Earth tongues

Common Earth Tongue, Geoglossum difforme

I’d just like to start by saying – the moth book is done! Done! I took it to the post office and mailed it off today, with much excitement (the clerk, whom I asked to take a photo as I pretended to put it in the mail slot, didn’t quite appreciate my excitement, I don’t think). Of course, the book’s not completely done. There’re many more steps yet to go even once the initial manuscript is prepared and finished – a fact that I didn’t truly appreciate until I was doing a book of my own. Once our editor gets the files I sent her, she still has to edit all our text, we need to make any revisions as required, then the contents go on to layout, come back to us for proofing (the trademark Peterson arrows get put in at this stage), and go back for final revisions, before ever a copy gets printed. Actually being involved in the production of a book has been rather enlightening, not least of all in the amount of time it takes to get a book from idea to store shelf. It’ll have been about four years, in our case.

So life finally returns to normal for me. For the last, oh, three months or so, I’ve been buckled down and focused on completing the moth manuscript. A lot of things have fallen by the wayside, and I’m looking forward to getting back to all those things I’ve been missing. Like the blog! I’ve had these photos since last week, fully intending to post them shortly after taking them (I’d also been expecting to wrap up the book before the Thanksgiving weekend).

Over dinner one evening last week, Dan asked if I’d noticed the interesting mushrooms growing down near our little bog/fen. I’d been down that way a couple of times in the preceding days, but hadn’t gone in too far, and hadn’t noticed any odd fungi in the part that I had traversed. He commented that they were just the other side, a whole patch of them, thin little dark things sticking up from the moss. I said I’d check them out the next time I went out. In the meantime, I brought down my field guide to fungi for him to look through and see if he recognized them.

Common Earth Tongue, Geoglossum difforme

He picked them out fairly quickly, and after going back to have a look myself I easily agreed. These are earth tongues, probably Common Earth Tongue, Geoglossum difforme, a common and widespread species. By his description I had expected them to be coral fungi, but they’re actually a type of sac fungus. It’s the same group of mushrooms that contains the highly prized truffles and morels, though the guide suggests that the majority of members are not so edible. Most fungi produce their spores individually and release them through pores or from gills; sac fungi produce their spores grouped within sacs, each sac containing several spores (the number varies by species, but the average is eight). You can see some neat images of Common Earth Tongue spore sacs under the microscope at this page here (it’s from the website of the author of the field guide I use, George Barron)

The method of dispersal also depends on the species, but earth tongues share the same general mechanism as morels. The type of fruitbody is called an apothecium, and the sacs of spores are layered on its outside surface. Immature spores are pigmentless, but mature spores develop pigment to protect them from UV while they are airborne. When the spores are mature, the sac bursts, projecting them into the air for the wind to catch and disperse. Apparently with some species, if you blow gently on the mushroom when the spores are ripe you can trigger the sacs into bursting, releasing puffs of “dust”. I didn’t try it on these ones, in part because I didn’t know to, but even if I had they were damp and tacky and probably wouldn’t have been releasing any dust anyway.

They were all growing in a small patch of sphagnum moss, a short distance from the edge of the bog/fen. From the way they were distributed it looked as though they had an association with the moss, but I suspect it more likely that the moss simply kept the ground there nicely damp compared to the surrounding dirt; there’s no mention of moss in the guide.

Common Earth Tongue, Geoglossum difforme

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Morel of the understory

Morel

When I was down at the station on Thursday, I happened to spot a mushroom growing at the side of one of the trails. It’s a morel, a mushroom of the genus Morchella. Morels are one of the most distinctive of the mushrooms. They look a bit like crumpled sponges, with honeycomb-like creases and folds in the cap. They come in four identifiable varieties, that roughly correspond to species: yellow, gray, black, and “spike”, the latter having an exaggerated stem and reduced cap. The ones we have at the station are yellow morels.

Emerging morel

They’re a springtime species, coming up in late April or early May in our area, but as early as late February or early March in the far southern reaches of their range. They’re not uncommon at the site, I see them every year, usually predictably along certain trails. I just serendipitously spotted the one at trailside as I was walking through to check a net. Their colour makes them blend in with the debris that covers the ground at this time of year, but they’re fairly obvious once you spot them. They can grow to be quite large, in some instances to six or eight inches or more. Other individuals may be comparatively tiny, less than an inch. The very first one I spotted was perhaps four inches tall, but most of the rest were smaller, just two to three. Size is dictated more by the available resources the mushroom has to grow than by the species.

Group of morels

Morels tend to be associated with the east, and especially the Great Lakes region, but they can actually be found in many areas across the continent. The coastal side of the western mountain range is also a good spot to find them, but virtually every habitat, other than the dry desert habitats or the swamps of the southeast, can potentially be home to morels. Like virtually any other fungus, morels grow from a subterranean fungal root system called a mycelium. This mycelium may spread over quite a broad range of ground (I couldn’t find a number online, but one of our volunteers thought on the order of a hundred or more square metres, or over 1000 square feet), and the fruiting bodies, what we recognize as the species, can pop up at any spot within this network, where the microhabitat conditions are most ideal.

They are often associated with forest fire sites, where they grow prolifically in the first two or three years after the burn. The reason for this isn’t stated, but perhaps could simply be due to the sudden open canopy and abundance of nutrients in the soil. In non-fire areas the mushrooms can also be quite abundant, and are often associated with certain tree species, especially in the east. Old apple orchards are a good site, as are ash, sycamore, tuliptree, cottonwoods, and dead or dying elms. Cottonwoods are the primary tree species in the habitat surrounding the station, and the morels do well there. Despite these observations, morels are notoriously difficult to cultivate, especially on a large enough scale to be commercially viable, the way white mushrooms are. Most are wild-picked, and sold as delicacies.

Morel cross-section

Morels are highly edible, and in fact are a favourite among even some who aren’t so keen on mushrooms in general. Their subtle taste has been likened to mild fish (in some areas the mushrooms take the name “dryland fish” for this reason), and they’re recommended in dishes where the other flavours are likewise quiet, such as on pasta or rice. Mushrooms collected from the wild need only be lightly washed to be eaten; in fact, soaking them will ruin their flavour. However, they MUST be cooked prior to being eaten, as they do in fact contain a very small amount of toxin – it is enough to cause a reaction when raw, but is destroyed once the mushroom is cooked (although Wikipedia comments that occasionally even cooked morels, when consumed with alcohol, can sometimes cause a reaction). There are tons of recipes for morels on the web. I must admit I’m not a mushroom-eater myself (I have a thing about eating fungus), and so I’ve never personally tried them.

Although morels are generally pretty darned distinctive, there is another mushroom that can possibly be confused for them by novices. It goes by the name of false morel, for the reason that it superficially resembles the real morels. However, it is highly toxic and cannot be eaten (although the same volunteer recited a phrase he’d heard once: “All mushrooms are edible, but some can only be eaten once.”). It tends to be chunkier than true morels, and the folds in the cap more resemble the convolutions of a brain surface than the walls of a honeycomb. However, the easiest way to tell the two apart if you’re unsure is to slice off the top of the cap. True morels are hollow, while false morels are solid inside.

Double morel

Morel hunting is a popular pasttime among northeastern naturalists and fans of the mushroom as a culinary delicacy. There are morel hunting associations, morel festivals (many of which seem to take place in Michigan), morel photo groups, and morel discussion boards. They even have dedicated morel blogs, and have been recently mentioned on some other blogs I read: The Ohio Nature Blog, and Bill of the Birds (who, with his son, found a whole pile in their old orchard). There seems to be a whole subculture built around morel hunting! Of course, if you’re the lazy sort and prefer the eating over the hunting, you can order your own backyard morel-growing kit. When picking mushrooms from the forest, most sites say to pluck them by gently twisting at the base, such that you break the stem leaving the bottom in the soil so that the mycelium isn’t damaged and future morels can grow from it. I am prompted to include, as well, a reminder that nothing should be removed from public parks or nature reserves, following the philosophy, “take only photographs, leave only footprints.”

Midge on morel

This seems to have been, by most accounts, a good year for morels. Most hunters seem to be reporting bumper crops. After finding that first individual at the station, some hunting about turned up a few more, and then more after that. In fact, the more we looked, the more we spotted. There were probably easily a couple dozen individual mushrooms just in the few areas we searched. This is the most I’ve seen at the station, but I’m not certain if that’s because there are more this year, or I was just looking more closely this spring. Although the other volunteer took a batch home, I was happy to have fun with the hunt and just know that they were there, and leave them for the insects to enjoy.