JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Polly's Bend, Garrard County,
in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region, USA

August 24, 2006

POISONED BY A CHLOROPHYLLUM MUSHROOM
It's been warm and rainy lately so I've been keeping my eyes peeled for mushrooms. The ones I spotted last Saturday didn't need sharp eyes to see, though, for their whitish caps were seven inches across (20 cm) on stems 11 inches tall (28 cm).

I had an idea that this was the "Parasol Mushroom" of the genus Lepiota, considered choice eating. As soon as I saw them I started anticipating eating on them for several days. However, in the genus Lepiota there are poisonous species, so I knew to be careful.

The first step in confirming the identification was to make a spore print -- to place the mushroom cap on a surface with the gills facing downward so spores would accumulate when released from the gills. You can see a spore print I've made of another mushroom at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/sporprnt.jpg.

Spore color is one of the main features to note during mushroom identification. Amanita species are the most poisonous of mushrooms and they all produce white spores. The meadow mushrooms, genus Agaricus, are a little similar to Amanitas but they are wonderful eating and have chocolate-brown spores. Most mushroom field guides group their mushrooms according to spore color. My field guide color-groups are white to yellowish, salmon to pink, black to smoky gray, purple-brown to chocolate-brown, clay color, and yellow-brown, rusty-brown, or cinnamon-brown to clay-brown.

Saturday's mushroom produced pale gray spores, which was unusual. To be the hoped-for Parasol Mushroom it needed white spores. However, Parasol Mushrooms are very variable so I thought that maybe mine just had some anomalously colored spores. There were a few other departures from the Parasol Mushroom as well, but maybe they also were part of the normal variation. Few mushrooms produce gray spores, and my discovery clearly wasn't any of the listed gray-spored species. I needed to be careful before I ate these.

I decided to run a nibble test. The idea is pretty simple: You eat a small amount and see what happens. If that goes well you eat a bit more, and then a bit more, until you're sure you have an edible species.

I took half a mouthful and the taste was so bland, like unsweetened custard, that I grew even surer that my discovery was edible. The inedible mushrooms I've tested before were so bitter, foul-tasting or nauseous-smelling that I wouldn't have wanted to eat them anyway. This tasted so good that I took a tiny bit more, but no more in total than a single mouthful.

Two hours later I started feeling queasy and experiencing shortness of breath. Without being too graphic I'll just say that for the next hour I endured six waves of debilitating vomiting, and that passed into severe diarrhea. Terrible chills alternated with fevers that steamed my glasses. My neck muscles and other muscles contracted and ached. Twelve hours later I was exhausted, still experiencing waves of chills, fevers and shortness of breath, and 24 hours later I still had some diarrhea. It was a mess.

Once I knew I'd nibbled a poisonous species it became much easier to work out the identification. I had eaten the Green-spored Parasol Mushroom, CHLOROPHYLLUM MOLYBITES. The reason I'd misidentified it was because all my books said that this species produces green spores, yet my specimens definitely produced pale gray ones. Also, the books say that older gills on the poisonous species turn green, but mine turned blue. You can see a Green-spored Parasol Mushroom at http://www.mushroomexpert.com/chlorophyllum_molybdites.html

Once I knew that I'd been poisoned I looked up the toxin I was dealing with. It was a "Group VI" toxin, gastrointestinal in nature. This was good news. I didn't want it to be one that attacked my nervous system or blood. Group VI toxins are unpleasant but, unless eaten in large quantities, not deadly.

It turns out that of all mushroom poisonings in the US the Green-spored Parasol causes by far the most. I just wonder if it's because of this spore-color and gill-color confusion?

Whatever the case, I am a bit chastened, have learned to not trust this spore-color business as much as I have in the past, and now I know for sure that some poisonous mushrooms can taste pretty good.

*****

EARLY FUNGUS EVOLUTION
When I was a kid I was taught that all living things either were plants or animals, and fungi were plants. Now experts speak of five, six or more "kingdoms" of living things, of which the Plant, Animal, and Fungus Kingdoms are three. You may be interested in reviewing my "Tree of Life Page" which lists six kingdoms recognized by an important college biology text, and shows a proposed phylogenetic tree with plants, animals and fungi way out on one limb among several, all of them branching and rebranching, at http://www.backyardnature.net/lifetree.htm.

Fungi are such weird organisms that you're tempted to wonder whether life may have spontaneously originated more than once on Earth, resulting in fungi being completely unrelated to either plants or animals. That idea loses its credibility when we see that fungus tissue is arranged in familiar ways. Fungi have cells with rigid walls, like plants, and within the cells reside nuclei with fairly standard genes and chromosomes. Moreover, DNA hybridization studies recognize many sequences of genes as having been derived from more primitive organisms, and as being ancestral to more modern ones. Fungi fit neatly into the evolutionary Tree of Life.

The fungi's exact evolutionary history is very much debated, but consensus is forming around the following:

With life appearing 4.6-4.8 billion years ago, visualize one branch of the Tree of Life as evolving through time with certain life forms branching off it. Off come amebas, off come slime molds, euglenas, red algae, brown algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates and other primitive, simple organism types.

Now we come to a very consequential split. The ancestors of all vascular plants, bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) and green algae split into one branch with the ancestors of all animals AND fungi continuing up the other branch. This branching means that we humans are more closely related to mushrooms than to oak trees.

Keep in mind that the species evolving and splitting at that time were still very simple, unspecialized organisms. When the next major split of our branch of the Tree of Life occurred, during the Cambrian Era about 600 million years ago, fungi went one way and the ancestors of all future animals went another. The common ancestor of both fungi and animals was a very unsophisticated chytrid or chytrid-like organism. Chytrids still exist and are regarded as primitive fungi, mostly aquatic. You can see what they look like at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chytrid.

*****

TREE CRICKETS
This week while pulling up some caterpillar-eaten collard plants to make room for sowing spinach, down in the dewy shadows next to the ground below the collards and weeds I espied a very elegant little insect. It wasn't quite a regular cricket or regular grasshopper, though it clearly belonged in that part of the insect branch of the Tree of Life. Most eye- catching was its greenish-cream hue, with an elegant pink longitudinal line atop its thorax. Something very similar to what I saw, but without the pink line and a bit less slender than mine can be seen at http://www.lesinsectesduquebec.com/insecta/11-orthoptera/oecanthus_fultoni.htm

What I had was a tree cricket, which means that it was a member of the Tree-Cricket SUBFAMILY (Oecanthinae) of the Cricket FAMILY (Gryllidae) of the Order Orthoptera.

The best-known tree cricket in North America is the one shown at the above link, the Snowy Tree Cricket, OECANTHUS FULTONI. If you visit that page and your computer is fairly new you'll probably hear the Snowy Tree Cricket's chirps, and recognize it. This species is famous for its temperature-sensitive chirping rate. If you count the number of chirps a Snowy Tree Cricket makes in 13 seconds and add the number 40 to it, you'll have a good estimate of the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.

Several tree cricket species exist, however, and I think I had one of the lesser known. Tree- and bush- species generally sing only at night while weed species usually sing both day and night. Most species sing in a prolonged trill but a few, like the Snowy, chirp.

*****

GRASS SPIDERS
At dawn when I'm jogging right before the sun comes up spider funnel-webs catch they eye, for dew condenses on them showing them as white platforms on dark green grass. Funnel webs consist of flat sheets of silk placed horizontally on the ground or other more or less level surfaces. One side of the sheet curls into a cylindrical, silken tunnel in which the spider resides. The tunnel leads into shadowy, hidden regions beneath curled leaves or matted grass blades.

Mostly you don't see the spiders because usually they stay in their tunnels. However, when they come out you can see that they're hairy-legged, stripe-backed critters about the size of quarters. Our main funnel- web makers are members of the genus AGELENOPSIS, known as Grass Spiders. You can see fine close-ups of a Grass Spider like ours attacking a honeybee at http://www.hr-rna.com/RNA/Spider%20pages/Funnel%20web%20page.htm.

On that page notice how the spider's rear end narrows to a point bearing two unusually long spinnerets. Spinnerets issue strands of silk through tiny spigots at their tips. Most spider species bear six spinnerets, though four may be much shorter and thus inconspicuous.

If you touch a Grass Spider web you'll find that the silks aren't sticky, so you wonder how the spider catches prey. Sometimes with a grassblade you can jiggle the web just right, imitating an entangled fly, and you'll see. The spider rushes from the tunnel planning to grab the victim and drag it back into its tunnel.

*****

NUTSEDGES
You know that not all plants looking like grasses are grasses. Most grass-looking non-grasses are members of the Sedge Family, the Cyperaceae. The Sedge Family embraces spike rushes, bulrushes, cotton grass, beak- rushes, nut-rushes, and a host of other plant types for which English has no good names.

The other day an old friend from Lexington visited carrying yet another kind of Sedge-Family member in a plastic bag, for he wanted an identification of the plant taking over his backyard garden. It was clearly a nutsedge, and I suspected that it was the Yellow Nutsedge, CYPERUS ESCULENTUS, which you can see at http://www.american-lawns.com/problems/weeds/nutsedge.html.

I asked if small, potato-like tubers had grown at the end of the plant's stolons when the plant had been pulled up. He said no, which was unfortunate, because Yellow Nutsedge has them. In fact, the "esculentus" in the plant's name is from Latin meaning "edible." The tubers are edible. You may have eaten them yourself, under the name of chufa. You can see what a whole plate of chufa looks like on a French page at http://perso.wanadoo.fr/aromatiques.tropicales/imagesplanteshtml/souchet.html.

When we speak of nutsedges, umbrella-sedges or galingales, we're referring to species in the genus Cyperus. Just in northeastern North America we have over 35 Cyperus species and many of them are similar to one another, so nutsedge identification can be tricky. Still, I think my friend had Yellow Nutsedge, but when he pulled up the plant the tubers broke off and remained in the soil.

That's the main reason Yellow Nutsedge -- which is a native American species -- has become such a pernicious weed. Pull up the plant and the tubers remain in the soil, and then next year each tuber engenders a new plant. To confirm that your nutsedge has tubers you need to very gingerly excavate the pale, cord-like stolons to their ends.

Yellow Nutsedge comes in several varieties. Tubers produced on the variety in my own backyard at Polly's Bend are so small that they're not worth gathering to eat unless you're starving. However, a variety SATIVUS has been horticulturaly developed just for its chufa- producing tubers. It diverts so much energy into its tuber production that it only seldom flowers.

In Kentucky another very commonly encountered nutsedge species growing on moist ground and ditch bottoms is the Umbrella Sedge, Cyperus strigosus, whose flowers are a bit larger than Yellow Nutsedge's but otherwise similar.

*****

CRABGRASS
The whole property's various lawns are mowed by fellows working on contract who come with mowers and weed eaters so large and no-nonsense that they mow the whole place in a fraction of the time you'd expect. Behind the house lately they've begun skipping a spot about five feet across because of an irregularity in the ground. This has resulted in a modest little weed- island, which has become a focus of wildlife. Chipmunks stay near it for cover and rabbits nibble in and about it.

Tuesday afternoon I was vacantly watching a Cabbage White Butterfly flitting above the island and then all in half a second an Eastern Wood Pewee streaked horizontally across my field of vision, the butterfly simply vanished as the bird snapped its mandibles with a metallic click, and the bird disappeared into the wall of Paper Mulberries. It all happened so quickly that my mind registered only the streak, the disappearance and the click.

The spot is crowned with a diffuse aura of flowering and fruiting heads of maybe 20 crabgrass plants. Song Sparrows with their boldly brown-striped chests come to eat crabgrass seeds. Each crabgrass flowering head, whose splayed form suggests to me bursting fireworks, bears 3-7 slender, fingerlike racemes arising from atop the flower-cluster stem, or peduncle. You can see this arrangement on my Crabgrass Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_crabg.htm.

Song Sparrows daintily nibble along the racemes removing one crabgrass seed at a time, continually grinding their mandibles on the seeds like a cow's jaws. Often crabgrass flowers stick to the sparrows' beaks accumulating into minor messes. I suspect that this is according to Nature's plan. If you look closely at an individual tiny crabgrass flower you'll see that its edges are equipped with eyelash-like fringes of stiff hairs. I'll bet that the hairs of one seed coat mat with the hairs of another causing the seeds to clump on the sparrows' beaks. Later when the sparrow cleans his beak a few seeds will fall off, thus propagating crabgrass into new areas.

Whatever the case, Song Sparrows love crabgrass seed, even though Song Sparrows are native American birds while this crabgrass is an invasive from Eurasia. Actually there are several species of crabgrass and some are native. My backyard species, the one so common as a weed throughout the US, is the Eurasian DIGITARIA SANGUINALIS. Another introduced, weedy crabgrass sometimes encountered is the Small Crabgrass, D. ischaemum. The Slender Crabgrass, D. filiformis, and D. serotina both specialize in sterile or sandy soil, the latter restricted to the Coastal Plain from Florida to Louisiana, and north from Florida to southeastern Virginia. There are even rare crabgrasses such as D. laeviglumis found only in dry peaty hollows in granitic ledges in Hillsboro County, New Hampshire.

*****

REFLECTIONS ON BEING POISONED
Last Saturday afternoon as I was dealing with being poisoned by the Green-spored Parasol Mushroom there were times when by body was completely out of control. When the diarrhea came I couldn't rise from my bedding on the floor. I soiled everything -- my blankets, my clothing, the floor across the house to the nearest door. It was a mess. When I finally got outside, flies landed on me en masse, big greenish and bluish ones I seldom see, but I didn't have the wherewithal to shoo them off. I just lay in the recently rained-on grass letting it all happen. I could not swat flies, then, but I could think.

One thing I thought was that this was a preview of what's to come if the years keep piling on and the body keeps degenerating, which I suppose will happen.

I also remarked how pretty the sky was, how gaily the Chimney Swifts twittered and flew circles above me, and, with my body flushed with fever, how pleasant the cold, wet grass was.

Also I thought this:

What a marvel that life -- any life -- proceeds at all. When you reflect on everything that can go wrong with a body it's really a miracle that we can even walk around, much less ever have a good day. Here just one mouthful of a pretty, good-tasting mushroom had changed my chemistry for a moment, and everything suddenly had broken down.

I've often mentioned my belief that all of us, including myself, are entranced in various hypnotic states nearly all the time. Some of the trances, such as romantic love, are positive while others, such as the state causing us to do what everyone else is doing without thinking, can be destructive. Another powerful trance is the one that hides from us our absolute vulnerability to a whole universe of agencies, forces and unknowns that in an instant can end life -- as mine would have ended if I'd eaten much more than my single mouthful of Green-spored Parasol Mushroom. I truly believe that if we could clearly see how fragile life is and how many threats surround us, and are ticking away inside us all the time, we'd be paralyzed with fear and dread, and be unable to live meaningful lives.

We need our trances, then, yet our entrancements also anesthetize us, keeping us from noticing or caring that we are destroying the planetary ecosystem that sustains us. Humans have been created in a way that requires us to use our primate minds to overcome our reptilian-minded shortsightedness.

Anyway, what a miracle that today I can type these words after more or less fully recuperating from my Green-spored Parasol Mushroom. It's a perfect summer day with cicadas droning as they should drone on such an August afternoon, with a string quartet on the radio, the wood floor beneath my bare feet cool and good-feeling, and me looking forward to the afternoon biscuit baked over my campfire, slitting the biscuit open while it's still steaming and placing inside it glistening, red slices of homegrown tomato and white slivers of homegrown onion and a green leaf or two of lettuce and a light sprinkling of salt... and just eating that thing!

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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