JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the woods a few miles east of
NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI, USA

May 20, 2012

CHANTERELLES UP!
After a couple of rainy days last week mushrooms began popping up. One kind was especially welcome, the orange, funnel-shaped ones about 2½-inches high (7cm) shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520ch.jpg.

Those are Chanterelles, CANTHARELLUS CIBARIUS. Well, actually the taxonomy of the chanterelle group is so complex and poorly understood that probably several unrecognized species are lumped under that name, but at the moment that's the best name to use.

Chanterelles are among the best known, most appreciated and often most common of edible mushrooms. They're widely distributed throughout much of the world's temperate zones. During my hermit days near here sometimes bathtubs of them could have been picked, though here so far this year they're a bit spotty. When I lived in Germany we called them Pfefferlings. The ones there were smaller but even tastier than ours. You can see a handful I collected this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520ci.jpg.

Notice the Chanterelle's general funnel shape and the shallow, orange gills that gradually diminish as they extend partway down the stem. These features are important because they distinguish Chanterelles from a slightly similar poisonous species, the Jack O'Lantern Mushroom, which is less funnel-shaped and whose stems are more distinct and with gills not descending them.

The best way to prepare Chanterelles is to lightly sauté them in butter, with a little salt and pepper. I didn't have those ingredients so I made a Chanterelle omelet which when eaten with a ripe tomato from the garden, slices of sweet onion and hot, moist cornbread was wonderful.

Of course, mushrooms are just the spore-producing reproductive structures of fungi whose "working bodies" actually are networks of threadlike hyphae occupying the soil and organic matter.

It happens that the hyphae of Chanterelles, as with many fungi, form symbiotic "mycorrhizal associations" on the roots of certain vascular plants. In these associations the fungus forms a hyphal sheath covering the plant's root tip, plus it forms a network of hyphae surrounding plant cells within the plant-root cortex. Outside the root, the hyphae grow into the soil and leaf litter forming extensive networks.

In these relationships, the fungus benefits by gaining access to the plant's carbohydrates, such as glucose and sucrose and, in return, the plant's roots gain increased ability to absorb water and mineral nutrients thanks to the greatly increased surface area provided by the fungus/root complex -- the "mycorrhizal association."

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REISHI MUSHROOMS UP!
Too tough to be edible but very interesting and pretty nonetheless are the Reishi Mushrooms coming up in the orchard area. One is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520ga.jpg.

In much of the world this species is known by its Japanese name, Reishi. It's GANODERMA LUCIDUM, about three inches tall (8cm). You can see that it doesn't have the usual "mushroom shape" with the stem connecting with the cap in the cap's center below, but rather attaches at the side. Some "shelf fungi," usually found on wood, attach to the side like that but their stems aren't nearly as well developed as this one's. This is truly an oddly shaped mushroom. It's a young one, too; as it matures its white cap will turn dark reddish-brown and become shiny as if shellacked.

Reishi mushrooms are not gilled, but rather drop their spores from tiny pores on the cap's undersurface. You can see the pores on a cap turned back with my thumb at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520gb.jpg.

The Japanese name is so well known for this species because Reishis are very important in Eastern traditional medicine. The name Reishi literally means "supernatural mushroom." Way back, the goddess Reishi Senshi was worshipped because she would bestow health, life and eternal youth. Reishi mushrooms are considered to be good for just about any ailment. In fact, studies in the West have found that Reishi extract does act on immune system cells, works against herpes virus, lowers cholesterol and stops cell proliferation -- at least in mice and rats. So far Western medicine hasn't conclusively found any benefit of Reishi for humans. If you want to be wowed by Reishi, this mushroom has its own website at http://www.reishi.com/.

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MISSISSIPPI KITES
The bird predator most commonly heard calling above us is the Red-shouldered Hawk, but nearly every morning another species appears circling overhead, and sometimes is heard calling from the nearby forest, a pure, melancholy-sounding, two-syllable FEE-FEEEEEEEE. I recognize this call from my hermitting days near here, when a pair making the call nested in the big Pecan tree next to my trailer. It's the Mississippi Kite, ICTINIA MISSISSIPPIENSIS. You can see what one looks like circling overhead at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520mk.jpg.

Kites tend to have longer, narrower tails and wings than regular buteo hawks. At first glance a Mississippi Kite's silhouette is similar to that of the Northern Harrier, but the harrier's tail is a little rounded at the tip, while our kite's tail is squared. Also, the harrier is much larger, with a wingspread of 43 inches (1.1m) as opposed to the kite's 31 inches (80cm). Being so small, they eat dragonflies, cicadas, grasshoppers and other large flying insects, with the occasional small bird or mammal.

Mississippi Kites seem to be becoming more common here even as they expand their range toward the north and west. As with Pileated Woodpeckers, they appear to have undergone a behavioral change in which they've gone from nesting mainly in dense forest to sometimes preferring to nest close to human environments, even inside towns and around golf courses. They certainly seem to like sailing above the Mississippi River right in front of the town of Natchez.

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SUMMER AZURE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/natchez/020.jpg you can see one of the butterflies most commonly spotted here these days. Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario says it's the Summer Azure, CELASTRINA NEGLECTA, found in most of the eastern and central US and southern Canada.

It's a small butterfly with a wingspan of about an inch (2.5cm). When the male flits about you see flashes of powdery blue on his wings' upper sides, but as soon as these butterflies land they close their wings above them, as in the picture. They're similar to hairstreaks but lack the little "hairs" projecting backwards from their hindwings.

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ARROW-WOOD FLOWERING
Down in the moist, shadowy bottom of a local bayou there's yet another small tree attracting pollinators by clustering small, brilliantly white flowers into dense, large clusters that show up very well in the somber, shadowy greenness, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520vb.jpg.

Notice how the small flowers cluster into subgroups with each subgroup arising from its own stiff stem. Another shot showing a leaf's underside with its prominent, branching secondary veins extending into the tips of leaf-margin teeth is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520vc.jpg.

In that picture also note that the leaves are opposite, or two to a stem node, which helps distinguish this group of plants from the majority of other bush and tree types, which have alternate leaves, or only one leaf arising per stem node. A close-up of three individual flowers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520vd.jpg.

Each of those flowers consists of only a white corolla and five white male stamens, but there are no female parts. In this species, flowers at the edge of the cluster are all male; a few flowers with female parts are found inside the cluster.

This is Arrow-wood, VIBURNUM DENTATUM. Lots of viburnum species exist, and in my days viburnums were classified as members of the Honeysuckle Family, the Caprifoliaceae, but genetic sequencing now has many experts shifting them to the newly formed Adoxaceae, along with elderberries. This new family lies near the Dogwood Family, and that's not surprising since during my years in the field more than once I've confused viburnums with dogwoods. Not only their leaves and flowers but also their fruits can be very similar. You might be interested in comparing our current Arrow-wood pictures with those of the Swamp Dogwood we looked at just two weeks ago, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/swampdog.htm.

At last one source on the Internet affirms that American indigenous people used Arrow-wood for making arrows, and the fellow who says this is an arrow-making expert who makes his own Arrow-Wood arrows. You might find his detailed, well illustrated page (showing some Arrow-wood arrows) at http://www.angelfire.com/md3/archeryrob/arrows.html.

Another source says that traditionally a decoction of Arrow-Wood twigs was taken by women to prevent conception. Poultices of the plant have been applied to the swollen legs of women after giving birth.

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CAROLINA BUCKTHORN FLOWERING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520rh.jpg you see the leaves and flowers of a small tree that most people don't notice until its red, crabapple-like fruits appear later in the season. It's the Carolina Buckthorn, FRANGULA CAROLINIANA. To be so common and widespread in the US Southeast, it's surprisingly little known. The elliptical, alternate leaves (one leaf per stem node) with conspicuous, parallel secondary veins that arch at their tips, then briefly follow the leaf margin's edge, are good field marks for its identification.

One reason buckthorns are often overlooked is that their flowers, though structurally interesting, are small. A close-up shows a blossom's peculiarities at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520ri.jpg.

The five, petal-like appendages forming a star are hairy sepals, not petals. Sepals are calyx lobes, the calyx usually being an inconspicuous, green, cuplike affair below the flashier corolla and sexual parts. Carolina Buckthorn's blossoms do also bear petals, however. They're the white, hoodlike items held erect and practically enclosing the five dark-anthered stamens arising between the sepals. The stamens and their shelters look like five Virgin Marys in their stand-alone niches, all facing the ovary in the flower's center. This is a remarkable configuration for a flower and probably it makes sense if you understand its pollination strategy, which I don't.

Carolina Buckthorns belong to the Buckthorn Family, the Rhamnaceae, a family producing many erect or climbing, woody, and often spiny species, and a few herbs. I find them more in arid zones. Despite the name, Carolina Buckthorns bear no thorns.

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CORAL BEANS FLOWERING
Out in the woods on moist, shaded slopes maybe the most surprising, eye-catching plant flowering these days is the shoulder-high one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520er.jpg.

Notice the trifoliate compound leaves, then take a look at the raceme of two-inch-long (5cm), bright-red flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520es.jpg.

In Mexico we've seen small trees with leaves and flowers like these, for example those of the commonly planted Coral Tree shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/erythrin.htm.

The Mexican Coral Tree's big, trifoliate leaves and very slender, red blossoms are very similar to what we have here, but our plants are much smaller and only woody at the base. What we have here is variously known in English as the Coral Bean, Cherokee Bean, Red Cardinal and Cardinal Spear. It's ERYTHRINA HERBACEA, which means that it's in the same genus as Mexico's Coral Tree, which is Erythrina coralloides, so the two species are closely related.

With about 130 species, the genus Erythrina is nearly entirely tropical and subtropical in distribution, so our Coral Bean, found only in the US Deep South and along Mexico's Gulf coast, can be thought of as an effort of the genus to extend northward into colder climes.

Coral Beans are members of the huge Bean Family. They do produce papilionaceous flowers typical of the Bean Family, with the usual "standard" petal at the blossom's top, two side "wings" and the two lower petals fused into a boat-shaped "keel." However, the standard is larger than the other petals and folds over and hides them, obscuring the bean-flower identity. Later in the year the plant's legumes will split open releasing bright red beans.

Traditionally many indigenous American groups used Coral Bean medicinally. The Creek used an infusion of the root for bowel pain; the Choctaw used a decoction of the leaves as a general tonic; the Seminole used an extract of the roots for digestive problems, and extracts of the seeds or inner bark served as an external rub for rheumatism. In Mexico the seeds are used as rat poison, while the bark and leaves serve as fish poison.

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SILK TREE/ MIMOSA FLOWERING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520al.jpg you can see a common and beautiful tree flowering so robustly these days that butterflies from all around come flitting in it. On the Internet the tree's most commonly used English name seems to be Silk Tree, but that day back in the 1950s when my mother came from town with a switch of it to plant behind the coalhouse she said it was a Mimosa, so that's what I grew up calling it. It's ALBIZIA JULIBRISSIN, a member of the big Bean Family. Native from Iran east to China and Korea, it was first introduced into the US in 1745.

My mother thought that her Mimosa bore the prettiest flowers of any tree she'd ever seen, except for maybe the magnolia, but magnolias have a different kind of beauty. Mimosa flowers reminded her of pink powder-puffs, and were just as perfumy. Back before mall garden centers with every kind of exotic and gene-manipulated wonder became commonplace, Mimosas were deemed worthy of standing before and looking at, and saying something about the flowers' wondrous fragrance.

The Mimosa's powder-puff "flowers" are actually clusters of flowers. The fuzzy parts are inch-long stamens (2.5cm) with tiny, yellow anthers atop long, slender, pink filaments. You can see some actual flowers, each with numerous filaments arising from a pale green, five-lobed corolla at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520am.jpg.

You can see how the pollen-yellow anthers tip the filaments at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520an.jpg.

Despite all this perfumery and loveliness, in the Americas Mimosas are invasives likely to turn up growing wild in old fields and along stream banks and roadsides. Once established they're hard to remove because of their abundant, long-lived seeds and their ability to re-sprout vigorously.

Scientific studies have found Mimosa extracts to produce antidepressant-like effects in mice. In traditional Chinese medicine Mimosa has been used to "nourish the heart and calm the spirit." On the Internet a website offers "Albizia Extract" (Albizia being Mimosa's genus name) derived from stem bark that is "hand-harvested, carefully dried, and then custom extracted ... according to traditional Chinese methods." One ounce costs US $44.50.

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WILD COMFREY FRUITS IN LEG HAIRS
In rich, heavily shaded, valley-bottom soil in the woods you're likely to get spiny, BB-sized brown fruits (actually "nutlets" from a four-parted ovary) stuck in your leg hairs, such as those shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520cz.jpg.

When you search to see who is producing them, you find the knee-high plants shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520cy.jpg.

As a kid I learned to call these Houndstongues, because their tongue-shaped leaves are so rough-hairy that they feel like an old hound's raspy tongue when he licks you. You can see the hairs on a folded leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520cx.jpg.

Instead of Houndstongue, nowadays most sources seem to call them Wild Comfrey, since the plant is similar to the Comfrey used in folk medicine as a poultice for treating burns and wounds. That's in a different genus, though. Our Wild Comfrey is CYNOGLOSSUM VIRGINIANUM of the Borage Family, the Boraginaceae. "Real" Comfrey is in the same family but a different genus.

Earlier our Wild Comfreys bore white flowers pretty enough for the species to be included in most field guides to Eastern North American wildflowers. The species is easy to recognize with or without flowers or fruits because of how the larger, hairy leaves cluster at the base, and how the bases of the stem leaves end in little "ears" clasping the stems.

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EASTERN PRICKLYPEARS FLOWERING
Just last week we looked at the Western Pricklypear cactus, Opuntia macrorhiza, that Karen had collected in northwestern Arkansas and planted in her garden here. This week her locally-obtained Eastern Pricklypear, OPUNTIA HUMIFUSA, is flowering, so you can see the difference between the two species. This week's spineless, yellow-flowered Eastern is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520op.jpg.

The Eastern's body is practically identical to that of last week's Western species, plus both come in races that are spineless or heavily spined. However, a peep inside the blossom shows a big difference between them. A look into the Eastern's flower is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520oq.jpg.

Compare that view with a similar shot of the Western's blossom at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513oq.jpg.

The difference is that the Western's yellow flowers are conspicuously reddish inside -- the individual petals have reddish bases -- while the Eastern's flowers are completely yellow. The online Flora of North America's Opuntia Page also says that the Western's flowers have yellowish to cream stigmas while the Eastern's stigmas are white, but I can't see much difference there. I read that many experts regard the Eastern and Western species as mere variations of the same species, so maybe that's true.

If you're interested in trying your hand at "keying out" your own North American pricklypear cactus, the Flora of North America Opuntia key is down the page here

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WHY DO CHIGGERS EXIST?
It took me decades to figure out why Nature created chiggers. Chiggers are those almost-microscopic larvae of red mites that latch onto outdoor people's skin causing itching and scratching. What I finally understood was that chiggers exist because during the evolutionary history of Life on Earth a certain ecological niche arose, so chiggers evolved from other life forms to exploit that niche. It's just our bad luck that part of the chigger's life cycle includes a larval stage that occasionally bites human skin causing itching.

The answer was as simple and obvious as that, yet I needed all those years of wrestling with my cultural programming before I could reach that conclusion and fully accept it. Chiggers aren't here to punish sinners, but because there was a place for them, so they came.

Once I could see why there are chiggers it became apparent that the same thought process could explain the presence of disease organisms: Disease organisms exist because evolving Nature produced ecological niches for them, so organisms arose to exploit those niches -- even if it meant untold misery or death to higher organisms such as humans.

So, for whatever the reason, the Creator's creation includes chiggers and disease organisms because that's the way She, the Creator, "wants" it -- else She wouldn't make things this way. And even if I can't bring myself to say that the Creator "wants" innocent little kids to itch from chiggers and die from disease organisms, I can't escape the conclusion that She is more interested in creating rampaging diversity than in the welfare of individual organisms, even if those individual organisms are innocent little kids.

Believing like this is sobering, not a little scary, and even --if you think about it -- enraging. However, it does have its charms. For one thing, it feels good finally having a belief system whose basic tenets are not contradicted by the evidences of everyday events. Religions provide no convincing explanation for why so often the best and most innocent among us suffer the most. In a reality where chiggers and disease organisms are accepted as having their own rights to exist, it's clear that suffering innocents also must exist.

There's another reason why it feels good to see clearly humanity's true status in a vast, evolving, impersonal Universe: In this world created with so many chiggers, disease organisms and untold numbers of other living things, it's gratifying to realize that we humans have been granted something no other organism on Earth has: We have big brains with which to confront our challenges. Other species may be on the verge of extinction because they are unable to escape behavioral patterns imposed on them by genetic programming, but we humans can rise above our instinctual behaviors -- our urges for wealth, power, dominance, herd-following, unplanned baby-creation -- and confront our challenges rationally, if we want, and if we're really smart enough.

So, that's what chiggers teach us.

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FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Camping with Octavio Paz" from the July 27, 2007 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/070727.htm.

"Nervous, Unsatisfied People" from the July 18, 2004 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/050130.htm.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net