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Soggy season: Softball suffers, fungi flourish

I was talking to a couple of friends about the past summer. Of course, rain was a prime topic. After the evening, it struck me that each person had a different opinion based on their different perspectives. For instance, I’m a slow-pitch softball devotee, and this summer meant a lot of inconvenient rainouts.

It wasn’t a good summer for softball. One friend who owns an ice-cream stand was lamenting that business was slow because of all the rain. From those two perspectives, the summer was not the best.

On the other side of the equation, an avid canoeist was delighted. She got a chance to float streams in the region that normally would be too low after June. Some were up and rip-roaring all the way through August. Another naturalist, interested in native fish, snorkels local rivers and steams and was unhappy because of the high, often muddy water that allowed fewer opportunities for snorkeling this year.

The organisms that share the western Pennsylvania landscape also have different perspectives. I’m sure the salamanders and frogs that need moist habitats had a great summer. Snakes, lizards and some mammals that prefer warm dry conditions were probably miserable. As an example from the past, during the mid-1970s the extended rains of a tropical storm that visited western Pennsylvania in June kept many birds from foraging for food, and their young starved.

As I thought about how a natural event might be good for one person or organism and not so good for another, I thought about the number of mushrooms I have seen on my outings this summer. Everywhere I visited this summer, even when I went out the front walk to get the mail, I found fungi popping up.

For the mycologists – those who study fungi – it must have been an extraordinary summer.

The combination of the warm, but not blazing, heat along with plenty of water to keep the soil moist, allowed these fascinating organisms to make their presence known. Notice that I am calling the fungi organisms rather than plants. There’s a reason. Way back when I was in high school biology I learned that there were two living Kingdoms – a way of classifying life. They were plants and animals. The fungi were a part of the plant Kingdom. Today there are five Kingdoms: Monera, Protista, Animals, Plants and Fungi.

Monera are one-celled organisms without a cell nucleus. Bacteria are the best example of these tiny living things, and by the way, they are the most numerous and widespread organisms on Earth. This is a Kingdom that is now being reconsidered, and may be more finely divided. So, the most up-to-date thought is that there might be even more than five divisions of life, so stayed tuned.

Protista are also one cell, but they have a nucleus. Take a drop of pond water, put it under a microscope, and you’ll find a whole bunch of these creatures like amoeba, euglena and paramecium. They were formerly lumped together as animals, but now they have their own Kingdom to live in, quite a distinction for such small bits of life.

Of course the animal Kingdom is pretty clear. It includes everything from earthworms to elephants, and includes humans. The plant Kingdom is also well known, but from the plants I knew in high school the fungi have been separated. The mushroom, like the paramecium, has been given a Kingdom of its own.

So much for the new Biology 101, now let’s take a look at the fungi that enjoyed a perfect summer.

I imagine that when you think about fungi the image that comes to mind is a mushroom or toadstool; a nongreen object coming out of the ground with a central stem and umbrella-like cap. This is the archetypical fungi for most people. However, that’s only one representative of this large and diverse group of life.

Generally, fungi are organisms without chlorophyll and thus need to get their food from another source. Some fungi get their food from dead organic material and are called saprophytic. Decaying leaves, wood, animals and other detritus that cover the floor of the forest and field are their bread and butter. Without saprophytic fungi doing their work we would be literally up to our ears in organic litter than never decomposed. Other fungi is parasitic and feeds on living plants and animals. Still others are symbiotic and live in association with particular species of plants. In this case, the host plant can’t survive without the symbiotic fungi. Many orchids require specific soil fungi to be able to extract nutrients; without the fungi the orchids die.

Another characteristic of fungi is that they don’t have seeds. They reproduce through spores. Spores are extremely small and light. They’re often one of the culprits during allergy season when the wind carries them to our noses. The spores are produced by the fruit of the fungi, which is the part of the organism that we see. The body of the fungi is a spidery web of thin, usually white, threadlike strands. The web spreads through the soil or the living or dead log where the fruits appear.

The “typical” mushroom is part of the gill fungus group. Now if you really want to impress your friends, you can collect one of this group to start you own basidiospore collection. Find a mature gill fungi, remove the stem, and place the cap half on white paper and half on black paper. After a few days, remove the withered cap, and you will find a radial pattern of dropped spores on the paper. This is a spore print – the first in your own basidiospore collection. The reason to use both white and black paper is that spores come in a variety of colors including white, pink, yellow, brown, purple and black.

Besides the typical stem and cap species of fungi, there is a wide variety of equally fascinating others.

Often growing on dead trees or downed logs are the aptly named shelf fungi. They are semicircular bodies held perpendicular to the trunk forming a distinct shelf.

The artist’s fungus is an interesting member of this group. It is a hard-bodied species growing on tree trunks throughout the United States. The upper side is grayish brown, but the underside is white. When bruised, the underside instantly and permanently turns brown. The fungus was used in the past to leave messages and as an artistic medium – thus the common name. Sulphur shelf fungus is large, soft and brilliant yellow or orange. The shelves erupt in profusion and overlap, growing on both living and dead hardwood trees.

Some of the shelf fungi are striking for the patterns on their upper surfaces. On a hike in the Buffalo Creek Valley, straddling Butler and Armstrong counties, early this summer, I came across a beautiful dryad saddle fungus. A thick fan more than 12 inches across spread from a rotting stump. The upper surface was patterned with an intricate repetition of brown scales, and the underside was brilliant white. I consider myself a novice when it comes to fungi, but after checking the “Peterson Field Guide – Mushrooms,” I felt certain I had the right identification, and the text supported my fungi identification abilities by noting that “this species (is) easy to recognize, even by novice mushroom hunters.”

On a more recent hike in Prince Gallitzin State Park, Cambria County, one of the people in our group found a beautiful colony of bird’s nest fungi. She carefully pushed aside the summer vegetation to reveal a colony of delicate, small, brown, cup-shaped structures about the size of a pencil eraser. At the bottom of each little cup were tiny egg-shaped objects.

The remarkable aspect of this fungus is the function of those little eggs, which are spore cases. The goblet-shaped outer part of the organism is called a splash-cup. When a raindrop falls into the cup, it forcibly washes the spore case out and up.

The spore case also has a stringlike cord with a sticky end. The raindrop breaks the case and sends the cord and the tight ball of spores up into surrounding vegetation. The sticky end of the cord gets stuck on a twig. The cord keeps going and winds around the twig like a tetherball. Now, the tight ball of spores are suspended several feet above the ground. When the rain stops and the sun comes out, the spores dry and are released. They are thus released from a location that allows wind to take the new life to distant places, and the fungus spreads – all with the help of good design and a single raindrop.

This is a pretty remarkable dispersal mechanism for what we often consider a “lowly” fungus.

It’s been a great summer for fungi, and these are just a few encounters I’ve had over the season. If you’re interested in learning more about mushrooms, one of the largest mushroom clubs is right here in western Pennsylvania. The Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club promotes the enjoyment and study of wild mushrooms. It has regular meetings and outings throughout the year. For more information, visit the Web site at www.wpamushroomclub.org/index.html, or drop a letter to the WPA Mushroom Club, 58 Seventh St. Ext., New Kensington, PA 15068.

It may have not been a good summer for softball games and ice cream after the game, but the members of the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club are all smiles and hoping for another summer just like this one.

Paul g. Wiegman is a freelance writer, photographer and naturalist born and raised in western Pennsylvania. Write to him c/o Tribune-Review, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601; or e-mail him at [email protected] .


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