When I took Biology in the 1970s, there were only two kingdoms: Plants and Animals. When my daughters took biology only a few years back, there were five. My nephew’s biology class was more recent and he claims there are six. Tune in tomorrow: there may be more!
Back in the Plant/Animal days, fungi were a conundrum. In some ways they act like plants. Spores are similar to seeds, carrying the DNA that will produce new organisms, sending out root-like hyphae that eventually sprout a fruiting body that produces more spores. Very plantlike, yet they lack chlorophyll. They cannot make their own food, rather they rely on organic material – living and/or dead – to provide energy and nutrients – rather like an animal that eats other organisms for the same reason. I guess that conundrum is why Fungi is now a kingdom of its own.
Regardless of what box you put it in, fungi plays an important role in our world. Without it, organic matter in the forest would pile up endlessly. Fungi produce enzymes that digest organic material releasing the stored up nutrients, recycling the dead back to soil. Trees die, but are teaming with life until the nutrients are released. From the new soil life springs forth and the cycle begins again.
When you walk the woods in winter, you can see many species of fungi – mostly bracket fungi attached to branches and trunks. Unlike the mushrooms that sprout on the forest floor in summer and fall whose delicate tissues last only a day or two, bracket fungi tend to have tougher surfaces that last long and can withstand the cold. Some are perennial and put on growth rings like their tree hosts. I spent a couple of hours in the woods behind Bergman Park on a wintery day in late December and was astounded by the number of species I found. Most of them I could not identify… I haven’t delved into mycology. Yet. However… the more I read, the more interested I become.
I almost walked right past a Tinder Polypore, so camouflaged against birch bark it was. There were a couple of yellow birch neighbors, both sporting several hoof-shaped fungi. The underside of these hard, woody structures are chocolate brown and covered with small pores from which spores are released.
Tinder Polypore (Fomes fomentarius) deserves a whole website of its own. Luckily, someone else has already written it! Check out some of the information on Tom Volk’s site… including use of this fungus for tinder (by The Iceman!), crafts, and a variety of medicinal purposes. Fascinating.
The undersides of the bracket fungi are quite interesting. (So were the postures I had to assume while photographing them, since I opted not to remove them from the trunks, branches and logs on which I found them.) Many, like the Tinder Polypore, have tiny pores. Others are smooth. Some have gills or teeth.
Polyporus tulipiferae is a pretty, creamy-white fungus with bristle-like teeth below. By the way, most of the fungi have no common names. Also by the way, there is another Latin name for this one: Irpex lacteus. Some websites say “Polyporus tulipferae (formerly Irpex lacteus)” while others say “Irpex lacteus (formerly Polyporus tulipferae)”. I don’t know the current accepted name. Either way, you’ll notice in my photo that the “teeth” are pointing toward the left side of the frame. Normally, the “underside” of bracket fungus are parallel with the ground. I found this colony on a trunk that had fallen recently. Since bracket fungi orient themselves according to gravitational pull, I’m looking forward to going back to this log to observe a reorientation of the fruiting bodies. I suspect, these, having soft bodies, will disappear and new “fruits” will appear that are oriented toward the ground. (If you go to Tom Volk’s website (referenced above), you’ll see a photo of two Tinder Polypores, side-by-side, at right angles to each other.)
I got Bernd Heinrich’s The Trees in my Forest for Christmas. In a chapter called “Of Birds, Trees, and Fungi” he notes his observation that on any individual tree, he never sees more than one type of fungus. I found two individuals that seemed to contradict his observation… But then, maybe the fungus changes over time to look different… So much to learn…
OK… this post is getting altogether too long. I can’t believe you are still reading it. I have more ‘shrooms to tell you about… But I’ll save them for another day! Besides, there’s good light out there right now. I think I’ll grab my camera and head for the woods. You should, too!