Diverse Decomposers

Chicken fat mushrooms (Suillus Americanus) grow near white pine trees.

When I was little, I thought that fungi just meant the small, brown squishy mushrooms that appeared in the lawn after a wet spell — and I was squeamish about them. But that’s only a small part of the story. The hidden world of fungi runs deep within the soil like strands of microscopic silk. I imagine these tiny fungal strands as threads of life woven in a network in and around plant roots. What we see are the strange and often beautiful fruiting bodies — what we typically call a mushroom or toadstool — growing on a tree, a log, the ground, or some other food source. This visible part of a fungus produces reproductive spores.

Russulas often grow near oak trees.

In fact, fungi are one of Earth’s key recyclers of carbon and other materials. Along with bacteria, earthworms and other soil organisms, fungi decompose organic matter to release and recycle nutrients, feeding themselves and others through this process.

Bracket fungi and lichens grow on a log along the Kettle River.

Fungi are not plants; they have no chlorophyll, leaves, roots, flowers or seeds and do not make their own food. They are primarily strands called hyphae, which secrete enzymes that break down organic matter, such as leaves, dead trees, and animal remains. Scientists currently think that land fungi split off from the animal kingdom around 1.3 million years ago — about 500 million years before plants.

Tiny slime mold sporangia grow on a rotting log. (Slime molds are related to, but different than, fungi.)

Though some fungi are parasites that damage plants and other living organisms, mycorrhizal fungi form a symbiotic partnership with plants in which both benefit. The fungi obtain nutrients that the plant produces in photosynthesis. The fungal hyphae, in turn, break down organic substances releasing nitrogen, carbon, glucose and other nutrients, which they pass along to the roots of plants without parasitizing them. Many fungi also store carbon, meaning that less is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. All winter long fungi will nourish the soil for spring growth. As I walk on these autumn days, with so many leaves underfoot, I like to think about how they will be decomposed and used again in the spring to help create next year’s new life.

Peeling Puffballs (Lycoperdon) often grow in sandy, open areas, such as roadsides.

Though some fungi are harmful to plants, humans and other organisms, many provide antibiotics and food in addition to forming nourishing soil. So the next time you spot a fungus and think it’s gross, remember the benefits that many fungi provide to nature, the food chain and to us. Here are a few fungal fruiting bodies that I’ve seen growing in the woods this autumn. Fungi often are difficult to identify, so I don’t know all of their names, but I appreciate their shapes and colors.

Tiny orange Mycena toadstools growing in moss.

The underside of this Russula mushroom cap shows the spore-producing gills.

A silvery blue-capped fungus pops up through moss near aspens and pines.

An autumn toadstool grows under bur oaks next to the riverbank.

Amanitas grow in deciduous and mixed woodlands.

White polypore fungi slowly decompose a fallen tree limb.

Brightness in the Gloom

Maple and ash leaves contrast with gray skies and sidewalks on these gloomy days.

Cold, rainy, dark. These adjectives capture the weather and mood of the past three weeks here in Saint Paul, Minnesota. No blue October skies and warm afternoons so far, and none in sight, according to the National Weather Service. I hear lots of complaints from people to the tune of, “My grass is lush green, but I am so crabby;” or, “I just want to read and sleep all day;” or, a straightforward “I am so depressed!”

I don’t like it either and I understand these sentiments. Most of all, I miss gardening and walking outside. As dank as it is, my husband and I have walked in the rain a few times and I gardened in it for a half hour last Sunday. I feel happier and more energetic after I go out to garden or walk, even though I get wet. I’ve noticed others doing the same — students at morning recess in the mist, gardeners cutting back their spent plants, even a few people trying to mow saturated lawns in the persistent drizzle.

When we walked yesterday, I was struck by the contrast between the heavy sky and the splotches of color lighting up the gray sidewalks — maple, birch and ash leaves — their hues more vivd for being wet. The rain and strong winds tore down the leaves prematurely, but I am grateful for the beauty and glow of their colors on these gloomy days.

The leaves of the white ash (Fraxinus Americana) turn orange, red or purple in autumn.

 

November Bulbs: Hope for the Spring

‘Maureen’ tulip bulbs bloom in late spring.

In the darkness of a warm, late November evening, my sister planted hope for the spring in my garden: five waxy-smooth, tear drop-shaped “Maureen” tulip bulbs. As she dug the bulb planter into the moist earth, the soil released fresh scents of spicy bee balm, native geraniums, and the pleasant odor of dirt and old leaves.

We nestled each bulb into its own little chamber, filled each space with dirt, lightly watered them and returned the blanket of fallen leaves. I placed a temporary cover of chicken wire and stones on the soil, until it freezes, to discourage squirrels from digging up the bulbs.

Spring bulbs emerging from their winter sleep is a highlight of spring for me.

I think about those small packets of life tucked into the dark earth, and wait for them to ride out the winter. Yes, it’s later than desirable to plant bulbs, but it is how it worked out this year for many reasons. I choose to have hope that they will survive. While I wait, I’ll dream of a mild April day when I’ll walk out the back door and spot bright green shoots poking up through the wet soil. I’ll watch them form buds and bloom; cool ivory against a field of blue Siberian squill and green foliage. In a special way, I will recall the two “Maureens” in my life: a wise aunt who died this past summer and a wonderful young niece who shares her name.

A ‘Maureen’ tulip from a previous spring.

Signs of Autumn

Grape woodbine vines (Parthenocissus inserta) weave color through an old wood pile.

The warm, windy afternoon feels summery, but there’s no denying the first signs of autumn present in the woods and fields of Pine County in East Central Minnesota. I smell the sharp, earthy scent of crisp, dry leaves. Many trees are still green, but basswoods are shedding their leaves, silver maples are going gold, and red oaks show splotches of bright color. The most colorful leaves belong to the grape woodbine vines that climb over an old wood pile and thread scarlet up the trunks of many trees.

Ripe acorns drop, swishing through leaves as they fall. Some hit hard like a rock; some bounce and tumble down the cabin roof; others plunk and splash into the water of the Snake River. Blue jays, chipmunks and gray squirrels scramble to collect and store the nuts for winter. The turf is also littered with hickory nuts, walnut husks and basswood nutlets.

Grape woodbine and lichens light up the trunk of an old silver maple tree.

The large heart-shaped leaves of basswoods, or lindens (Tilia americana), are the first to be shed this year.

A mossycup or bur oak acorn (Quercus macrocarpa); the seed of a white oak that prefers rich, moist soil and grows along the riverbank.

Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) gather acorns, hickory and other nuts to eat over the winter.

Roadsides and fields offer a bounty of autumn wildflowers — native asters, tall sunflowers, bottle gentians, Black-eyed Susan’s and a few others. Bees, wasps and painted lady butterflies hang like ornaments on the blossoms and the air is heavy with their busy drone.

Mixed groups of migrating warblers hunt for insects, swinging like tiny acrobats on tree branches. The pesky gnats, mosquitos and other tiny bugs that annoy us fuel the warblers’ journey to Central America.

A bumble bee (Bombus spp.) pollinates tall sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus).

A bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculate) drinks nectar from panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum).

Painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) are attracted to red clover, thistle and other autumn wildflowers.

A bladk-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia) hunts insects in the river shallows.

In a few short weeks, all of this busy activity will disappear and the quiet of winter will descend. In the meantime, I hope for a long, warm autumn and will enjoy the changing beauty of trees, flowers, seeds and creatures. What signs of autumn do you notice?

Gray dogwoods (Cornus racemosa) develop white berries and maroon leaves in autumn. The berries are a favorite food of grouse and pheasant.

 

Farewell, Sweet Summer

I am a summer person; I was born in August. I love hot sun, steamy days and a garden humming with bees, butterflies and dragonflies. I crave the cricket music of warm nights and I can even tolerate the incessant racket of cicadas for awhile. Each year I promise my husband that I won’t complain and mourn the passing of summer. (His favorite season is autumn.) But, then the bounty of bees, the sweet smell of apples in the backyard, the spicy scent of chives, oregano, hyssop and other herbs all speak to me of the beauty of a season I don’t want to end.

The heartier sort of Minnesotans wish for autumn — and it is beautiful — but autumn’s arrival means that winter’s not far off. Shorts and a t-shirt are plenty of clothing for me, and I choose to be completely unfettered from jackets, boots, ear muffs and mittens for as long as possible.

On this first day of autumn, the temperature is in the 90s, the dew point is in the 70s and there’s a strong south wind. I’ll soak up the heat and humidity and enjoy all of the butterfly and bee activity in what remains of our garden: asters, black-eyed Susan’s, sedum, chrysanthemums, Joe-Pye weed, Japanese anemones and goldenrod. Today is a day of gratitude for summer’s gifts; a day to live in the beauty of the present moment.

The Ancient Ginkgo Tree

Pollution and disease-resistant ginkgo trees are planted as boulevard trees in St. Paul, MN.

Pollution and disease-resistant ginkgo trees are planted as boulevard trees in St. Paul, MN.

In mid-November when most trees are bare, a ginkgo tree lit by the sun is a golden sight. Until last Friday’s heavy rain, wind and snow, the ginkgoes were beautiful this year. Ginkgoes (Ginkgo biloba) are also called maidenhair trees because their leaves resemble those of the maidenhair fern. The leaves remind me of delicate Asian fans — cool green in summer, and in autumn, bright yellow mellowing to a deep gold.

I saw my first ginkgo on a beautiful fall day in the late 1970s on the campus of St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. I’d not heard of a ginkgo and never guessed that an ancient tree native to China would become a common boulevard tree in the Twin Cities. Ginkgoes do well in USDA plant hardiness zones 3-8, and many are planted in urban areas because they tolerate air pollution and the corrosive de-icing salt used on streets in northern winters.

The ginkgoes' beautiful leaves remind me of Asian hand fans.

The ginkgo’s beautiful leaves remind me of Asian hand fans.

The word ginkgo means “silver fruit” or “silver apricot.” Fossils of ginkgo trees precede dinosaurs, dating back 270 million years to the Jurassic period. They lived with such creatures as dragonflies, trilobites, many types of reptiles, and such plants as mosses and conifers. In comparison, the oldest fossilized maples are about 100 million years old, and trees similar to modern oaks arose nearly 35 million years ago. Like other ancient plants, ginkgoes are non-flowering.  They reproduce similarly to ferns and algae. The male tree produces a pollen cone and the female tree a flowerless ovule. Each pollen grain contains two motile sperm. When the pollen grains reach the ovule, a tiny droplet of liquid must be present for the sperm to swim to and fertilize the ovule to produce the seed.

The oldest living ginkgo in China is thought to be more than 3,500 years old. A testament to the species’ resilience is its survival of Earth’s many climatic changes deadly to other organisms. In modern times, six ginkgoes survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. Temples and other buildings were destroyed. The ginkgoes were damaged and burned, but leafed out the following year and are still alive today about .6 miles from the impact site.

Ginkgo leaves change from bright yellow to deep gold as they age.

Ginkgo leaves change from bright yellow to deep gold as they age.

So, with their beauty, long life, strength and stamina, what’s not to like about ginkgoes? Unfortunately, the outer coat of the ginkgo seed reeks. When the seeds drop from the trees and are crushed on the sidewalk and street, they create a terrible stench – some compare it to the odor of rancid butter or vomit. Only the female tree produces seeds, so city planners and residents often plant male trees. However, if the male tree was grafted to female rootstock, the mature tree sometimes produces seeds. In China and Japan, the seeds are peeled and used in many types of cuisine. Enjoy the beautiful ginkgo, but don’t walk through the messy, malodorous seeds!

November Honey Bee

A honey bee visits a 'Henry Kelsey' rose in early November.

A honey bee visits a ‘Henry Kelsey’ rose in early November.

Under the gentle, midday sun, I walked through scads of scarlet maple, golden aspen and lemon-colored apple leaves that dot our cleaned up garden. I heard a steady buzzing and followed it to a group of buds and blossoms on the climbing rose that grows on our garage. Among the roses floated a single honey bee (Apis mellifera), as leisurely as if it had been a sultry August afternoon, instead of early November. The golden bee rolled in the pollen of each rose before heading skyward.

I miss my small garden so much during the winter. Seeing and hearing that tiny creature brought me great joy — the simple beauty of bee and blossom, the presence of life in the November garden, and a wonderful image to remember when winter inevitably arrives.

Most bees that inhabit Minnesota die in late autumn, but honey bee colonies overwinter. This year’s long, frost-free autumn gives them extra time to fortify their hives for winter. To find out more about how honey bees survive the long northern winter, visit:
What Happens to Honey Bees in the Winter?
Do Honey Bees Fly South for the Winter?