from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
October 28, 2001
DANCING MUSHROOM ON A FROSTY MORNING
After a week of sunny days with afternoon temperatures usually in the 80s (around 29C) this Sunday morning at dawn the temperature at my camp's Waxmyrtle tree was 32 (0C) and the season's first frost spotted the fields and pastures here and there. The big Pecan trees above my trailer are 95% leafless now, though the young Sweetgums surrounding me remain as green as in July. During these days everything presents itself in high contrast, like black shadows that pool wherever the dazzling sunlight can't directly hit.
Breakfast this morning was particularly vivid, everything about it scintillating, cutting, brilliant, immediate. Not only the feeling of scorching, orange campfire-blazes flickering next to me as the air tingled and numbed me with coldness, but also the food itself. Today's breakfast became approximately the fifth-most-tasty meal of my life.
For, nowadays there's a certain wonderful mushroom appearing at the bases of occasional old oak trees around here. This fungus has many, many names because it is distributed over much of the world (mushroom spores can take transcontinental trips on the wind). I think local people here may call it Hen of the Woods, but its most common name internationally is Maitake, a Japanese name, I think, since the Japanese seem to enjoy it more than anyone, and have found many uses for it. In German it's Klapperschwamm, but the name I like most is one I found on the Internet, and that's Dancing Mushroom, a name perfect for a steam-and-smoke-swirling-in-sunlight morning like this one. In Latin the mushroom's name is GRIFOLA FRONDOSA. You can see it at a Web site in England at http://www.bioimages.org.uk/HTML/P155083.HTM
That picture shows how the fungus body, the size of a basketball and larger, consists of many densely clustered, smaller, ear-shaped mushrooms, sort of looking like a giant pine cone. I don't think its taste is particularly exciting but it has the texture of soft chicken breast, and when I sauté it in olive oil with garlic, green onion, and jalapeño and bell peppers, scramble in a couple of eggs and sprinkle on fresh basil and a bit of fresh rosemary (everything except the olive oil and eggs from my gardens or the woods), the taste is as explosive as steam from my breath this morning after a big swig of hot water, breathing into the frigid air. I will never forget this morning's perfect breakfast with the Dancing Mushroom.
When I looked for "Grifola frondossa" on the Web my search engine turned up 1,160 pages. There is so much information about it because much of the world considers it to be medicinal -- good for everything from hypertension to AIDS.
I will only say that on such a morning as this it makes a hermit a fine breakfast.
Uncommon but not rare throughout the forest around my trailer nowadays there's a wild orchid flowering, called Nodding Ladies'-tresses, SPIRANTHES CERNUA. It's such a small plant with such an inconspicuous, slender spike of tiny white flowers that most people would overlook it and few who notice it would dream that it could be an orchid. However, if you look at the 3/8-inch-long (8 mm) blossoms under magnification you'll see that structurally they are unmistakably similar to any gaudy corsage-orchid.
In Mississippi Nodding Ladies'-tresses blossoms from July through November. There's a nice picture at http://www.wfnirvana.com/orchids/spircern.html
You might be surprised to learn that of all the families of flowering plants --such as the Oak Family, the Rose Family, the Bean Family -- the Orchid family has the greatest number of species of all -- some 25,000-35,000! The vast majority of them are tropical, however.
WHAT THE ORCHIDS TEACH
My Ladies'-tresses got me to thinking about how the Orchid Family's fabulous success in producing so many species provides insights into nature's general tendencies. For me, recognizing "nature's general tendencies" is a bit like someone else in our culture searching in the Bible or some other holy book in the hope of understanding "what God's plan is." Here is what the Orchid Family teaches me:
First, in terms of evolution, this most-species-rich family of all is a newcomer. The evolution of living things proceeds more or less like a tree that starts as a single sprout, branches, and then the branches rebranch, and so forth, with the branches growing and rebranching at different speeds and with different degrees of vigor. Earth's first large, land-based plants (plants at the evolutionary tree's roots) reproduced with spores, and they appeared over 400 million years ago. Flowering plants did not come onto the scene until much less than a hundred millions years ago, thus they are situated about 4/5 of the way up the evolutionary tree. Moreover, orchids did not appear among the flowering plants until relatively recently, geologically speaking, so they occupy only an outermost twig of the vast evolutionary tree. Yet this outside twig proliferates new species like none other.
What can we see about orchids that might explain their success? For one thing, orchid flowers have fused "traditional" flower parts (calyx, corolla, stamens, etc.) into very specialized structures favoring an efficient pollination system that no longer relies on powdery pollen. (An introduction to orchid flower-structure and pollination is found at http://www.beautyworlds.com/orchidpollination.htm.) Despite the impression given by flower-shop orchids, most orchid flowers, such as my Ladies'-tresses, are much smaller than flowers of "more primitive" species. Orchid species generally occupy very narrow ecological niches -- they are very, very fussy about where they live. Orchid seeds are nearly microscopic: A single pod may contain thousands of seeds, yet if just one of those seeds manages to germinate and grow into a mature plant the orchid is lucky.
If you think about it, the recent evolution of computers has followed the same path as that taken by orchids -- they are always evolving toward higher efficiency, miniaturization, specialization, proliferation, and as more and more computers join into networks there is consequent loss of importance for the individual... A good topic for a long night's discussion would be how human history and today's societies manifest these very same trends, and what this means to us today.
The orchids also show that nature doesn't put all of Her eggs into one basket. The Magnolia Family is considered to be one of the most primitive among flowering-plant families, yet in this forest around me the magnolias appear to be thriving quiteas well as the orchids.
I personally find this last observation tremendously encouraging, for here the forest is telling me that as much as anything Nature loves diversity. In a world where orchids and Silicon-Valley yuppies appear to be poised to inherit the Earth, plodding magnolias still can offer their perfume and simple hermits can smell of woodsmoke.
This is a good time of year to see amazing caterpillars. I just found one on a Black Oak leaf near my trailer and it was so interesting that I added it to my nature-study site, at
The neat thing about this one is that it's camouflaged to look like the brown, curled corner of a bug-eaten leaf in fall. I can't identify it with any of my books so if anyone out there can supply a name I'd appreciate having it.
The variety of spiders nowadays is mind-boggling. Of all the strange corners of the natural world, I think that none surpasses that occupied by spiders. Whenever you spot one you should just pause a while, look at it so closely that you can see all of it's subtle colors and designs, and pay attention to what it is doing. Each dusk there's a large one of the genus ARANEUS that builds a web between tree branches about ten feet apart (3 m) directly above my trailer. How did that spider, which cannot step back to survey what its context is, manage to locate such a good spot?
Unfortunately I don't know of any decent fieldguide to help us with spider identification. The best accessible book I know is the little Golden Nature Guide called "Spiders and Their Kin," but it's so small that few of the spiders I try to identify with it are found. There's a spider-identification Web site that's fun to use and sometimes it even supplies a correct identification. Give it a try at http://126.96.36.199/catalog/
"Forget not that the Earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair." This quotation by Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) is one of several dozen appearing on my "Favorite Quotations" page at http://www.earthfoot.org/quotes.htm I'm always astonished at how merely reading one such quotation after another fills me with a more positive, happy attitude, and I invite you to visit that page for the same experience. If you have a quotation you think would fit the page's general theme (praise & awe for life, diversity, keeping your mind open) you are invited to send it to me for possible inclusion.