If the spirit of Halloween were a mushroom, it would be Omphalotus illudens. This agaric is commonly known as the “Jack-O-Lantern mushroom” for a few good reasons. First, it is bright orange, like the pumpkins that decorate doorsteps all over the United States in October. Not only is the cap orange, but so are the gills, the stipe, and the interior. Second, the mushroom’s gills glow in the dark, especially when they are young and fresh. Furthermore, the mushroom often has a sweet smell and is poisonous. Nothing says Halloween like something that is orange, glows in the dark, smells sweet, and has a sinister side.
posts from October
In late October, it is not unusual to see Halloween decorations featuring bony fingers reaching up out of a grave. The natural world has its own version of this: Xylaria polymorpha, commonly known as Dead Man’s Fingers. This macabre name is an apt description of the mushrooms, which resemble burnt and dried out fingers reaching out of the ground to grab unwitting passers-by and drag them down into the depths of the earth. You can find these morbid ascomycetes on rotting logs at pretty much any time of the year.
One day as you check your mailbox you notice a yellow smear on the entrance to your house (for example a wooden gate). After retrieving your mail, you take a closer look and see that it’s a yellow gelatinous lobed blob – Witch’s Butter! Oh no, you think, I’ve been hexed by a witch! Knowing just what to do, you run back to the house, collect a few straight pins, and stab them through the offending substance to drain its juices and kill the spell. Unfortunately, this method doesn’t work very well for two reasons. First, this blob is actually the jelly fungus Tremella mesenterica. Like all jelly fungi, it is specifically designed to survive repeated dehydration and rehydration. Second, the main body of the fungus is still living inside the wood; unless you replace the wood, the mushroom will probably reappear in the same place!
Welcome back to creepy fungus month! I’m starting off this month with a mushroom that has a creepy name but is always fun to find: The Witch’s Hat. Hygrocybe conica gets its common name from the conic shape of its cap, its orange to red color, and its tendency to bruise strongly black. Actually, this last feature is probably the most important; when the mushrooms turn completely black they really do look like tiny hats for witches! The Witch’s Hat grows on the ground in a variety of habitats and mycologists are not sure what its ecological role is.
Witches might not be real, but witches’ brooms certainly are – and they’re destroying chocolate! Yes, Halloween’s favorite treat (chocolate) is suffering at the hands of a disease with a Halloween-themed name: Witches’ Broom Disease. Witches’ brooms are actually fairly common and occur on many different plants. In chocolate trees (Cacao trees, Theobroma cacao, whose genus name literally means “food of the gods”), witches’ brooms are caused by the fungal pathogen Moniliophthora perniciosa and have an enormous economic impact on chocolate production in Central and South America.
On September 30, 1882, Emily Dickinson wrote the following in a letter to Mabel Loomis Todd: That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural, and the sweet glee that I felt at meeting it, I could confide to none—I still cherish the clutch with which I bore it from the ground when a wondering child, an unearthly booty, and maturity only enhances mystery, never decreases it— The previous week, she had received a gift from Mabel Todd: a painting of Monotropa uniflora. These ethereal plants happened to rank among Emily Dickinson’s favorite wildflowers, thus prompting the response above. In the same letter, Dickinson gave Todd the poem “A Route of Evanescence” in return for the painting with a note explaining, “I cannot make an Indian Pipe but please accept a Humming Bird.” Many people have likened the Ghost Plant to the reclusive...
“Hair Growing on Wood – Believe it or Not” proclaimed one of the exhibits at the Ripley’s Believe it or Not pavilion during the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. The curious organism on display was Stemonitis fusca, which belongs to a group of organisms commonly known as “Chocolate Tube Slime Molds” or “Pipe Cleaner Slime Molds.” However, thanks to its moment of fame 82 years ago, “Tree Hair” is also an acceptable common name for these species.
This lichen can be found hanging from trees in conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest (Oregon to Alaska). Alectoria sarmentosa is light green, highly branched, and drapes over tree branches like tinsel. This resembles bushy, green hair such as that a witch might have.
If you need a mushroom centerpiece for your Halloween party, then this is it. This large mushroom has a bulbous, bright red, reticulated base that easily invokes demonic fires (hence its common and scientific names). As a bonus, Satan’s Bolete has a fetid odor – quite fitting, don’t you think? Unfortunately, this mushroom is rather rare.
Imagine for a moment that it is the late 17th century and you live in rural America. Your day starts off like any other day: you wake up, have breakfast, and begin working on your farm. However, before too long your daughter starts behaving oddly. At first she just seems agitated, but her symptoms quickly escalate. She convulses, hides under the table, yells unintelligibly, and complains of a prickly sensation in her arms and legs. Terrified, you call for the town doctor. The doctor has never seen a disease like this before and cannot find anything physically wrong with your daughter. After a while, he comes up with the only possible cause: witchcraft. Just then, one of your neighbors bursts in, looking for the doctor. His daughter has been exhibiting the same symptoms! You look at his frightened face and realize what you have to do: in order to protect...