Friday, August 7, 2015


This is a partial reprint of a previous blog from my old site, but this activity continues to be fun the more I learn (and has taught me a lot on how to adjust the AV setting on my camera).  Where do gnomes live?  Why, in mushrooms, of course!  

Emetic russula

It's the new after-storm sport!  After a lot of rain – be it rain storm, tropical storm, or hurricane– come the mushrooms.  Make a family activity of it and bring your camera. Go in the back yard, in the woods or a field, and keep your gaze low to the ground.  (Mushrooms also grow on dead and dying trees, of course, but it's the ground-dwellers that appear out of nowhere that we look for now.  Call it "gnome-hunting" if you want.)  So grab a Peterson Field Guide to mushrooms if you've got one and get outside!

This activity serves three purposes: Time with the family (that doesn't require electricity aside from the batteries in your camera and flashlight), exercise, and learning to identify mushrooms.  Most mushrooms are poisonous and your first foray into their unknown world should be cautious and respectful.  Don't touch mushrooms with bare hands or taste them.  Wear long pants.  Bring insect repellent.  (Lavender and feverfew are natural insect repellents and can be rubbed on clothing and hair.  Never use insect repellent with deet on pets or small children.  Do not use feverfew or pyrethrin-containing products on cats.)  Take lots of pictures and note when (month) and where (log, ground, field, sun, shade, etc.) you found the mushroom.  Note stem and cap sizes, gills, spore color, or other distinctive characteristics.   Bring a flashlight if you're in a dark area.

I am by far NOT an expert in mushrooms, but I am starting to learn about edible ones.  Misidentification can lead to severe illness and death.  Do not eat wild mushrooms unless you have a positive identification from a trained guide (mycologist), the mushroom is not spoiled, and the mushroom has been cooked!  One Asian family, gathering mushrooms in the U.S. that looked like the edible ones from their homeland, all died.  Another family in Mexico bought wild mushrooms at a Farmer's Market that were misidentified and also died.  Alcohol intensifies the effects of toxins.  Then there's simple allergy.  I don't mean to scare people, but foraging of this sort should not be taken lightly.  For help with identification and symptoms of poisoning, check here.  It's fun just finding mushrooms and trying to identify them.

Here are some photos of specimens I found in Chepachet:

bracket fungus?

Not a fungus or mushroom, but a plant
that does not have chlorophyl called "Indian pipe".

Is this how a gnome flips his home?  Next to sassafras.


Curiouser and curiouser...
A bit stuck up?

russula again?

Monday, August 3, 2015

Garden in the Woods

"Did you see that butterfly?"

"Look! A mushroom!"

"Do daddy long legs bite?"

These are a few of the comments I heard exploring the Garden in the Woods in Framingham, MA, about 50 miles from me.  Across 45 acres are microclimates with rare and common native plants, or as they would describe, a "living a naturalistic setting".  Indeed, the homes were many for both flora and fauna, tiny habitats for insects, birds, small mammals, frogs, and a diverse array of woodland plants.   

A tiny insect home after the squirrel had his fill?

A microcosm, full of nearly invisible life.  Look here for tardigrades.

A haven for pollinators, the meadow habitat is currently being restored and expanded after a very large, old tree lost one trunk to natural decay and fell across the field.  The rest of the tree was also removed.  This area was quite hot compared to the mostly shaded trails, so be prepared with a wide-brimmed hat and sun screen.  Below, a bee visits some snakeroot, so-called because of its supposed curative properties for snake bites.  Also called black cohosh, bugbane, and fairy candle.  Latin name: Actaea racemes (formerly Cimicifuga racemes). 
Honey bee on fairy candle.

Pollinating beetle and great example of bio-mimicry.
What other insect does it resemble?  How might this be an advantage?
Frittilary on echinacea.
Jerusalem artichoke?  Bright and yellow,
it attracts bees, flies, beetles, an butterflies.

Spring is the most popular time to visit, as the "spring ephemerals" emerge early and flower before the deciduous trees completely leaf out.  Yet even in the fullness of summer, there were plenty of flowers and other plants of interest:

Goldenrod feeds many pollinators late into the fall.  Contrary to popular belief, it needs pollinators to form seeds and its pollen is NOT airborne, so it is not a cause for allergies.  Rather, these allergies are more likely caused by the much less showy ragweed that blooms at the same time.  Its pollen IS AIR BORN.   It does not need insects to pollinate it.  
Jewelweed was originally used by Native Americans to treat poison ivy.
Soap can be purchased containing the active ingredient found in this plant.

Goldenseal.  Once very common, many after it's medicinal root removed it from the wild. 
May apple.  Fruit ripens in mid- to late summer and
is toxic in larger doses.  It has been used as a purgative.

While most of this site is wooded, each area varies.  In the boggier areas, you'll find the carnivorous pitcher plant.  They have green and purple varieties.
Green pitcher plant.
Pitcher plant fruit.
Pitcher plant flower.

Other areas had a limestone outcrop, making the normally acidic New England soil more basic.  In this area, maidenhair fern grow comfortably.
Maidenhair fern.  Note black stems.

Look down!  Something is afoot!  A poisonous mushroom emerges from the litter of pine needles.  Don't kick it over!  Its much larger mycorrhizal system underground is helping the tree roots below absorb more nutrients.  This is merely the "fruit" to create more symbiotic helpers in the forest's ecosystem.  Meanwhile, a log that was moved sends an earthworm abroad among enormous feet.  (Enormous to a worm, that is!)  Animals need their homes, so enjoy looking at them, then return them and leave them be.

Emetic Russula?

A worm journeys out into the open.

There are numerous kettle holes and some contain water and therefore, water life.  See water striders skim the surface, water bugs lurk below, and dragonflies speed skillfully through the air seeking tiny insects to eat.  Environmental pollution has hurt many frog populations, with some species now extinct in the wild.  This place is protected.  There aren't even fish here, so frogs and salamanders have a better chance of surviving.  If you're lucky, you may see or hear one!

Ruby meadowhawk dragonfly

What else might you find?  The dappled sunlight can cast some interesting shadows, like the one below.  A remnant from a past exhibit still stands: A stegosaurus of stone and cast fish bones.  Rocks give real estate to most and lichen.  A dead stump provides food and housing to insects, fungus, moss, even seedlings.  What might be in that hole?  (Use your imagination, not your hands!)  Hiding among the gravel, a gray grasshopper takes advantage of its camouflage.

While you're here, try making a "home" of your own: 

What has the artist included in these hexagons?

Sticks and stones can make a home!
Children build with bark, leaves, flowers, and stones.
A teepee for a fairy?
Gnome sweet gnome.  I love the use of pine cones!
This fiddlehead spiral maze is packed with dead leaves, a habitat for detrivores like
worms, pill bugs, beetles, springtails, and tiny decomposer bacteria.  The tops are
filled with plants that will benefit from the nutrients made in the composting material. 
Have a look!
Don't forget to visit the tunnel?  Do you feel like a worm? 
Thanks for visiting!!!

While in the gift shop, definitely pick up a copy of Bugology, which has 48 pages of great nature exploration activities across four seasons and is a mere $5.

All photos © Melissa Guillet