These sexy Ghost Plants don’t photosynthesize. There is never anything even remotely green about them. As we learned today at the Biophilium some plants have evolved into heterotrophs meaning they get their food from someone else, like we do, rather than magicing it up out of thin air and sunlight like most autotrophic plants do.
This one in particular grows in an intimate relationship with the mycelium of a Russula mushroom. The fungus isn’t fruiting today so I couldn’t see them, but I’m sure they’re down their in the soil mycorrhyzaling with the Ghost Plant and the Jack Pines. The Pine tree is huge and has green photosynthesizing needles way up in the canopy that turn sunlight into carbohydrates and brings them down into the soil. The word mycorrhyzae (fungi+root) refers to the physical connection between the plant and the mushroom who support each other by sharing sugars and minerals and water back and forth. Its a super survival strategy because some parties are much better at collecting one and not the others so they have far better chance of survival if they share their resources. 80% of plants depend completely on mycorrhyzal partnerships. It’s what people mean when they say the ‘wood wide web’. The Pinesap flower, unable to make its own carbs takes them from the fungus who takes them from the tree.
The flowers look to me like they would be pollinated by a bee, but I read that although the fall Pinesap, who can be very red all over are pollinated by bees, summer Pinesap are yellow like this and are mostly self pollinated, which doesn’t sound like a great strategy to me, but who knows. Do you who how self pollination works?
Citronella Ants are Yellow! But not this one and that’s not how they got their name. They are called Citronella because if you startle them they make a Citronella stink. I am fond of beings who communicate chemically and particularly fond of animals that live underground and can fly. There are some birds who do it, and mushrooms too if you count sporulating as flying. Today during dinner this Queen Citronella Ant landed on our table and dropped her wings.
She was born underground to a Queen, I suppose you could say that almost all ants are Princesses, but most of them are worker princesses who tend the farms, in this case: the subterranean plant sucking Aphids that produce a sweet honeydew that the Ants eat! Those worker Ants always stay underground. But not this Princess. She was chosen to become a Queen. She grew wings, flew from the nest, found a mate, I imagine that they mated in the sky, then she landed on our dinner table, dropped her wings and walked off in search of the site for her new colony.
Tonight she will begin to dig and maybe make her royal chamber where she will stay for the rest of her life laying eggs that will hatch into worker larvae and… Hmm… I’m not sure how the first worker larvae are fed, but some how she will feed them until they pupate and become adults who will feed the next larvae. I bet she has a secret pocket built in just for snacks. Ants have some cool pockets. Our Queen doesn’t need to mate again, she keeps today’s sperm in a pocket for her whole life and uses it to make new female babies. The male babies she makes to fly out into the world to mate with soon-to-to-be-Queens are unfertilized. They don’t have the DNA of her King, but of their maternal grand King.
I’ve seen ants farming Aphids on the undersides of leaves and I always imagined that they just lived there on that leaf, but that’s not it. They all live underground and during the day the Ants corral the Aphids out to graze just like cowboys do with Cows, except instead of riding Horses, or using a Sheep Dog, each Ant carries an Aphid.
The Selfheal flower makes sweet nectar and this attractive color to lure insects into her boudoir, where she powders them with pollen and hopes they will deliver it to a different Selfheal flower where this pollen will inseminate that flower and make fruit with fertile seeds.
The Bee collects pollen because its a super fantastic food packed with carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. (And probably all sorts of phytonutrients that do magical things too, this is a powerful medicinal plant) She picks it up and puts it in her leg baskets so she can carry lots home in one foraging foray, just like I do when I fill my basket with mushrooms in the fall.
The Crab Spider is a hunter. She finds sexy flowers and hides in them, waiting for a pollinator to come by and while they are distracted by the bounty of pollen she jumps out and delivers a Vampire bite like this and sucks the life juices right out of them. I bet she eats the pollen baskets as desert.
Lady Crab Spiders are amazing at camouflaging. I actually took several photos of this bee before I saw the spider and I was actually out in the meadow looking specifically for Crab Spiders so I could tell you this story! I saw her as an anomalous red striped white flower on the purple flowers and my brain accepted that as normal. The nifty thing is that these spiders are…. What’s the word for when you can presto-chango your colors to blend in with the environment? Like Chameleons and Octopuses? Later I was musing about it, I thought it was weird that she would even try to hide in a purple flower because she can be white and yellow but not purple. Since yellow is the opposite of purple, maybe being as unyellow as she can makes sense. I mean, I saw her but I couldn’t see her.
Male Crab Spiders are different, they don’t do any of that stuff. They can be 50x smaller than females. The boys don’t hunt, it takes too much patience, instead he jumps from flower to flower looking for girls and eats pollen and nectar as he goes. This is not the only animal I can think of where the boys are vegetarian and the girls are vampires. It takes a lot of protein to make eggs.
June’s full moon is the Strawberry Moon because that’s the one that wakes up the Wild Strawberries who are smaller, slyer and sweeter than Market Strawberries.
I have an inconsistent relationship with Fairy Rings, those very green, nitrogen rich patches of lawn where Mushrooms grow in circles around vortexes, places where it’s dangerously easy to slip through to other realities. I know that the superstitions like wearing your hat backwards to protect you from inter-fairy-ring-soul-transmission are just rumors started by the fairies hoping to trick us into entering the faery realm so I usually manage to keep a safe distance.
The thing is, some years I take extra care to stay on the safe side of the rings, and some years I can’t help but head right inside as if pulled by a magnetic attraction that blocks my cautious thinking. When you go through a fairy ring its hard to know what’s changed. Humans are very adaptable. We accept our situations, and often don’t notice transcendental change.
Today the Wild Strawberries were growing inside a fairy ring and I tried to photograph them but they kept disappearing. They were delicious.
There’s been lots of talk this month at the Biophilium about control, planning, and intention vs wandering, trusting and going with the flow in the wild and in the studio. It’s hinged on questions of self identity, integrity and confidence. As an exhausted adventurer recovering from Spring migration, I’m struggling to hold on to control of my decisions, like the one to stay out of fairy rings, but the flow is taking me to nice spontaneous experiences like the sweetness of special Strawberries, so I’m deciding to trust myself to make the most of what ever shenanigans I find myself in.
This is the Fairy Ring Mushroom that grows in my lawn; the one that cuddles with the Wild Strawberries. It’s been there for years and fruits for months every summer. They are good to eat because they TASTE LIKE MAPLE SYRUP!! They are relatively easy to learn to identify, partly because their stems are so robust that it’s difficult to break them with your hands.
You can find Fairy Rings growing in lawns even when they are not fruiting by noticing how the grass grows. Most plants can’t access the nitrogen that makes up most of the atmosphere, and need another organism to ‘fix’ it, so they can use it to grow. The Fungi grow in roundish patches in the lawn expanding every year. The new growth around the outside edge is where the Fungus is digesting dead plant matter under ground and releasing loads of nitrogen into the soil. The grass around the outer edge picks up this nitrogen and grows faster, bushier and more healthily than the rest of the lawn. Lawn care cult leaders call this a ‘symptom of Fairy Ring disease’, but it’s a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
Grow trees not grass.
While planning a birding route on Gmaps I found these massive Fungi growing in an island sports field. (Compare with the size of the Baseball diamond). What I like so much about this is that we can’t see the Fungi, but we can see what they are doing to the grass, and so we know exactly where, how big and what shapes they are.
The Fungi are growing in the soil around the grass roots. Each individual mycelial mass is expanding radially as it grows over the years. The outer ring of the mycelium is supplying more nitrogen to the grass and making it greener.
You can see where individual Fungi bumped into each other and fused together and became one individual. I mean. It looks to me like that’s what’s happening. If they were simply overlapping, or interlapping, weaving themselves through each other, sharing space but staying separate unique entities, wouldn’t we see the luscious green rings as ven diagrams as I do with fruiting fairy rings of different species that overlap and share territory?
I could be wrong. Maybe something different is happening where they connect. Maybe they are not making love. (Mushrooms have sex by fusing together, swapping DNA and staying connected forever) Maybe they are doing battle. Fighting for territory and resources, and where the battle is happening they are too stressed to do what ever grass enriching magic is happening along the rest of their boundaries.
On second thought, when one Fungal entity bumps into another they together would digest the nutrients in the fresh dead grass at the boundary between them and then have no new fresh food to turn to nitrogen. This would trigger fruiting, so I’d have to go back in the fall to see if mushrooms grow in a ven diagram showing distinct overlapping individuals or if they fruit only around the outside border as a new unified being.
Whatever you are reading put it down and read this.
Nature’s Best Hope is a book of DIY conservation. It explains why and how we should plant trees on our lawns and which trees to choose for maximum benefit to wildlife. It explains the mechanics of ecology in ways that are crystal clear, easy to understand and very motivating.
The book presents a history of our relationship to wildness and nature and talks about how and why the aesthetic of our landscaping of private land is the way it is. Tallamy suggests that the current aesthetic of suburban front yards is a status symbol that says “I have the money and time to manicure and weed my lawn” and is a symbol of community solidarity and a message that we care about our property and look after it. The problem is that the aesthetic is outdated and actually does an enormous amount of damage to the land and to wildlife we are trying to signal that we care about. He suggests ways to update that culture so our aesthetic supports our values.
His ideas of how to make forests instead of lawns would save, money, time, and fuel and provide productive biomass, habitat and take carbon from the atmosphere… Really his ideas would solve a lot of our problems. If you own land you must read this book. It will guide you to make a deeper more loving relationship to your land and your neighborhood. If you are feeling nervous about climate change, or loss of biodiversity, read this book. It will give you hope and ideas about how you can be a positive influence in the world.
This book is a description of EO’s love of biological systems.
He was considered the greatest biologist alive until he died in 2022. His insights are deeply informed by biology and are also a bit mystical. He articulates the magic of life in the language of science and puts into words many passions that I share. This book explores the innate human urges to observe and learn about wildlife and asks ‘Is it possible for humanity to love life enough to save it?’ He describes his own Biophilia as the awe he feels while observing and learning about non-human organisms and how indulging in these practices increases his appreciation of all life. He places the value of wildlife within a context of culture and human survival. He describes the elegance of art and science as part of human evolution.