An encounter with Terana caerulea

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Terana caerulea!Not so long ago, I was visiting a stamp-collecting friend, and I happened to see the corticioid species Terana caerulea on a recent Macedonian stamp. A corticioid fungus on a stamp?? I was beside myself with astonishment, since corticioids (aka, crusts) are the outsiders of the fungal world, either despised or ignored. A mycophile of my acquaintance refers to them as “molds.”

There’s no reason to despise Terana caerulea, however. The name of its former genus, Pulcherricium, will tell you why. The species is an intense cobalt blue when fresh and a pleasant bluish color when not so fresh. Even the spores are bluish in color. The surface is smooth or slightly tuberculate, with a waxlike consistency. Inhabiting hardwood debris, T. caerulea can be found in New England, although it’s far more common in the southeastern part of the country.

Here’s my hope: that other countries will start putting crust fungi on their stamps, and in this way help to stamp out a more or less worldwide prejudice. I can imagine the bright-red Phanerochaete sanguinea on a Seychelles stamp and the wine-red Cytidia salicina on a Tunisian stamp. I can also imagine the yellow hydnoid Mucronella flava on a Serbian stamp and the green-blue Byssocorticium atrovirens on a Danish stamp.

Dare I hope that America, perhaps the most anti-corticioid of all nations, will put a (for example) gold-yellow Lindteria trachyspora on one of its stamps?

Photograph by Brian Luther.

Santa Claus is a mushroom!

Christmas is nearly upon us, and I can’t help thinking of a certain mushroom. Specifically, I think of Amanita muscaria, a large, often obese red-and-white species that plays a part in the composition of Santa Claus. I can hear your gasps of astonishment, so consider the following:

Lapp life in the old daysIn the Middle Ages, Europeans had peculiar notions about Lapland. For instance, they thought all Samis (Lapps) were shamans. As it happens, many of them in fact were. Let’s say a sick person puts out a call for a noaidi (shaman). The noaidi would arrive at that person’s lodge in a reindeer-drawn sled. He would be obliged to enter via the chimney because the pile-up of snow prevents him from entering through the front door.

Before his arrival, the noaidi would already have ingested several dried karpassienis (Amanita muscarias), which would help him ascertain the cause of his patient’s illness. It’s said that the noaidi who has eaten this mushroom typically turns into a facsimile of it, or at least takes on its distinctive red-and-white color scheme. Also, payment for his services would be in food, often lots of it, so he would usually be a quite large man.

Giant Polypores and Stoned Reindeer

my latest!

Here I might mention that reindeer are inordinately fond of A. muscaria. Presumably, it gives them the same sensation that it gives to us non-reindeer — the sensation of flying. If you interviewed a reindeer, I suspect that it might say that it quite liked the feeling of flying through the air with the greatest of ease. It might add that a reindeer with a red nose is afflicted with a parasite, a bot fly larva (or larvae), and while this can be painful, it doesn’t usually result in one’s nose glowing like a light bulb…

To learn more about the Santa Claus-mushroom connection, I recommend that you read my book Giant Polypores & Stoned Reindeer. You can purchase a copy by sending at a check for $20 (postpaid) to: Lawrence Millman, P.O. Box 381582, Cambridge, MA 02238. You won’t regret it!

A true mycophile

It’s been so disturbingly dry and bereft of fungi here in the Northeast that I feel a strong sense of foreboding. At any moment, I expect to see the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping down the road toward me. Five Horsemen? That’s right, for the newest and most potentially dangerous Horseman of the Apocalypse is Climate Change.

Bolitotherus cornutus, male

Mack is a Bolitotherus cornutus male.

In such difficult times, the fungally-deprived person can inspect horse dung for a fruiting of Coprinus or wait until one of the Apocalyptic Horseman’s mounts dies, then examine its moldering hooves for Onygena equina. Even better, perhaps, that person could look for an insect that makes perennial polypores its home as well as its breeding ground. I’m referring to the Horned or Forked Fungus Beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), a tenebrionid species far more pleasing to me than the so-called Pleasing Fungus Beetle.

A few months ago, I collected a male and female Bolitotherus on a Ganoderma applanatum in Vermont and brought them home for study. The male, Mack, has a pair of horns sprouting anteriorly from his pronotum, the better to thrust a competing male from his polypore home (big horns are probably good for mate selection, too), while the female, Sue, lacks horns. Otherwise, both look quite similar… like miniature medieval armored tanks. This morphology suggests that they could survive anything, perhaps even climate change. Their actual survival mechanisms consist of (1) rolling over and playing dead at the slightest provocation, and (2) releasing a benzoquinone defensive volatile in the direction of a breathlike air stream. I’ve tried to get Mack and Sue to release this volatile by breathing on them, but they’ve refused to do so. Maybe they like me…

Certainly, I like them. In the time I’ve spent studying them, they’ve exhibited an almost total absence of movement that seems almost zenlike. What can they be thinking about? Perhaps about nothing? That would be very zenlike, too. And whenever I watch them for any length of time, I start to move into a zenlike mode myself. Indeed, I would recommend that aficionados of meditation and Eastern religions seek out Bolitotherus cornutus for inspiration.

On at least one occasion, however, Mack and Sue were positively unzenlike. One night I woke up around 3am and couldn’t get back to sleep. All of a sudden I heard a peculiar rasping sound from Mack and Sue’s terrarium. I saw that the ventral surface of Mack’s abdomen was grating against the dorsal surface of Sue’s thorax. From what I’d read about the species, I knew that this was the position a male and female Bolitotherus assume prior to mating. And, sure enough, Mack and Sue were soon going at it with, for them, reckless abandon. I’ve been so delighted with the two of them as companions that I’m currently hoping that another generation of Bolitotherus will grace my abode.

For another, equally delighted response to Bolitotherus cornutus, please visit the Cornell Mushroom Blog, from which I have gratefully borrowed Kent Loeffler’s photo.

Kitchen Art

heikki leis' moldy artistry

Afterlife: photography by Heikki Leis

You don’t have to go foraging in the distant woods to find fungi. All you need to do is go into your kitchen and inspect your vegetables, fruits, breads, and cheeses. If you’re lucky, no, I probably shouldn’t say lucky…rather, if you’re observant, you might see one or more molds growing on or more of these food items. Consider Rhizopus stolonifer, for instance. It looks exactly like a furry critter sleeping on your strawberries. Charming!

In a Wired Science interview — specifically, in comments on mold-inspired artwork — Cornell mycologist Kathie Hodge offers a series of captivating insights into the ubiquitous yet often overlooked world of fungal molds. Obviously, she delights in their presence. My favorite of Kathie’s comments re mold: “Maybe it’s like having obnoxious neighbors. Why expend energy shunning and avoiding them? You might as well befriend them. They probably have interesting parties.”

So make haste to visit this site:
http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/05/afterlife-rotting-food/

Small Wonder

Henningsomyces at von Engeln bog

Henningsomyces candidus

Here’s a bog posting about a bog. I went on a foray at von Engeln Preserve (a kettle bog) outside Ithaca, NY yesterday and found a variety of remarkable fungal entities. My favorite entity was, and remains, Henningsomyces candidus, for which I feel boundless love. For more information about this species, go to my mini-essay about it at the Cornell Mushroom Blog (sic).