor to the sweet wine that the use of poke berries was outlawed. Jan Phillips, the patient, dare-devil author of Wild Edibles of Missouri once used poke berries to color an icing for a cake, but advises others against using them because they taste bad.

In every group of plant enthusiasts I've belonged to, there's always at least one person who is really into mushrooms, one really into ferns and one or two who are nuts about wild edibles. Wildflower walks are interrupted with the instructions on how to prepare spring ephemerals for the table, how many thousands of plants can be made into tea, or how to make flour out of hickory nuts. In modern times, with cultivated food widely available in most communities and our natural communities feeling stress from every possible direction, I think harvesting native plants is a little irresponsible. Just knowing that milkweed can be eaten raw or that reindeer lichen can be used as a substitute for flour should be rewarding enough. Milkweed, as one measly example, is significantly more important as food for wildlife than novelty food for humans.

Anyway, I have a huge pokeweed plant that is growing among my morning glories and that sad, failed attempt at growing Thompson seedless grapes. The berries are ripening now. I could have had fresh greens all spring, if I wanted them. I have ignored my pokeweed all year, much to the dismay of my superior who regularly disdains my yard as "full of weeds." I always assumed that the rich black berries must be a great find for wildlife. I listen more to my friend Charlotte Seidenberg, whose The Wildlife Garden: Planning Backyard Habitats has been more of a guiding force in my gardening than any book on wild edibles:
The 6 inch racemes of white to purplish flowers are followed in the fall by dark purple fruit eaten by many birds including bluebirds, cardinals, thrashers, thrushes, waxwings, doves, and mammals such as raccoons, opossums, and foxes. Pokeweed reseeds rampantly. Every part of the plant is poisonous to humans.

I can't imagine all the trial and error that goes into discovering the toxicity of native plants. If you're into eating plants from Southern woods, check out Dr. Charles Allen's latest offering, Edible Plants of the Gulf South. For what it's worth, he grows his own.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Benign neglect

When I first broke ground on my small bed for native plants almost two years ago, I had some idea what I wanted it to look like. I wanted an organic feel, rich with grasses and wildflowers, with no real order. I call the native plant bed my "prairie," a genuine misnomer since true prairie implies uninterrupted expanses of not only certain plants, but wetlands, woody draws and all of the associated faunal communities. My native bed has a small, wet draw that was installed this year after several hours of laborious shoveling through southeast Missouri's clay soils.It's not a true wetland, of course, not a wetland that my brilliant wetland biologist friend Neal could improve upon, but it's a depression that holds water long enough to attract a number of leopard frogs on a daily basis. I put in a small stand of woody sumacs this year, too, large enough to merely (again)imply those undulating stands of sumacs in true prairie. Prairie managers fight sumacs by burning, disking, "brushhogging," but grassland bird experts agree that sumacs are vital to populations of meadowlarks and even bobwhite quail.
I don't manage my little prairie. I pull out the creeping turf grass whose presence in my yard I truly despise. I burned the prairie this past spring. I let the morning glories move in and climb all over the dead sunflowers, which I continue to ignore until the goldfinches finish digging out all the mature seeds. I added more asters this year and have allowed the goldenrods to bloom where they volunteered. The only time I water my little prairie is when I'm filling the draw for the leopard frogs. My management regime, that of benign neglect, continues to reward me with a rich floral display and the accompanying invertebrate life.

Molly really enjoys the prairie. She's found a low spot in the sumacs that she continues to deepen, thereby encouraging rainwater pooling if it ever rains. She hunkers down in the prairie after her walk. She walks through the wet draw, filling her paws with Tunica sharkey clay soils which manage to find their way onto my bedsheets. The small patch of prairie attracts not only my little dog, but a panoply of moths, bees, flies, wasps, spiders. My entomologist has written a note for a journal about the importance of small patch habitat to yehl skippers, a rather nondescript little skipper. The only place in the county he ever finds them is in my front yard, in the "prairie," which literally teems with activity.
I've been asked by a local community to help design native plant beds to be installed on city property. I've sent pictures of my native plant bed to the community's parks department; I specifically chose times in the prairie's cycle when it was less wooly, when the native plant bed looked significantly more manicured than it does now. If the organizers of the project were to see the it now, after it has been genuinely neglected for months on end, I imagine they'd scratch the idea of a native plant bed and opt for thousands upon thousands of petunias. Anyway, the prairie is scheduled to be burned this fall. Grasses respond better to spring burns, wildflowers prefer fall burns. I can't fathom wildflowers responding better to fire than they did this year. Next year, I imagine, will be truly spectacular.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Silver spotted skippers

I first saw this large skipper last fall, hovering over a mound of purple asters in my native plant bed. To be honest, I was downright lazy in my pursuit to identify it. I flipped through Butterflies of Missouri looking for a nice color plate. I looked through the butterfly and moth sections, but completely ignored the thick mass of pages dedicated to skippers, generally small insects that noticeably "skip" from plant to plant. The silver spotted skipper was too large, I thought, to be a skipper.

This spring, when they appeared by the droves on my pink zinnias, I was finally forced to figure out who they were. For some reason, the name "gray spotted checker"--an abomination of three other insects, the gray hairstreak, spotted skipper and checkered skipper-- stuck in my head. All summer I called the silver spotted skipper a gray spotted checker. I said it with such conviction that even my herpetologist remembered the name until he tried looking it up. Times like this, when I'm obviously wrong, Alyssa laughs hysterically, she bends over at the waist in delight. I hope my herpetologist did the same thing.

To make up for my negligence towards learning this insect, I've gorged on its natural history. My entomologist has fed me some fun facts about silver spotted skippers and I've finally consulted all of my departmental books. Skippers belong to a large family, the Hesperiidae, that includes several thousand species. Most skippers generally have rather stout bodies and small wings. The larvae prepare their nests by curling leaves around the cocoon; the skippers that feed on grasses web blades together for shelter. The silver spotted skipper is the largest skipper in Missouri, which is probably why I didn't think it was a skipper.

This skipper, the most common skipper in my zinnia bed, is responsible for my lack of fresh lima beans, fresh flageolets, and fresh heirloom haricot verts this summer. The silver spotted skipper larvae feed on members of the Fabaceae family, the pea family. While the adults traditionally lay their eggs singly on woody members of the family like honey locust and false indigo, they will just as easily lay their eggs on bean plants, encouraging the larvae to devour all of the plant's leaves in a matter of days. Considering that 92% of my county is planted in soybeans, which are also members of the Fabaceae family, the commonality of silver spotted skippers is no mystery. They are an identified crop pest and can be "treated" with a gnarly combination of pesticides. Of course, I just let them have their way. If I'm not meant to have beans, I'm not meant to have beans. I still have the all-important tomatoes and basil and a great patch of oregano. Nevertheless, a single caterpillar can destroy 50-70% of the leaves of a single bean plant.

My entomologist works part-time for local farmers identifying crop pests. He has discovered that more silver spotted skippers live in RoundUp Ready soybean fields than in the area's few pristine woodlands. Because the skippers have lived for so long around pesticides, the larvae are now resistant to RoundUp. While this is utterly disheartening for so many reasons, it's also somehow...good? that they're not being killed by an herbicide. They still manage to exist in high numbers, despite the presence of toxic chemicals that are systemically grown into their food source.

Silver spotted skippers only visit nectar sources that are pink, purple, blue, red and white. They don't visit yellow flowers very often, which explains why I only see them on my zinnias and not on my goldenrod and asters. With a food source so widely available as soybeans in southeast Missouri, this is one insect that is holding its ground in light of the terribly depauperate habitat.