Three fungal curiosities

a tree-swallower, a “bleeder,” and a “nest”

This essay is about an eclectic assortment of fungi, my choices being based entirely on happenstance and whim.

One September day on the Outer Point trail, we spotted a very large, yellowish patch on a tall alder snag. That patch covered most of one side of the snag; at a guess, it may have exceeded ten square feet. At first glance I thought it was a huge crustose lichen, but no, it was a fungus. On certain places on this expansive crust, there were small ridges like miniature conks, and on their undersides were numerous pores where spores would be produced. The crust has covered mosses and engulfed the stems of licorice ferns.

Photo by Jennifer Shapland

I went back to look at it about ten days later, and now the surface featured many shallow furrows that had turned brown. The furrows were four or five millimeters wide and several inches long, crisscrossing the flat surface of the big fungus. Were they the work of slugs or land snails, grazing their way along? No, there were no marks of the scraping radula or tongue. A few days later, another observer suggested that wind-bent branches hit the fungus. No, when I tried it, small branches striking the surface didn’t leave furrows like that. A few more days later, we finally noticed that all the furrows occurred between human knee height and head height. Then I found that I could mimic the furrows very well with the flat of a fingernail. So we—finally!– concluded that these furrows are just graffiti. Much less interesting than slug trails, but perhaps closer to truth. ‘Twas a shame to deface such a beautiful organism.

What is this magnificent, hall-of-fame specimen? It seems that nobody really knows! It might be X or maybe Y, or something else altogether. Several mycologists have been consulted, with no concrete results. A sample sent to a lab for DNA analysis might yield a solid answer.

A strange fungus sometimes seen near the visitor center, among other places, is called the bleeding tooth fungus (Hydnellum peckii). Its name is not about bleeding teeth; it’s a tooth-fungus (with spore-bearing ‘teeth’ instead of gills or pores) that seems to ‘bleed’. The immature cap is white, but sometimes there are little pools of red fluid on the surface. Another name, perhaps for the more squeamish observers, for this critter is strawberries and cream. As far as I can tell, nobody really knows why those pools form on the cap. The present idea is that it’s a way to get rid of excess moisture, as some other fungi and some plants do by exuding droplets of water. But why are the pools red? Is the color just an incidental by-product of some metabolic process?

Photo by Jos Bakker

This fungus is mycorrhizal, forming connections with the roots of conifers and exchanging nutrients. The cap turns dark as it matures and produces spores. The stalk is thick and short, so short that the cap is often semi-buried in moss and debris. That raises the question of how the spores get dispersed from under the cap.

Yet another curiosity is a bird’s nest fungus (Nidula candida), a decomposer living on dead wood and rotting vegetation that is quite common around here. It earned its name from its appearance: the mature, reproductive form features a small (roughly one cm) cup containing several little round (somewhat flattened) objects. So it resembles a miniature bird’s nest with eggs. The ‘eggs’ contain spores. The cap is ingeniously built so that a raindrop can splash the ‘eggs’ out of the cup to a distance of a meter or more. The ‘eggs’ of some bird’s nest fungi (but not ours) are ejected with long, sticky threads, which catch on vegetation as they fly off. Eventually the ‘eggs’ deteriorate, releasing the spores. The spores germinate, producing stands called hyphae; two hyphae of the right mating type can merge to develop a nest-like fruiting body. Splash-cup dispersal mechanisms are uncommon means of spreading offspring around, but they are known also from some plants.

Photo by David Bergeson

July explorations

subalpine and sea-level explorations

Toward the end of July I hiked with some friends around Cropley Lake at Eaglecrest. It was the first full day of sunshine after something like three weeks of nearly continuous rain and cool temperatures. We reveled in the dazzling light and warmth. Some of us hoped we’d find yellow fireweed and sky-blue gentians blooming on the soggy back side of the lake, but apparently we were too early. Maybe the unseasonable weather slowed them down.

Swamp gentian. Photo by Bob Armstrong

But there were other things to be seen. Millions of swamp gentians starred the meadows, interspersed with the tiny pink dots of bog cranberry. As we approached the elevation of the lake, there were clear signs of late spring: the last of the spring violets and Jeffrey’s shooting star, and swathes of bog laurel. Late spring mingled with summer: little iris-like Tofieldia and leatherleaf saxifrage, with inflorescences of varied shades of red, were common; grass of Parnassus was about to bloom. Pink paintbrush prefers this habitat to the lower-elevation gravelly flats occupied by the yellow paintbrush species. The big treat was seeing dozens upon dozens of butterworts in bloom. Sometimes called ‘bog violets’ for a supposed resemblance to true violets, butterworts are not related to violets at all (although they both may have purple flowers). Butterworts are insectivorous, catching bugs on their flattened, sticky, yellowish leaves that are not a bit like violet leaves.

Paintbrush. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Earlier in the month, during all that rain, we made a special trip to Cowee Meadow. On a previous visit, we’d finally discovered what the female inflorescences of sweetgale looked like when they were in flower, and now the goal was seeing the mature form. By luck, our timing was good—the female inflorescences made slim, brown, cone-like structures, whose scales opened up to release seeds. By traipsing around for a while in the meadows, we also found more female plants than we’d found earlier, so females aren’t quite as rare as we thought (although still vastly outnumbered by male plants).

We happened to look at some fireweed flowers. I don’t know what attracted our attention, but when we looked attentively, we noticed that many of the flowers had no visible female parts. Fireweed flowers are both male and female, with a set of stamens with pollen-bearing anthers around a conspicuous, white, four-branched stigma for receipt of pollen. But some of these flowers seemed to be missing the big stigma.

After much closer attention, we found that the female structure was there, but small and drooping and apparently with the four branches both short and closed up tightly, as if they’d never fully matured. Fireweed inflorescences bloom from the bottom up, so older flowers are borne below younger ones, with unopened buds up at the top. But age of flower did not account for the development of female parts; both young and old flowers often lacked fully developed stigmas.

What is going on here? Is this just something I should have noticed long ago? Or could the long spell of un-summery weather have made the plants decide not to even try to receive pollen and make seeds?

Everywhere we wandered in the meadows, we found recent bear digs, usually for angelica roots. In some cases, the edible root-nodules of chocolate lily (rice-root) had been incidentally dug up too, but were left uneaten.

Back in the middle of July, on the Crow Point/Boy Scout trail, I watched a hummingbird visiting yellow paintbrush. It dipped in, then floated (or so it seemed) high into the air before coming back down to try another flower in the same patch. It tried a few flowers but soon zipped away, as if to seek better foraging elsewhere.

Red fruits of baneberry decorated the sides of the berm edging the goose flats. The felwort that we often see later in summer wasn’t blooming yet. But the wide meadow between the trail and the river was covered with white arctic daisies (Chrysanthemum arcticum), not to be confused with the weedy, alien white daisies on the roadsides.

A search for Salicornia in the big goose flat was futile for what seemed like a long time. But finally we struck the right microhabitat and found a lot of it—a tasty snack! This highly salt-tolerant annual plant is known as glasswort or saltwort or sea asparagus, among other common names.

Pond lilies and dandelions

two yellow flowers with very different life histories

A cool, damp day in mid-July, not very summery, but I strolled around the lower loop at Eaglecrest with a friend, just to see what we could see.

The showy white-bracted inflorescences of dwarf dogwood (bunchberry) were just past their prime but still pretty. A small black moth with white wing-bars visited the flowers of Tofieldia (so much easier to say than “sticky false asphodel”, its cumbersome common name). Cloudberries and blueberries were developing. The tall ‘candles’ of the white bog-orchid sent their delicate fragrance into the air, and thousands of tiny pink flowers of bog cranberry dotted the mosses.

Some of the dandelion stems had reached extraordinary lengths; several were over two feet tall, including one that was close to three feet tall. After flowering, the stems elongate as the seeds mature, increasing the likelihood of rising above the surrounding herbaceous vegetation to let the wind-borne seeds disperse on their little parachutes. A few shooting stars still bloomed, but most of them had seed capsules maturing. Like the dandelions, this species seems to elongate its stems as the seeds mature, so a breeze can reach them and shake the seeds from the fully mature, split capsule.

The ponds were decorated with the leaves and flowers of yellow pond lily. The yellow cup of the flower is formed by sepals; the actual petals are smaller and inside the sepalous cup. The ovary is shaped like a bottle, with a bulbous base, a neck, and a flat disc on top. The disc is the stigma, which receives pollen that can fertilize the ovules in the base of the ovary. Around the base of the ovary are the numerous anthers, containing pollen.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Although pond lily flowers are self-compatible, they seldom receive pollen from themselves, because stigma and anthers do not mature simultaneously. The stigma matures early, just as the flower begins to open, and visiting insects can enter the barely-open flower, perhaps depositing cross-pollen from another plant. Pollen from that flower may be distributed to other flowers later. The flower is said to smell like stale brandy—alluring to certain insects. UV patterns may add to the attraction: the stigmatic disc and sepals absorb UV and look dark, while the stamens (or maybe just the anthers) reflect UV, making a bright circle around the stigma. Nectar is produced on the petals near the base of the cup; that’s a nice reward for visitors.

Who are these visiting insects? In some places, mostly flies, but other populations may be pollinated by beetles or by bees and hoverflies. All that regional variation indicates that a closer look is needed for our pond lily populations.

The flowers we saw had been open for a while and were probably past the female-receptive phase. They had dozens of small flies covering the anthers, but we don’t know if those flies eventually would visit another lily flower. On the inner surface of the sepals were lots of very tiny insects we couldn’t begin to identify, but they were not likely to be pollinators.

Except for Steller’s jays hopping over the muskegs and squawking from the pines, bird life was quiet. Juncos chipped continually, as if they had young ones nearby.  A hermit thrush sang, but rather rustily. And calls from high in the canopy sounded like young sapsuckers, maybe.

A highlight was spotting a small adult toad, probably at least a year old, as it sought cover under some leaves. Do toads breed at the elevation of the lower loop or did this one hop up from some distant pond down below?

Horse Tram Trail

new developments along an old trail

In the early 1900s, exploring gold miners discovered good prospects near Eagle Glacier, ultimately establishing the Eagle River Mine and the settlement of Amalga. To service the settlement and the mine, a horse tram ran between there and a salt-water cove with a good landing beach for boats. The horse tram route went from the landing beach, over into the west side of the big meadow near the Eagle Valley Center, northward over the low pass toward Herbert River, over that river and up the flood plain, eventually crossing Eagle River and reaching Amalga. The mine and settlement lasted less than three decades but left a residue of scrap metal and other junk behind. The steel rails of the horse tram are still to be seen, in places, and the dike that raised the rails above the wet meadow is still there (now sporting a row of small trees).

CBJ decided to make a trail connection between the Eagle River Landing beach and the Boy Scout Camp/Crow Point trail that goes along the lower Herbert River. This connecting route avoids the big meadow, which is home to interesting wildlife and plants. Instead, it goes from the landing beach on an existing informal trail up a hill and through a small muskeg, rejoining (approximately) the old horse tram route on the north side of the low pass. Total length is about a mile and three-tenths.

Most of the new route is presently a morass of mud roiled up by hikers’ feet, but this year Trail Mix has begun some serious trail improvement. Just after the first bridge on the Boy Scout Camp trail, a wide, packed-gravel trail starts up the hill. It soon parallels part of the old horse tram route for several hundred yards; the tram route itself has become an eroded drainage ditch that channels water down the hill. Broken branches, rocks, and other debris line the new trail, waiting to be covered by mosses and lichens. Not far from the end of this year’s work, there is a junction, where the old tram route goes over the low pass to the big meadow and the new route heads up the hill.

Coming up the other side of the hill, from the landing beach, the trail crosses a small creek and turns up a route that was partly graveled some time ago. As it approaches the top of the hill, however, cribs made of logs await loads of gravel to fill the mud-holes that the cribs now guard. The first layer will be gravel from the beach; that will be topped by the same kind of gravel that surfaces the rest of the trail. I’m told that it takes a Corps of Engineers permit to put gravel down on a trail—does all of Juneau qualify as a ‘wetland’?

CBJ hopes to connect the two ends of this trail next year (2020). In the meantime, a new spur trail has been cut and graveled to a new clear-cut above a rocky beach not far from the landing beach. CBJ intends to build a cabin there: supported on concrete posts, the cabin will be built from an Icy Straits kit, delivered to this beach by landing craft. It will resemble the cabins at Eagle Beach State park but have a larger deck; the view will be very pleasing. The cut timber will be used to build an outhouse. CBJ hopes to have the cabin available for rental (from Parks &Rec) by next summer.

Two other CBJ trail projects have been funded and are planned for next year. The Amalga Meadows Trail (a short six-tenths of a mile) from the Eagle Valley Center to the Eagle River Landing beach will get a new bridge over the slough, probably next year. The Brotherhood Bridge (Kaxdigoowu Heen Dei) will get a new section that reroutes the beginning of the trail at some distance from the Mendenhall River, avoiding the rapidly eroding bank. The new trailhead is at the north end of the parking lot; the new section goes right across the meadow and joins the existing trail where the forest begins. It should be paved next spring. The entire trail will be repaved and the eroding bridge over Montana Creek replaced, possibly beginning in 2021.

Other projects on the CBJ list still require funding, so (I’m guessing) perhaps by the time full funding becomes available, still other projects will be on the list. But for now, work is planned for the Switzer Creek trail system, the Lena Point trail, and the Rain Forest Trail on North Douglas.

Thanks to George Schaaf, Director of CBJ Parks and Rec for information on planned work.