Issued from the woods near
Natchez, Mississippi, USA

October 18, 2009

All summer, back in Oregon, typically the only brightly colored, medium-size butterfly seen each day was the California Sister. Here near Natchez during the past warm, rainy week the only brightly colored, medium-size butterfly I saw was the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018fy.jpg.

That's the Gulf Fritillary, AGRAULIS VANILLAE, on one of Karen's fading zinnias. In this area those elongate, white, black-bordered splotches on the orange wings' undersides are shared by no other species. A view from the top is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018fz.jpg.

Gulf Fritillaries are distributed throughout South and Central America, all through Mexico, and well into the US. Its occurrence in the US is fascinating: During the winter about the only places Gulf Fritillaries are found in the US are southern Florida and southern Texas. In spring they migrate northward and by the end of summer they may be seen as far north as North Dakota. A map showing where the species has been sighted is at http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species?l=1664.

But, when winter comes, all Gulf Fritillaries wherever freezing temperatures occur... die. Usually that means that all across the US they die, except in southern Florida and southern Texas. They do not leave behind eggs and pupae that survive the cold. Therefore, the Gulf Fritillary's yearly movement isn't like the Monarchs round-trip journey because it's one way. The next spring, once again individual Gulf Fritillaries begin winging northward from southern Florida, southern Texas and Mexico on their one-way trip northward.

During my hermiting days near Natchez I didn't see Gulf Fritillaries during the spring or summer. Twice, however, I mentioned them in my Newsletters, both in October editions. One of those October editions dealt with the fact that my friend Karen had found a Gulf Fritillary chrysalis (the resting pupa stage between caterpillar and butterfly) dangling from a nail jutting from a local barn wall. You can see that at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/gfritpup.jpg.

Evolutionary biologists have a hard time figuring out how the Gulf Fritillary's seasonal movement evolved. Certainly the behavior gives the species an advantage in expanding its distribution northward as global warming continues, but it's hard to see how this predisposition could have been programmed into the species' DNA. Whatever the cause of its yearly northward wanderings, you who live just beyond the species' normal distribution might start keeping an eye open for them.

Gulf Fritillary larvae feed on passionflowers, verbenas, lantanas, phlox and other species. Their favorite hosts are passionflowers, though.


Ridgetops in this area usually are populated with oaks of various species, and nowadays as you hike along those ridges or even walk around your house if you have oak shade-trees you see a lot on the ground of what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018oa.jpg.

Some pictures on the Internet identify these as oak apple galls, but they're something different, and much more interesting. They're Acorn Plum Galls, caused by the gall wasp Amphibolips quercusjuglans, a member of the Gall Wasp Family, the Cynipidae, and instead of forming on leaves or stems as most galls do, they form on the scaly cups of acorns.

Despite the galls' commonness here, it was hard to figure out exactly what they were. Naturally first I asked my insect expert Bea in Ontario if she knew anything about them. Growing uncharacteristically circumspect at the prospect of tackling the huge, complex Gall Wasp Family, Bea reminded me that just in North America we have over 750 species in 49 genera in the Gall Wasp Family. Furthermore, "Each species makes a characteristic gall on a specific part of the plant. Many make galls on oaks. Most have a complex life cycle with a parthenogenetic generation and a sexual one. Each generation makes galls of a different appearance and on different parts of the plant."

Bea did find me a page, however, where someone had labeled a gall like those in my picture as an Acorn Plum Gall, and this turned out to be one of those times when the common name was specific enough to lead to the exact technical name, and more information about the species.

This week I've spent several hours looking for a gall on an acorn cup so I could photograph it arising from the cup. The best I could find, an immature one 20 feet up, is shown on a Southern Red Oak acorn at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018oc.jpg.

Acorn Plum Galls are solid and juicy inside, and rather heavy for their size. Pictures on the Internet show cut-open ones with a single, white grub curled up in the gall's center, slowly eating the gall's tissue as it grows. Eventually the grub will metamorphose into a pupa, and then into a tiny adult gall wasp.


"Real" oak-apple galls also are found on the ground beneath several oak species nowadays, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018ob.jpg.

These are caused by a wasp in the same Gall Wasp Family, the Cynipidae, as well as the same genus, Amphibolips, as the Acorn Plum Gall wasp. It's AMPHIBOLIPS CONFLUENTA.

Compared to solid, heavy, juicy Acorn Plum Galls, the Oak-Apple Galls in the picture are much larger, though much lighter, and rather spongy inside, and occur on oak leaves instead of acorn cups. Otherwise the gall-wasp lifecycle is the same as with the Acorn Plum Gall -- one little larva in the center eating the tissue around it, someday to metamorphose into a quiescent pupa, from which will emerge a tiny adult wasp.

You may remember the oak-apple galls we saw on Oregon's Brewer's Oaks this summer, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/brewer-o.htm#brewer.

They were made by a gall wasp of an entirely different genus, yet still they are "real" oak-apple galls.


At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018bb.jpg you see a fruiting stem of a bush fairly common in this area, one living up to its name, American Beautyberry. American Beautyberries are distributed throughout the US Southeast from Virginia to southeastern Missouri, but not as far north as my native home area of western Kentucky.

This is CALLICARPA AMERICANA, which during most of my life has been assigned to the Verbena Family, but which genetic sequencing has now reassigned to the Mint Family.

I read that the fruits are edible, being juicy, sweet, fleshy, and slightly aromatic, but when I've nibbled them I wasn't too impressed, finding them mealy and tasteless. I further read that they make a good jelly and that sounds like a much better idea than eating them raw.

A decoction of the head-tall shrub's root bark has been used as a diuretic, its leaves used to cure the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water, a tea from its roots used for dysentery and stomach aches, a tea made from both its roots and berries for colic, and some native North American Indian tribes used the leaves and roots in sweat baths for the treatment of malaria, arthritis and fevers. I read that the crushed leaves put into fishy water stuns the fish so they can be caught.

Whatever their edibility, the fruits' gaudy color really catches the eye these days, especially because in recent weeks it's rained so much here that plants are as green as if it were July.


One sign of the approaching cold season is the emergence of the dainty little white-flowered orchid known as Nodding Lady's Tresses, SPIRANTHES CERNUA. One growing beside my old hermit trailer is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018sp.jpg.

The slender, foot-tall plant is shown at the left in the picture. Most of the picture is taken up by a close-up showing how each white corolla neatly arcs downward from atop an upward rising base, and that base is enveloped by a green, sharp-pointed bract that arcs upward with it.

The Flora of North America describes this species as a "facultatively agamospermic polyploid compilospecies" and further explains that "unidirectional gene flow from related diploids generates a wide range of novel forms and races."

Without looking anything up I could figure out that it was saying that the species produces lots of weird forms, but I had to go online to figure out some of the bigger words.

"Agamospermic" is defined as "The asexual formation of embryos and seeds without the occurrence of fertilization," which means that plants arising from agamospermic-produced seeds are basically clones of the parents.

One definition of "compilospecies" is that it's a "genetically aggressive, highly polymorphic species, often of complex hybrid origin, often containing more than one ploidy level, often very weedy, and obscuring other species boundaries."

At this point you have to know about ploidy, and have a general feeling for how things evolve at the genetic level to appreciate what's being said. But, it's interesting stuff. Wikipedia's Ploidy Page is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ploidy.

Once you start getting a drift of what the modest little orchid next to my trailer is doing, you just have to stand and gawk at it awhile.


Around here, very different from Louisiana, bayous are deep, often vertical-walled gullies cut into the ice-age dust (loess) thickly mantling the area. These bayous often are relatively sheltered from wind and sunlight, thus providing good habitats for moisture-loving mosses and ferns, such as the fern shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018fn.jpg.

One reason that fern caught my eye was that the larger frond was so big -- about three feet long. Another was that the larger frond in the picture is "twice- pinnate"; it was divided into segments, which were divided into segments, and then those final segments were further deeply cut. Notice that the smaller fronds in the picture, of the same species, are only once- pinnate. I read that some fronds become thrice-pinnate!

This is the Torres's Fern, sometimes called the Mariana Maiden Fern, MACROTHELYPTERIS TORRESIANA. It's an invasive species native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Africa, but now invading most tropical and semitropical American countries. In the US first it showed up in Florida and now has spread to eastern Texas along the Gulf Coast and a bit inland, and up the Atlantic coast to South Carolina. Its Flora of North America distribution-map can be seen here.  

Its fruit dots, or spore-producing sori, are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018fo.jpg.

We've seen that the sori of many fern species are partially covered with cellophane-like roofs of various shapes, called indusia. Torres's Fern indusia are C-shaped, thick in the middle like croissants, with sporangia emerging from beneath the indusia's outer sides. Sporangia consist of spore-containing capsules atop slender stems. When the spores are mature and the weather just right the bags snap open and spores are released. In the picture I think the dark, hairlike things radiating from the indusia are sporangium stems after the capsules have released their spores.

Torres's Ferns are occasionally found in this area, though I've never seen them except on shaded, moist, steep to vertical loess walls down in the bayous.


An abundant fern here is the little Resurrection Fern, PLEOPELTIS POLPODIOIDES, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018pp.jpg.

Its name derives from the fact that when it's even half dry it shrivels and curls into itself in a way that not only makes it look dead, but also conserves its water. This week we've had so much rain that they've stayed "resurrected" from their dead-looking condition.

In my boyhood home of western Kentucky a similar and closely related species, the Common or Rock Polypody, very commonly appeared on boulders in moist, shaded valleys. That species lacks the tiny, circular "scales" dotting the frond's undersurface, seen on the frond between my fingers in the picture.


Heavy recent rains have made for great mushroom hunting. In a neighbor's pasture where for years horses have been kept, this week some mushrooms caught my attention that caused my poor stomach to wrench with a sudden cramp. You can see exactly what I saw at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018mu.jpg.

What you see there is a bunch of large, white-capped mushrooms beneath a tree in the junky corner of the pasture where the horses usually gather. Notice that the mushrooms grow more or less in a line. That can be interpreted as one small section of a large "fairy ring," or a circle of mushrooms. Some mushroom species form fairy rings but others don't. Most fairy rings are incomplete like this one but sometimes perfect circles form where mushrooms arise at the tips of outward-growing mycelia, which started growing from a single spore originally at the circle's center.

The reason my stomach reacted so violently is that I hadn't seen anything exactly like this since the summer of 2006, when up in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region I got seriously ill after misidentifying a poisonous Chlorophyllum mushroom as an edible one. The whole story of what happened and how I misidentified it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060824.htm.

My Kentucky mushrooms had been larger than these, however, so maybe they'd been different. Up close, however, their structure looked the same, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018mv.jpg.

The five-inch-broad cap (13 cm) is white, with patches of white "skin" pealing off the top. Notice the "ring" around the stem. The ring is somewhat distinctive, displaying two jagged edges. Another shot of that ring -- and many mushroom species don't have rings -- is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018mw.jpg.

Finally, just like the Chlorophyllum that almost killed me, the cap's gills do not at all connect to the stem -- they're "free." That's another important mushroom-identifying field mark, for the gills of many mushroom species attach to the stem or maybe even run down the stem for a distance.

At this point I was starting to think that I had the same species that poisoned me in Kentucky, but I needed a final determination, which would rest on the spore color. I remember the poisonous Kentucky mushroom's spore very well because my misidentification of the species had resulted from bad information about the spore color. All my books had said that any mushroom looking like what I had, to be poisonous, would have to have green spores, which is an unusual spore color. Up in Kentucky my mushroom had produced gray spores, so, according to my books, my mushroom should have been edible.

You can see what spore color our Mississippi mushroom has at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018mx.jpg.

Gray spores. They're exactly the color of those of the Chlorophyllum mushroom that almost got me in Kentucky!

In fact, the mushrooms in our neighbors horse pasture are indeed the poisonous Chlorophyllum mushroom, sometimes called the Green-gilled Lepiota or Green-spored Parasol Mushroom. It's CHLOROPHYLLUM MOLYBITES.

On the Internet I find other spore prints of this species and they're all gray colored exactly like mine. Yet every mushroom-identification book I have -- five on my desk right now -- claims that the species produces green spores.

How many dummies such as I have been poisoned because they consider the spore color revealed in my spore print to be gray instead of green?

Chlorophyllum molybites causes more mushroom poisonings in the US than any other species. Fortunately for me, the toxin affects only the guts, but does not destroy the nerves or blood, as do some other species.


Two fairly unrelated but similar fungi are among the most commonly encountered and possibly the best known of all North American fungi. They are both "turkey tails," and the one so abundant around here is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018tt.jpg.

Another shot, showing how large numbers of them can crowd together on a log is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018tu.jpg.

In the picture notice that the fungus's top view is shown above while the bottom half of the picture shows the bottom view of the same organisms. The larger "tail" is about two inches (5 cm) across.

The two turkey-tail species seen only from above can be hard to distinguish. However, when you compare their bottom surfaces you see that they're completely different kinds of fungi. The bottom surface of one species is conspicuously honeycombed with minute holes or pores, while the bottom of the other is smooth. By convention, the one with the holes is the "True Turkey Tail" while the smooth-surfaced one is the "False Turkey Tail." You can see that ours is smooth- surfaced, so it's the "False." It's STEREUM OSTREA.

Our "False" is a kind of "crust fungus," a member of the fungus order Russulales. In contrast, the "True," Trametes versicolor, is a "polypore fungus," a member of the fungus order Polyporales. To get a fix on how distantly related the two fungi are, remember that among birds we have the Penguin Order and the Hummingbird Order. So, being in different orders as are the "True" and "False" Turkeytails implies profound differences.

Where I grew up in Kentucky, the "True" Turkey Tail was the overwhelmingly most common species, while in southwestern Mississippi the "False" is by far the most common. Curiously, not only are the two species almost identical when seen from above, but also both are "saprobic" on dead hardwoods, which means that they take nutrients from dead wood. Both cause a white rot of the heartwood or sapwood.

It's unfortunate that our species is known as "false," for it's just as true as the other. I think it's the old story of early field guides in the US having been produced mostly by Northeastern naturalists. "True" Turkey Tails were most common up there, so when they discovered our species it was "false" according to their mind-sets. I call ours just plain "Turkey Tail" except when talking with anyone who really might be interested in fungus phylogeny.


When I left the plantation near here where I spent my hermit years I dug up lots of Elephant Garlic, which I planted here at Karen's place. Each year since, the plants have returned with exuberance, have proliferated, and each time I drift through here they make my morning-campfire stews so good. When the taste of that steaming, super-garlicky stew mingles with the odor of woodsmoke, I feel more "at home" than any other time.

One of the first things I did when I got here last week was to go dig some garlic bulbs, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091018gc.jpg.

When I was here early last spring the plants were about knee-high. Back then the bulbs had basically disintegrated around the base of the nearly inch-thick stems, the stems were succulent and every bit as garlicky as the bulbs were, so I tore off the tough leaves and the brown bulb-remnants, and sliced and diced the stem into my stews.

At that time, softball-size heads of closely clustered onion flowers stood atop the plants, then during summer's hot, dry days the plants died back and were mowed over so it was hard to tell they'd ever been there. Right now the only indication of their presence is that here and there a few short, green shoots arise from the mud.

Elephant garlic isn't "real" garlic. It's a leek, which explains why last spring the plant's stem was so thick and pulpy. "Real garlics" are known by the technical name of Allium sativum. Elephant Garlic belongs to the same genus but it's a different species: It's ALLIUM AMPELOPRASUM.

When a "real garlic's" bulb matures, it separates into several cloves and each clove is contained within its own white, papery wrapper. Elephant Garlic does produce cloves, but they're fewer in number, much larger, and though the cloves also are encased in their own wrappers, the wrappers aren't nearly as white, papery and flaky as a "real garlic's" cloves. Elephant Garlics usually produce five or so cloves that are a bit yellowish compared to a "real garlic's" milk-white cloves. I read that Elephant Garlic has a somewhat milder taste than "real garlic," and that the taste has onion-like edge to it. I don't really see any difference between them.


My head cold passed amazingly fast. Upon my arrival Karen presented me with over half a bushel of hot peppers she'd salvaged from a neighbor's garden, so every morning since my return my breakfast campfire stews have each contained at least two snipped-up jalapeños. I breathe the steam deeply, eat the whole stew, and later snip more peppers into my afternoon cornbread. You can think of all that as a super dose of Vitamin C.

Though I'll always cherish the memory of this summer's soul-pleasingly fragrant and tasty, solar-baked apple-cornbreads in Oregon, it's good to have my morning campfires here again, the routine of building and tending the fire, the companionable smoke, the warming flames, the orange embers flaring up playfully with the slightest breeze.

The other day a reader wrote pointing out that my morning campfires inject a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. When you think about it, it's hard to think of anything we do that's "carbon free." Life on Earth is carbon based, and Earth-life's main energy- getting process is the breaking down of carbohydrate molecules, and carbohydrates are long chains of carbon atoms. Merely sitting, being alive, we release carbon into the atmosphere. Even green plants, after producing oxygen all day, respire carbon dioxide in the night.

It's another of those yin-yang things: Not only is the world made of opposites in tension, but also each thing harbors at its heart its own essential oppositeness. Molecules of CO2 generated by my little twig-campfire are the opposite of the grander thing around me, the low-impact life to which I aspire.

It's worthwhile to meditate on the yin and yang of things. The basic premise for our Western society seems to be that things are one way or another, that success is starting low or small and ending high or big, and that if you tinker with something long enough you get perfection. When you have a feeling for yin and yang, you see through all that. Sensitized to the loopy nature of reality, not much really surprises you, yet the beauty of the whole system becomes ever more apparent. How can you unhealthily obsess on anything when you understand that if you keep going "in" you'll end up "out," or if you get stuck going "right" everything will get "left"? How agreeable becomes The Middle Path when the yin and yang of things are recognized.

Breathing deeply the steam off a bubbling pot of stew with two jalapeños in it sure opens up a head. The piquant stew is a moment of exquisite yin in a blossoming morning of philosophical yang. Or vice versa.


Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,


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