Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Who Wouldn't Want More Fungus?

Uff...October has been incredibly busy. So here's a picture of another weird and awesome fungus I found in the woods.

Nope, no idea what it is. It's orange, though.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Actaea pachypoda

The doll's eye plant or bane-berry is an herbaceous perrenial woodland wildflower. It's two common names come from 1) the fact that these berries seriously look like doll's eyes, making them creepy enough to be avoided. Which is good because 2) they are incredibly poisonous and would most likely kill you.

The toxin is specifically one that slows the heart muscles. Enough of it, which could be in a single berry, can entirely stop the heart.

The plant flowers in spring and is actually quite attractive, despite the creepiness of the berries. The plants grow well in loamy soil and reach about hip height. This species can be found in most northeast US forests while another species, the red bane-berry, only grows in parts of Illinois.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Epifagus virginiana

One of my favorite things to write about/teach about are organisms that defy our expectations of what characteristics a given clade should have. See my post on Monotropa uniflora, as another example. Epifagus virginiana, common name beech drops or beechdrops, actually has a lot in common with Monotropa.

Like Monotropa, Epifagus is a plant that lacks chlorophyll and leaves. This plant is also a parasite, tapping into the root system of beech trees and taking nutrients from the larger plants. Monotropa does not have a significant impact on the energy systems it parasitizes. I've had trouble finding any information on whether or not beechdrops take a meaningful amount of energy away from their host plants but given the similarities in size I imagine the beech trees they parasitize are more or less fine.

While researching this plant I learned some new terminology. This plant has two kinds of flowers: one type is known as cleistogamous and the other is chasmogamous. The former type of flower is self pollinating with stamen and style enclosed while the later refers to the types of flowers we are generally accustomed to, those that are pollinated (or that have a chance of cross-pollination through the wind or pollinators). Again, Epifagus defies our expectations of what a flowering plant should be as most of the time its chasmogamous flowers are infertile and the plant reproduces asexually (or autosexually, I suppose would be the correct term, if it exists. If not, autosexual, copyright Paul Fenton).

After the beechdrops flower they can be seen as dried stick-like protrusions near beech trees throughout winter. So you've still got plenty of the year to spot them.