Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jack-o-lantern Mushrooms

Jack-o-lantern Mushrooms at the base of a tree stump.

     In honor of Halloween, here is a fascinating and fitting fungus: the Jack-o-lantern Mushroom (Omphalotus illudenss). These bright orange mushrooms can be found growing in clumps on decaying stumps and base of dead trees in the Fall. A fairly good identification trait is that they have gills that run part way down their curved stalks. As they grow older they, they often are sunken in the middle top of their caps as well.

The gills run part way onto the crooked stalk.

     Jack-O Lanterns are most famous for an eerie, though rarely seen, trait, as they can glow green in the dark! Conditions have to be perfect for this to happen though. They must be mature, but not too old, and should be moist. It also helps if it is very, very dark and you concentrate on looking at their gills. I've tried this many times but have not been rewarded that often. For the best chances, make sure you let your eyes get accustomed to the dark a few minutes, use the freshest mushrooms you can find, stare at their gills, and make it as dark as possible. Jack-o-lanterns are among the 71 or so fungi (out of over 100,000 species worldwide) that show bioluminescence.

The best my camera could do to capture the bioluminescence of the mushroom gills.

     People have confused them for edible Chantarelles (which do not grow in clumps for the most part, do not have gills running down the stalks, and often grow on the forest floor rather than on stumps or base of trees). Jack-o-lanterns are supposed to have a soapy taste. Take a bit of care though since these are considered to be poisonous mushrooms. Ingesting them won't kill you, but you will be in terrible gastric distress for a couple of days (and they say, perhaps wishing you were dead).
     It is this poisonous quality that is being studied in cancer research. It appears that several types of cancer are affected by the chemicals found in Jack-o-lanterns. They also seem to have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties as well.
     Although not unpleasant in smell, these fungi tend to attract a lot of flies and other insects, especially once they start to decompose. I've seen lots of fungus gnats, various species of flies, and even yellowjackets all in great abundance around Jack-o-lantern Mushrooms. It may be that these insects help disperse the spores, but they may just be feeding on the decomposing flesh also. Here are a couple of photos showing some.

A pair of either Drosophilid or Lauxaniid flies attracted to the mushrooms.

A fly feeds on a Jack-o-lantern Mushroom.

     Jack-o-lantern Mushrooms are definitely one of the more fascinating types of fungi. There orangish color, emergence near Halloween, and eerie green glow I thought made them very appropriate for a Halloween post. Just don't try and make pie from them...

Jack-o-lanterns emerging

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Carpenter Bees

Carpenter Bee nectaring on Goldenrod

    Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica) are not always well liked by people. First of all due to their large and intimidating appearance, and secondly due to the perceived damage they can cause wood. They look like very large bumble bees, but are not only larger, but also have bulkier heads and little to no "hair" on their abdomens. This often gives them a shiny, blue-black appearance unlike the hairy look of the smaller bumble bees.

Bumble Bee (left) and male Carpenter Bee (right) on Goldenrod

     Despite their large size, these are fairly docile creatures, very rarely stinging. The males can be told apart from females due to the white patch on their face and are the ones who likely make these bees look intimidating. They stake out a territory near wood structures that females are tunneling into. They then patrol, challenging anything that comes into their little area. Being somewhat short sighted,  they sometimes get uncomfortably close checking out who has entered their territory. They are completely harmless however, doubly so since only female bees/wasps can sting any ways. Stingers are modified ovipositors (egg-layers) so males do not have any way to sting.

Inside look at a Carpenter Bee hole

     Carpenter bees are solitary, unlike bumble bees, with a single mother building, tending, and occupying a tunnel with her young. She chews a hole into old wood and then angles off to one side where she builds separate cells for each of her young. She collects pollen/nectar to provision the chamber (cell) and then seals it off with saw dust from the next cell. You can often tell an active hole by the saw dust underneath.  Xylocopa eggs are among the largest of bee eggs, among the largest of most insects. They can measure almost half the bee's abdomen. Only a few eggs are laid by each mother each summer, often 8 or less. The mother also devotes more time to them than most bees or wasps do.

Post showing both Carpenter Bee hole and and damage by woodpeckers drilling out bee larvae.

 Although this is usually just cosmetic and not structural damage, it can cause some harm and concern long term or if there are many holes. This is especially so since carpenter bees show great nest fidelity, with the young coming back and building in the same wood that their mothers used and often expanding existing tunnels even more. That means that preventing them from even starting is a huge factor in making sure they do not establish a colony. Although they may tunnel into stained wood, they do not like painted, pressure treated, or varnished surfaces. Filling the empty holes and/or screening them off also can greatly help.

Carpenter Bee cheating by robbing nectar from base of hole chewed at base of flower.

   Carpenter bees are actually beneficial insects and act, for the most part, as pollinators for many flowers. Their tongues however are not as long as some bumble bees and so sometimes cannot reach into deep flowers. That means that they sometimes "cheat" and chew a hole into the base of the flowers to steal nectar without providing pollination services, something that some other bees like honeybees also can do.

Carpenter Bee sleeping under the cover of a leaf and flowers.

     Though over the summer many carpenter bees, especially males, just hid under flowers and leaves to spend the night, many are now heading back to the holes to overwinter. They will remain dormant in these holes until spring arrives and they start the cycle all over again.
     There are many dangers to carpenter bees besides angry homeowners. One such danger is a creature who's whole existence depends on its carpenter bee hosts. A large fly called the Tiger Bee Fly (Xenox tigrinus) is often noticed hovering near carpenter bee tunnels. It is a parasatoid, laying its egg in the opening and then having its own larvae kill and eat the carpenter bee larva when it is pupating. Without carpenter bees there would be no Tiger Bee Flies, so they do not end up killing them all and are not a threat to people or the bee population as a whole.

Tiger Bee Fly
     Carpenter bees are not liked very much or are not well appreciated, but are fascinating and important parts of the natural world. They are intricately tied into the lives of flowers and of course the Tiger Bee Fly. Just something to think about the next time an inquisitive male buzzes you or you see one near the eaves of your porch.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Persimmon - "Fruit of the Gods"

American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) the "Fruit of the Gods"

     Few trees have as much lore and ethnobotany surrounding them as the American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Though best known for its delicious edible qualities (but only when completely ripe), it has so many other traits. It is however hard to get past the wonderful taste of the fruits of this Genus of small trees. Its scientific Genus name Diospyros translates to "Fruit of the Gods" and many would say that is indeed a fitting name. The Algonquian name for them was something akin to "putchamin" which led to the name we have for it now. 
     Even when not full of fruit (and since this tree is dioecious, only female trees produce flowers resulting in fruit), the flat, corky rectangular bark is often enough to identify American Persimmon. It is a member of the Ebony family, with very dense, strong, and almost black heartwood. The wood has been used for spindles and to make golf clubs, but it doesn't grow large enough for any real lumber uses. 

Rectangular bark typical of persimmon

Urn shaped flowers

     The leaves are simple, nondescript, and the flowers, though fragrant, are not often noticed. It seems as though the only time people notice these small trees (growing less that 70' in most cases) is when they are loaded down with fruits.

A ripe 'Simmon ready for eating

     Although many would say it is deservedly called the "fruit of the gods" when ripe, few things compare to biting into a green persimmon. They are astringent and tart to the extreme! They so completely dry out your mouth, that it is quite a memorable experience for all the wrong reasons (and a favorite prank to play on people who are uninitiated and then tricked into biting into an unripe fruit). Captain John Smith, while near Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600's, wrote: "If it be not ripe, it will draw a man's mouth awrie with much torment." The puckered mouth is said to last up to a full day (or at least it seems that way for those of us who have tried to eat one). So astringent is the green fruit that Francis Peyre Porcher in his Civil War treatise that is often referred to as the "Confederate Ethnobotany" says that it is better than oak for tanning (and does contain tannins). 

Sweet, colorful pulp and seeds of a ripe persimmon.

     A fully ripe persimmon is something else altogether though, considered delicious by most.  Some compare the flavor to that of dates. Although many believe that 'simmons are not edible until they have been hit by hard frosts, this is simply not true. While the cold does reduce some of the tannins and makes the fruit slightly sweeter, if the persimmon falls off the tree with only a slight pull or by shaking the tree, they should be good to eat. Ripe ones should be slightly squishy and have lost most of their green coloration as well. A stem attached to the fruit is a good clue that it fell off before being completely ripe as well, and is not ready to eat.
     The fruits are full of vitamin C, can be eaten raw, used to make puddings, breads and cakes, or made into alcoholic drinks. In fact, Porcher, in his aforementioned Confederate Civil War manual, lists not one, but three different recipes for using persimmon to make beer. He also mentions that they can make a "particularly fine brandy."
          Porcher also notes that various parts of persimmon can be used to treat fevers, diarrhea, dysentery, and sore throats. Other sources report Confederate soldiers using the roasted seeds as a coffee substitute and the seeds for buttons. The lack of supplies due to Union blockades led to many sought after substitutes for goods no longer available in the South, and persimmons answered the call for many. Similarly, various tribes used persimmon not only for food but for other purposes as well. The Cherokee for example used it to treat diarrhea, sore throats, heart burn, and even hemorrhoids. The Rappahannocks made a strong spirit similar to beer out of it as well. Oil from the seeds is said to taste similar to peanuts.

Persimmon seeds

     One of the most unusual uses for persimmons though deals with folklore claiming that one can predict how harsh the winter will be by cutting a seed in half. Legend says that if you look at the split seed, you should see one of three objects. If you see a spoon, then you will be shoveling lots of snow. If you see a knife, then it will be icy cold and the wind will cut like a knife. Finally, if you see what looks like a fork, then the winter will be mild and there will plenty to eat. 
     I must admit, the seeds are not easy to slice and the insides not that easy to interpret. Having said that, below are some I cut yesterday and which I think resemble mostly spoons and a few knives. Supposedly a bitterly cold winter with lots of snow... Let's see if that prognostication has any merit this winter.

Persimmon seeds split in half, showing mostly spoons and some knives (open to interpretation)

     Animals of course also make use of persimmon trees. Forty-six different species of caterpillars have been documented feeding on them. The fruits are consumed by numerous animals, though seem to be a favorite of raccoons, possums and foxes in particular. In fact, their scat often have persimmon seeds in them this time of year and they are likely the main dispersers of these trees. They're sometimes even called "possum trees."
     I thoroughly love to eat persimmons. They can hang on the trees for most of the winter. Though they may be shriveled, they still are quite tasty and a nice surprise on what might be an otherwise dreary day, assuming the cold has preserved them that is.