By Boak Wiesner
In the midst of a stretch of unseasonably hot weather, a one-day interlude of “normal” cool weather on Sunday let me roam fairly comfortably around in the woods. Considering that it’s now shorter than a fortnight to the Autumnal Equinox, we can expect rapid changes to be happening in the outdoor world. The length of daylight diminishes the most rapidly at the equinox. What with the extreme variations in the weather around here these days, to see some familiar faces, as it were, was reassuring; there are things in nature one can always count on.
Coming across this trio of good-sized puffballs was like meeting a couple of old friends. They can be seen in almost any woods at this time of year. These three are too big to eat. Try them when they’re about the size of golf balls. To me they are fairly tasteless, like rounds chunks of styrofoam, but they are edible. These are a bit past their prime. Give a dried-out one a good kick and the explosion of spores from the interior shows how aptly it is named.
A common theme when dealing with the natural world is change. To me, there’s nothing that says “change” more that mushrooms growing on tree trunk. The material of the trunk, the cellulose fibers we know as wood, is being digested by the hyphae of the fungus, whose fruiting bodies pop out when the conditions are right. Most of the organism is within its rapidly decomposing host. It might be ashes to ashes for us, but for plants, carbon dioxide and water to carbon dioxide and water. With, of course, a few ions returning to the soil.
Some sugar maples were starting to show the yellow of xanthophyll in their leaves. Being yellow, xanthophyll absorbs violet and UV light that might otherwise damage the chlorophyll. As the amount of chlorophyll decrease, the yellow pigment becomes visible. This tree still had some late-season fruits called samaras on them still.
Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist volunteer.