Beat the winter doldrums by treasure hunting on the forest floor
A er the Arctic blast that hit the East Coast around the holidays, I’d already had enough of the winter doldrums, so Mollie (my dog) and I went hunting for living jewels on the gray-and-brown winter forest oor.
On this 3.5-acre property, the options for nding such treasure are more limited than where I’ve lived in Rappahannock County. Rather than Christmas ferns and other evergreens everywhere brightening up the forest, here the treasures are small gems — and o en not many of them — so it pays to go slowly and look closely.
HARDY BRACKET MUSHROOMS
Among the many treasures here are bracket (aka shelf) mushrooms, I had mostly ignored during the summer. I was distracted and kept busy identifying the many, diverse mushrooms that popped up during and a er torrential rains. Bracket fungi feed o dead wood, usually rotting stumps and logs, but will also invade standing trees that are not healthy. These fungi are named for the way their fruiting bodies (mushrooms) stick out from their hosts. The bulk of a bracket fungus is hidden in the tree, eating away at it. While the blooms stick around all or most of the year, they are not their freshest and brightest in winter.
(Disclaimer: Although I try to take care in identifying mushrooms, I am not an expert; before consuming any mushroom found in the wild, please check with an expert.)
The most abundant bracket mushrooms here where I live, near Mount Jackson appear to be false turkey-tails (species in the genus Stereum) and the violet toothed polypore ( Trichaptum biforme). The latter’s signature purple margin can all but disappear as the mushroom dries out in winter, so I’ve spent a long time trying to tell it from the “true” turkeytail ( Trametes versicolor). They are both quite common in North American forests. So far, I haven’t been able to nd brackets that I can con dently identify as true turkey-tail here at the new place, near Mount Jackson, but I’ll keep looking.
The most attractive feature of both false and true turkey-tails is their concentric bands of color, which can be highly variable and range from white to burnt orange to brown, and even green when algae grows on them. Turkey-tail mushrooms tend to be at and o en overlap. One beautifully banded false turkey-tail, Stereum ostrea, o en commonly known as the “false turkey-tail” (there are others) can take the shape of a vertically sliced funnel, with the white underside of the cap on the outside and colored bands inside. (See box for more about false turkeytails and how they di er from true turkey-tail.)
The color of bracket mushrooms can wash out and their edges fray over winter, making them di cult to identify. This was apparently the case with a violet-toothed polypore that covers the base of a small tree in front of our house. Like with other brackets,
I hadn’t really looked at it and now wish I had during its bloom season.
As mushroom expert Michael Kuo put it: “Viewed from above, Trichaptum biforme is a bland, boring polypore, reminiscent of any number of faded, ubiquitous, Turkey-Tail-ish species. If you were an ant, however, you might have occasion to crawl underneath this fungus and bask in its beauty; the fresh pore surface is a gorgeous lilac purple.”
By the time I examined the blooms in question, only the cap’s margin showed purple, and that was faint. On the cap’s underside were brown, velvety teeth that turned gold when they caught the sunlight. What I thought might be another T. biforme had almost totally covered an old, hardwood stump near the house, but I couldn’t see any purple on the blooms’ margins at this point in winter. Checking my photo les, I found a shot that showed morevivid purple margins on the blooms.
While trees in a hardwood forest can look drab this time of year, a few plants do still show verdant color. While I miss the northern spicebush, mountain laurel and acres of Christmas fern that kept the winter forest green where I lived in Old Hollow, the property where
I’m living now has quite a few evergreen trees, and mosses covering most of the many rotted stumps and logs.
And scattered around on the forest oor is spotted wintergreen ( Chimaphila maculate). Its three evergreen leaves, each with a white stripe running down the middle, lie almost at on the forest oor and could easily be overlooked if not for their lovely color. In late spring, the plant shoots up a stem out of which blooms delicate white owers that nod and turn into pretty brown seed pods in the fall.
Recently, in exploring an area of the property littered with downed trees, I stumbled onto a favorite evergreen from my childhood, an ancient clubmoss that I was taught was crowsfoot. But other plants in its genus ( Diphasiastrum) also go by this name, as well as by common running-cedar and several others. My favorite ( D. digitatum) does go by another, unique common name — fan clubmoss.
This vining clubmoss grows on the ground. When we were kids, my brother and I used to hunt for it in the wilds of the fallow farmland around our subdivision every Christmas to add to our decorations. Unfortunately, it’s been hunted almost to extinction in some areas, so I’ll treasure the small bit I found here. (See the online edition of this column for a slideshow of this and other winter gems.)
With most of the forest having shed its foliage, this is also a great time of year to see bird nests and butter y and moth pupae, although the latter may be harder to spot, as they usually resemble twigs or otherwise blend into their surroundings.