Rotting wood is my new passion. Where I walk in Westwoods has a greater share of dead trees than most other forest areas. It used to be dense with Hemlocks until they were killed by the wooly adelgid infestation. Now the forest floor is covered with downed trees and branches. It is truly a mess. I used to think it was ugly. But I started to see the standing stumps and logs as carved sculptures. Then I looked closely at some fallen logs and was mesmerized by the patterns. Some are made by fungi, some by boring beetles, and some by weather. Enjoy this gallery of rotting wood.
I knew of course that I was photographing a log, but when I saw the isolated details through my camera, I was mesmerized by an abstract world of shapes and colors. Looking at the image afterwards, however, I began to see the white blobs as central characters. Then the characters became animals. Finally, one of the animals kissed the other.
I now know that the kissing blobs are a form of crustose lichen. Crustose lichens, as their name implies, form crust-like structures – in this case, on a rotting log. All lichens are made up of algae or bacteria (the plant part that provides the photosynthesis) and fungi (the part) that provides structure. The black outline of these blobs — a painterly effect of nature — is due to the wearing away of top structural layers, exposing the underlying threads (hyphae) that attach the lichen to the log. Learning the science of the image didn’t spoil it for me. It’s semi-abstract quality was sealed with the kiss.
This bright orange mushroom is so named because it tastes like chicken. You would think that it’s similar to another more commonly known edible mushroom, Hen of the Woods, but the two fungi named after a female fowl are only distant cousins. After watching an informative video by the same upbeat mushroom aficionado who taught me about Turkey Tail, I was able to check all the boxes for laetiporus sulphureus. Chicken of the Woods grows in layers on dead trees. It is velvety, thick, and fibrous. Its topside is orange with delicate yellow edges, and importantly for its identification, its underside is yellow with microscopic pores. I scanned a sample and enlarged it by a factor of 20 in order to be sure of those pores.
I once vowed that I would never forage mushrooms, but I felt confident enough to harvest a chunk of the alluring fungus, sauté it according to the Chicken of the Woods recipe by the Sophisticated Caveman, and eat it. It was delicious! And indeed tastes like chicken.
(If there are any blog posts following this one, you will know that I survived.)
Just before leaving for a three-week vacation, I took some photos of a fungus covering a fallen dead hardwood tree. While I was in California, I watched a video by a charismatic fungal enthusiastic, Adam Haritan, who made it clear that my fungus was either Turkey Tail or a Turkey Tail look-alike and that the only way to know for sure would be to examine its underside.
If the underside was white and had tiny pores, my fungus was trametes versicolor, commonly known as “Turkey Tail.” If it was more beige and smooth, it was stereum ostrea with the pitiable moniker “False Turkey Tail.” If it was slightly purple and had a toothy structure, it was trichaptum biforme – “Violet Toothed Polypore.”
During the three weeks, I realized two things: 1) that I was subconsciously rooting for my fungus to be what mycologists call true Turkey Tail and 2) how prejudiced I was being. After all, “False Turkey Tail” was so-named only because of its resemblance to the topside of trametes versicolor, not because it had some nefarious motives as an imposter. And besides, Turkey Tail itself was named because of its resemblance to an actual turkey’s tail. And the poor Violet Toothed Polypore, which is in fact the most common of the three species, had the role of a third child, mentioned for its relationship to the other two.
When I arrived home, I headed to the log in question, picked off a piece of the overlapping fungus and flipped it over. It was clearly violet and toothy. As I celebrated the identification of Violet Toothed Polypore, I felt a tinge of disappoinment in myself for feeling a tinge of disappointment that it was not true Turkey Tail.
This bright yellow fungus (calocera cornea if you care to know), commonly known as Small Stagshorn, is a petite relative of Yellow Stagshorn. It grows on rotting stumps and buried roots, quickening their decay. In a forest of greens, browns, and greys, its yellow spires scream out for attention. “Look at me!” When I first spotted a clump in a muddy bog, it seemed so audacious that I was immediately suspicious of its motives and didn’t dare to even touch it. Reading about it later, I learned that Stagshorn is in fact edible in the sense of being “non-toxic,” although it is both bland and gooey so that it is generally used only as a garnish. Even if it were described as being delicious, I would never dare to actually ingest it in case I was wrong in the classification, although I did go back to touch it. Who could resist when the various adjectives used to describe it read like an entry in Roget’s Thesaurus –- waxy, slimy, sticky, gelatinous, jelly-like, and viscous. Personally, I found it to be slightly icky.
I occasionally come across fallen birch twigs that are a shocking blue-green color. Fellow hikers have had the same reaction that I had — that the color does not look natural ; someone must have dyed the wood.
When Museum curators saw that same hue in artwork by Italian furniture makers working in intarsia –- elaborate designs made with inlaid wood –- they too thought that the wood was dyed. However, scientific analysis of the artwork showed that the blue-green wood is an example of spalting – the coloring of wood by a fungus, in this case, the elf-cup Chlorociboria aeruginascens. Fifteenth and sixteenth century artists used the green wood to depict grass, leaves, bird feathers, animal eyes, and luxurious clothing. Back then, chlorociboria-infested wood was as valuable as precious metals.
Enjoy the images and thoughts that originated on my explores in Westwood Trails in Guilford, Connecticut.