Sampler Tour

Coral fungus. (Photo: Sara Christopherson)

Coral fungus. (Photo: Sara Christopherson)

Weather conditions were changing quickly before, during, and after Sunday’s tour. Despite earlier forecasts of no rain (at least during the tour time), we could feel the air getting thicker, heavier, and more humid as we walked. I kept tabs on the weather radar on my phone during the tour, and we ended up cutting short our walk a bit short, ducking inside right as the first raindrops fell.

While we were out, we saw a good assortment of wildlife: American toad, painted turtles, bull frog, garter snake, mallard ducks, wild turkeys, and deer.

There have been ideal growing conditions for fall fungi. In Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, we saw some spectacular specimens of a coral fungus which is, I think, the crown-tip coral fungus (Clavicorona pyxidata). There were also many stinkhorns (Phallus impudicus), and their stink was detectable. The stinkhorn fruiting bodies attract flies with a rotting meat smell. The flies then disperse the stinkhorn spores, which are found within the slimy substance that covers the top of the stinkhorn fruiting body. Most fungi have wind-dispersed spores, so the stinkhorn spore dispersal strategy is rather unusual. There were also plenty of Little Brown Mushrooms (LBMs)—a catch-all category that is unofficially official. All of the fungi just mentioned were bonus finds as we made our way toward our intended fungal find: the jack o’lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius). These bright orange mushrooms also glow in the dark—perceptible with fresh fruiting bodies, a very dark location, and after one’s eyes adjust. In the late ’90s, a friend and I went to great efforts to experience this glow and we were indeed able to at least see the words on newsprint lit by the bioluminescence of the jack o’lantern mushrooms. (There is a frequently cited claim that one can read newsprint by the light of the jack o’lantern mushroom.) The jack o’lantern mushrooms are regularly confused with chanterelles and are a common source of wild mushroom-related poisoning. Although not deadly, jack o’lantern mushrooms cause acute and intense illness. After mentioning this on the tour, a visitor wondered if any animals might eat these mushrooms, despite being poisonous to humans. I was quite sure that the answer was yes although I wasn’t sure what, exactly, eats these mushrooms. Based on my research, it appears likely that Jack o’Lantern mushrooms are eaten by a number of animals including insects, squirrels, box turtles, and wild turkeys. These animals are, of course, not affected by the substances that poison humans.

The turn of the season is evident and beautiful throughout the Arb. Some plants, including the bottle gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), are still in colorful bloom in Curtis prairie while others are drying out above ground and wrapping up this year’s growing season. The leaves on trees in Gallistel Woods and Longenecker Horticultural Gardens are starting to reveal some brilliant fall colors—and many leaves are already on the ground.

Happy autumn!

—Sara Christopherson