Archive for Wild Non-Flowering Plants

Spring! Spring! Palm Sunday Passover

Spring! Spring! Palm Sunday Passover . . .

Scilla siberica April 2014.

Scilla siberica April 2014.

An atmospheric switch flicked. Palm Sunday passed, borne up on bright skies, extending a temperature nearly touching eighty Fahrenheit. The wind, at last, was less generous, bringing stillness.

Past high noon, along a fence, I did see a single yellowed bumblebee buzz a shaded Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris). Beauty along a margin, preceding formal plantings, as nearby some nearly pale violet Scilla siberica (Siberian Squill) spread on a backdrop of bark brown soil.

Marsh Marigold April 2014.

Marsh Marigold April 2014.

Farther afield, yet on the west side near the Hudson, the Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) has appeared. No stinky foot in odor present here to my senses. This bloom, to my eyes, is the actual and sudden appearance of first thick leaves forming narrow green vases affixed to the forest floor.

One of Vases on the Forest Floor. (photo taken 04 10 2014)

One of Vases on the Forest Floor. (photo taken 04 10 2014)

Exceptional greenery became apparent, too, in patches of the Onion Grass chive (genus Allium), found often at the base of trees, standing in thatches at a full state of lushness.

genus Allium April 2014.

genus Allium April 2014.

Shoots! Everywhere!

Eastern Skunk Cabbage April 2014.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage April 2014.

Spring has begun to passover our latitude; at last.

– rPs 04 14 2014

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More Fungi of the West Village

More Fungi of the West Village . . .

Lingzhi Mushrooms soak up the evening rain on West 13th Street. (photo taken 09 07 2011)

Hurricane Irene appears to have brought on an early beginning to the autumn season. The bright sun and steady heat of July and August switched to sustained gray skies, high humidity, and cool temperatures once the storm passed through the region. NY1 news reports that over four inches of rain have fallen on Central Park during the first week of September 2011. One result of this inundation has been has been a continued bloom of fungi species in the West Village.

A stretch of low light with damp weather is an essential element of mushroom growth. Another ingredient is abundant food, in this case organic material, and the urban environment provides a rich source of nourishment from two sources. The first is the mulch and wood chips people use to cover the bare soil of their tree pits and stoop gardens. The other is dog dung, which also usually ends up on or around the base of trees. While I do not condone the laziness of irresponsible canine managers, what gets left behind does often foment the new and sometimes unusual appearance of fungi.

One type of Agaric or gilled mushroom, which grows well on wood mulch, is the delicate little Fairy Bonnet, Coprinellus disseminatus. This variety can be identified by its ash gray cap, ribbed like a sea scallop shell, and pale thin stem that reaches only one or two inches in height. What this mushroom
lacks in stature can be made up for in numbers. Dense clumps will take over a spot where dead wood is available and when conditions are right. I found mature individuals as well as one such cluster beginning to push through wood chip mulch on Bethune Street.

A single Fairy Bonnet (Coprinellus disseminatus) grows on wood mulch along Bethune Street. (photo taken 09 07 2011)

A cluster of Fairy Bonnets beginning to emerge from the mulch along Bethune Street. (photo taken 09 07 2011)

Another group of Agarics common to urban areas is the genus Inocybe. Members of this group are somewhat larger and thicker and can be identified by the cap, which is usually fibrous and umbonate. The umbo is the raised knob at the cap’s center that gives the organism a tented appearance. I found one stand-out example soaking up the rain beside Christopher Street. I returned the next day with my camera. Although it had begun to deflate, the mushroom’s general appearance remained intact enough for a positive identification: Corn Silk Inocybe, Inocybe fastigiata (also listed as Inocybe rimosa).

A single Inocybe mushroom stands out in a tree pit along Christopher Street. (photo taken 09 07 2011)

The Lingzhi Mushroom, Ganoderma lucidem, has been thriving in the rain, too. I returned to the stump along West 13th Street where I found the example I wrote into the essay “’Conked’ on the Head.” That tree gravestone is now completely ringed by new growth. The conks, deep red edged with white, look particularly attractive when wet and shiny, reflecting the silvery light of a September evening.

Mushroom identification, as I have discovered, can be challenging at best. Many species do not even possess popular names and are known only by their Latin monikers. Determining whether or not an example is edible adds another exercise in uncertainty. I have left out the subject of edibility for safety reasons. There are comprehensive resources both in print and online that can provide more authoritative information. To start, here is a trio of websites with a connection to the city environment:

Mycologist Gary Lincoff – “NYC Mushroom Survey”

NEMF: The Northeast Mycological Federation, Inc. – “Central Park in NY”

Urban Mushrooms

– rPs 09 08 2011

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Fungi of the West Village

Fungi of the West Village . . .

Spring had begun only on the calendar the first time I set out to write an essay for Wildflowers of the West Village in March, 2010. The first subject I found and wrote about at length was not a flower at all, but a fungus. The shelf fungi, members of the genus Ganoderma, provided a pun for the title – “’Conked’ on the Head” – as the fruiting brackets are formally known as conks.

Since that time I have encountered several other varieties of fungi, which are a distinct Kingdom alongside the Animal, Plant, and Bacteria. Wet weather, like the arrival of Hurricane Irene to the New York region, often brings on the quick appearance of these fleshy, often colorful, organisms. A lawn or a bare patch of soil beneath a tree can provide the stage for another kind of wild flowering . . .

Ganoderma lucidem – Lingzhi Mushroom

Lingzhi Mushroom: Ganoderma lucidem

This is the metaphorical bloom that started it all at Wildflowers of the West Village. The fleshy brackets, called conks, grow on tree stumps and other downed wood. This example was photographed on West 13th Street.

The genus Ganoderma was named in 1881 by the Finnish mycologist Petter Adolf Karsten. The family name is Ganodermaceae. The species pictured here is Ganoderma lucidem, the Lingzhi Mushroom: an Asian immigrant, harvested for its medicinal properties, which now has a cosmopolitan (global) distribution.

Conocybe lactea – White Dunce Cap

White Dunce Cap: Conocybe lactea

A delicate, fragile, small fry of a gilled mushroom, the White Dunce Cap is the pale little lawn decoration one often finds on dewy summer mornings. The one pictured here was photographed within the grass of Hudson River Park.

Leucoagaricus americanus (also listed as Lepiota americana)

Leucoagaricus americanus (also listed as Lepiota americana)

The quintessential urban mushroom identified by its scaly cap. This species grows in waste places where sawdust, wood, or mulch is available. The trio shown above was found nestled in a quiet composted corner of a West Village apartment building’s landscaping.

Mutinus elegans – Elegant Stinkhorn

Elegant Stinkhorn: Mutinus elegans

The most phallic of fungi, the Elegant Stinkhorn lives up to its odiferous nomenclature. This photo proves that scent is an essential component of its existence, as it draws flies in droves. Often found in loose groups on damp lawns. Very colorful, its “elegant” orange appearance cultivates a bloom of sorts, although one best viewed from a distance, or with nose pinched. The singular example illustrated, which stood six inches in height, actually grew with several others beside a yew bush in Hudson River Park.

Now that Hurricane Irene has passed over Manhattan, there should be a bloom of fungi species to see, and sometimes smell, over the next few days. In fact, just after Hudson River Park was closed to prepare for a predicted storm surge, I found this lone example already rising from the soaked loam of a liittle park beside the West Side Highway . . .

A solitary mushroom sprouting near the West Side Highway as Hurricane Irene arrives. (photo taken 08 27 2011)

– rPs 08 28 2011

Postscript: Read “‘Conked’ on the Head” by following this link:

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Another Thing to “Like” About the West Village

Another Thing to “Like” About the West Village . . .

Common Greenshield (Flavoparmelia caperata) blooms on a damp maple tree trunk near the corner of Jane St. and Greenwich Ave. (photo taken 04 26 2010)

Two days of April showers have brought on a very different type of flowering along the streets of the West Village. Take note of the tree trunks; many have become wrapped in a variegated pattern of living spring greens ranging from the palest lime to a creamy mint.

This unusual tree decoration is a species of foliose lichen called the common greenshield (Flavoparmelia caperata). When dry, this lichen slumbers in dusty patches that range toward the yellow end of the spectrum. These bloom into thick, flaky, leafy layers of mint green after a day or two of extended rain.

The lichen is not actually a plant, per se. What we see growing on the bark of the living tree is a complex relationship between two organisms: a fungus and green-celled algae. The lichen has no root system, stems, or flowers. The leafy flakes are the matrix of the fungus and the green is the algae residing inside the confines of this living architecture. The literature states that scientists are still not completely sure if this relationship should be technically referred to as Parasitism – where one of the two organisms plays the role of parasite while the other serves as host, or a case of Mutualism – where both species benefit in some manner. Symbiosis does seem to be in full effect, as the fungus provides a habitat and minerals for the algae, which in return through photosynthesis provides nutritious carbohydrates and sugars to both involved.

What is known for certain is that the lichen does not affect the tree in any negative way. The bark merely provides a framework for support. I therefore view this green filigree in a cosmetic way, as an extra layer of verdure to the damp spring cityscape. A close inspection reveals overlapping color fields of painterly green. One can follow this line of aesthetic thought into the realm of fine art and conjure up similarities between the lichen’s natural palette and that of Manhattan’s legacy of Modernist painters. Some lichen growth patterns resemble the abstract expressionist canvases of Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Helen Frankenthaler.

Lichens are a good sign, too, that one is breathing fine air. Lichens of all types are intolerant to air pollution. The presence of these organisms on the garden blocks of the West Village means the air of this neighborhood is some of the best in Manhattan, a claim backed up by the December 2009 report of The New York City Community Air Survey.

My own nose has noted a distinct freshness – a cool, damp quality – to the air as it blows in off the Hudson River. The waterway provides a natural filtering effect before the carrying winds enter the architectural canyons of Manhattan. Conversely, by the time one is strolling along the shops of the East Village, the street has acquired that “urban air” associated with auto exhaust and secondhand cigarette smoke.

There is much to like about the West Village and the lichen, by its very presence, knows this as well. While not a wildflower in the standard definition of the term, the common greenshield has earned a rightful place in the neighborhood’s little pantheon of colorful botanical curiosities.

Common Greenshield (Flavoparmelia caperata) grows on a ginko tree trunk on Leroy Street. (photo taken 04 27 2010)

— rPs 04 26 2010

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“Conked” on the Head

“Conked” on the Head . . .

The distinctive conks of two varieties of bracket fungi (Trametes and Ganoderma) feast on a tree stump in front of a townhouse along West 13th Street. (photo taken March 28, 2010)

I begin my week days with a walk that varies somewhere within the boundaries of the West Village. This morning constitutional gets me out and about into the fresh air where I can contemplate the city’s waking and seek out nature’s flora and fauna before the bustle of daily human business become too much to bear.

When relaxed I find my walks are much more in the moment and in my present place. Bright and busy days often keep me indoors and, if I do go out, often in my mind’s eye. There I can ruminate over my current first thought and get on with little distraction or pause to where I’m going. Gray days provide a contrast, often in the form of fewer people, which gets me out and about in a much more slow and engaging way. At these times I look and listen much more carefully, a state of being which is much more open to outdoor discovery.

A thin March rain was adding a shine to all the surfaces, even the street, which helped to temper the sound of passing traffic. A car or truck sounds much more pleasant on wet blacktop, like a rolling wave rather than a rattling trap, and the lighter touch of this watery sound relaxed me as I started up eastward along West 13th Street.

I was looking about, appreciating red brick and brownstone homes lining the blocks between 7th and 5th Avenues. The smooth gray branches of red maples were beginning to be lined with fresh color, revealing why this species is nicknamed redbud. The taller black locust trees remained dark and bare, colored only on the northern face of their thickly rippled trunks. Now tinted in places by a sheen of bright green, the locusts were playing host to crustose lichens, taking advantage of the perpetual damp fed by the recent persistent rain.

The crustose lichen, so named for its thin surface appearance, is an interesting character in its own right: a composite creature – half fungus, half alga, living in symbiotic balance – that in part foreshadowed my first newsworthy wild plant encounter.

This one was accompanied by the soothing call of mourning doves perched high in the branches above. Below them, and to my right side, were the townhouse front gardens – one of the best benefits of a residential block that has retained a nineteenth century character. Most of these small plots remained true to the March season, consisting of brown damp soil, evergreen yew or holly hedges in need of a shave, and the scattered pale green thumbs of eager crocus and daffodil.

One, I noticed, was bordered by a black iron fence abutted by a large stump. Usually this grave marker of a fallen tree saddens me, as it represents one less spread of shade, one less perch for birds, always a valuable commodity in a residential city. This stump, however, was not a fresh cut and through its remains the tree sustained new life of a kind normally seen only in the woods —

Bracket Fungi

Not one but two varieties of this common member of the phylum Basidiomycota clung to this stump. One consisted of a tightly layered colony of white, flaky, horizontal ridges ( Trametes ) while the other grew singularly in broad, fleshy, rust-colored brackets ( Ganoderma ), which were spaced like detached houses.

Brackets are also called shelves or conks. Both varieties I found have a cosmopolitan distribution. Despite its superficial meaning, the phrase does not mean these plants are specifically city dwellers, or sophisticates. Instead, the term is actually derived from biogeography and refers to an organism (like cats, dogs, and humanity itself) that is found – distributed –  throughout the world.

One can read the age of a fallen tree by reading its rings. Tree stumps, like the one I found on West 13th Street, give a patient counter a clear view. Ironically, the age of bracket fungi can be read in a similar way. Conks acquire a ring of new growth each year. As the shelf area expands, rings form in an expanding pattern of alternating convex and concave ripples, like a fingernail, along the surface. The Ganoderma pictured here appear to be between two and four years of age.

Almost everyone has encountered such fungi growing in the deadfall along park trails or on an old stump in a neglected corner of the backyard. Finding living examples beside the stoop of a tidy West Village townhouse is not so common, however. Considering how suddenly and unexpectedly this mycological spectacle appeared to my eye, I could say I was in a way conked on the head, in the West Village, literally as well as figuratively.

The extended bracket fungi family has several notable members. One is the Artist’s Conk ( Ganoderma applanatum ). The bracket of this variety has long been used by artists as a canvas for etching and drawing, as its pale undersurface turns dark when scratched, perfect for holding a line. One of my grandmothers has just such an example, one that depicts a country carnival scene, displayed in her China closet.

When referring to China, one cannot overlook Ganoderma lucidum, a bracket fungi also known as the Lingzhi mushroom. This variety, which strongly resembles the larger of the two West Village examples, has been a staple of Chinese medicine for several thousand years. The brackets are sliced and boiled into a tea used as an antiviral agent in immunotherapy.

I find it fitting that one of the first wild plants I encountered this season was not a flower at all, yet its presence bloomed in my eyes and opened up an entire new phyla for my urban botanical consideration.  The unique color and appearance of the bracket fungi in the city stands out, like a single dandelion in a green law, or any other wildflower in the West Village.

— rPs 03 29 2010

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