My head is full of mushrooms, mosses, and lichens. Really. Those three kinds of things grow in damp places, and I've been helping five teachers and about 70 elementary school children find and enjoy them over the past few weeks. Not that they all needed much help from me.
The lichens focus is actually coming up next week, but we've already gathered what we've come across in the course of looking for mushrooms and mosses.
Today, with natural treasures we found on our Expotitions or brought from home, we created moss gardens in containers indoors. Fairy gardens is what some students called them. The students took great delight in the project.
I've learned a great deal about mushrooms in the past few weeks, and am completely enamored with them currently.
During last week's Expotition, students in my group found Earthstars. Look it up. I had never seen such exquisitely-formed mushrooms. They were in the shelterbelt across the road from Center. In that area, in a space no bigger than several rooms of a house, we found so many different mushrooms that we left earlier than planned since I knew we already had all we would have time to observe well and possibly identify. Among them we found a bird's nest mushroom, so small that I could hardly believe anyone spotted it. Good eyes and short stature must be big advantages for spotting ground-level fungi. I lack both. The bird's nest fungus looked like a miniature funnel on a stick, with three or four little eggs (spore cases) inside.
In another group, the most dramatic find of the day was a huge Ling Chih growing on dead wood in Melvin H.'s shelterbelt. The morning rain had polished the natural "varnish" to a high luster, and the dinner-plate-sized growth was zoned with color gradations varying from deep mahogany to creamy yellow. That fungus is used medicinally to fight cancer. It's usually dried and ground and a tea is made with the resulting powder. It needs some sweetener to become palatable.
In the area surrounding the pond across the road, other Expotition groups found both an eminently edible and delicious Meadow Mushroom (closely related to the common grocery store button mushrooms), and a Destroying Angel, capable of killing anyone who ingests it (it attacks and destroys the liver). They didn't know these identities, of course, until later, but our instructions to never taste anything unless you're absolutely certain it's edible kept us all safe. These two mushrooms are often found in the same area, and some aspects of their appearance are similar--both white, with few distinctive markings. In the two specimens we saw, the Meadow Mushroom was far more squat than the Destroying Angel. Tall, with a proportionately smaller cap and whiter appearance overall described the deadly one.
The second delicious edible mushroom was found during the following week in the short length of tree row that survived the purges on the school property. It was a beautiful but small Parosol Mushroom.
After school Yvette W., a grandmother-volunteer who had helped transport Expotition groups, returned with her Nisly grandchildren to show us what they had found on their own after-school foray into the shelterbelt at the southern edge of the children's family's property. They found a beautiful Crown-topped Coral. It looks exactly like a sea coral. This is edible too, but it would have provided only several bites of goodness. Another really distinctive fungus they found looked like a string of three little brown and gold pillowy sweet treats--not much bigger around than a Hershey's Kiss. I don't have the list of names with me, and can't remember the name of this one at the moment, but we were able to identify it. They also brought back a moderately-sized and easy-to-display specimen of Ling Chih, with a shiny varnished stem attached.
When I was leaving the sale of Lizzie Nisly's belongings, I spotted and harvested right around my parked vehicle--in the pasture--several beautiful specimens of what turned out to Green-spored Lepiota. I did a spore print, which clinched its identity for me. I felt a great deal of relief with the certainty this brought.
On the very first Friday of school, in need of a nature activity that could be done indoors, I gathered here at home some beautiful big mushrooms that I had been unable to identify. I showed everyone how to use them to make spore prints by joining a black and a white piece of paper and positioning the mushroom cap so that half of it rested on top of each color paper. This is advisable because some spores are white and some are black, and some have colors in between. Once the identity of the mushroom is known, the spore color can also usually be known, and an appropriate paper color can be chosen for making spore prints. The black-white combination paper is for use when the identity is not known.
My experimentation had shown the spores of the mystery mushrooms to be white. After I found this, I made a series of lovely spore prints on black paper, each one showing the pattern of narrowly-spaced gills in the typical gilled-mushroom form. The problem developed when I could not match the other characteristics of this mushroom to anything I found in either the Kansas or the Missouri Mushroom Field guides I had acquired. The one that looked most like what I had, said that it produced a green spore print.
One tidbit of information made me realize that what I had found might indeed be a Green-spored Lepiota, even if it had produced a white spore print. This source specified that it must be a mature mushroom specimen. The ones I had taken to school were very fresh and the gills were almost pure white. When we were finished making spore prints and I brought the mushrooms home, they stayed in the car overnight and part of the next day. When I retrieved them, I noted that the gills had turned grayish green. I assumed they were beginning to decompose, and I unceremoniously dumped them outside. Later I wondered if those older specimens would have made a green spore print if I had tested them. Finding mushrooms in Lizzie's pasture gave me the opportunity to try for a green spore print. Success! On Monday when I arrived at school, the mushrooms had made a soggy mess of the paper on which I had left them, but the spore color was clearly green.
Green-spored Lepiota is the most common source of mushroom poisoning in Kansas. It looks really good, and its large size makes it seem like a great candidate for human consumption. People who ingest it, however, become violently ill with digestive distress within a few hours. Emergency room visits are not uncommon. Only a few people have died from eating these mushrooms, but probably many others have wished to do so in the middle of the extreme discomfort that results.
On the Cedar Crest/Pilgrim High ball field, I had in previous years harvested huge immature white ball-shaped Puffball mushrooms, and sliced and fried and served them to typing students during break. They weren't outstanding in flavor, but I had determined that they were edible, and thought we should all have the opportunity to taste them. This year I could find none there. On the Expotitions, we did find a fat-stemmed brown rough-surfaced kind that is in the Puffball family.
One pointed-cap orange mushroom must have been a Witches Hat. What were those tiny little red things growing on wood? And the really tiny ones we dubbed Pinheads? Were the little brown curly things growing on wood baby Wood Ears? Little white and little brown kinds abounded, many of which we could not definitively identify. So many questions.
I was afraid that our Expotition group searches for mushrooms would be unfruitful, so Hiromi had purchased a variety of grocery store mushrooms for each teacher to show their students. Besides the familiar button mushrooms, Hiromi bought Shiitake, Portabello, and Cremini. I brought them home afterward, and we have been having one mushroom feast after another.
I took to school some dried Wood Ear mushrooms that came originally from an Asian grocery store, and distributed some to each classroom. The students had a chance to see the dried form, to watch the change when water was added and they became hydrated, and then to taste them after they were cooked (in a crockpot) with some Dashi (soup base). The most typical response was "It tastes like rubber bands." How would they know this?
Wood Ear mushrooms in fact have very little flavor, and are used in Chinese cuisine mostly to add texture. Sweet and Sour Soup often contains finely-sliced Wood Ear mushrooms. They are apparently abundant in Kansas, but I'm not sure that I've ever seen them. They are brownish, with curly edges, growing on wood. They reportedly have medicinal value, specifically for lowering cholesterol.
I eat Wood Ear mushrooms in my miso soup almost every school day morning. I do so mainly because we have a lot of them on hand because the owner of the Asian store gifted them to us when she went out of business. I'm gratified to know of their medicinal value--something I learned shortly after my doctor had alerted me to the fact that my cholesterol numbers were creeping up.
I told everyone in my Expotition group that they would be given a small sample of Wood Ear mushrooms, and they all should taste it. They didn't have to eat all of the small sample--a thin sheet perhaps half an inch square. I prefaced my distribution of the samples by telling students that most people in China really like this mushroom and eat it often. "Do you know anyone from China? How do you think they would feel if they heard anyone say "EEEEWWWW!" when they taste their special food? It often makes people feel bad if others say bad things about what is special to them. It's part of growing up to learn to be considerate of other people, and not showing dislike of their food is part of being considerate." They noted that some students at school last year had been born in China.
"I don't want to hear any negative comments about Wood Ear mushrooms," I said before serving the sample. "It really doesn't have much flavor of any kind. You don't have to like it, but if you don't, you have to keep your opinion to yourself." Unknown to me, one person in my group had been promised by his teacher that he would not need to taste it. He followed my instructions nonetheless.
I offered second helpings to whoever wanted more. Some of them did. One sweet little boy asked if he could take some home for his mother. "She'd like to taste this," he told me. I was very happy to oblige.
Mosses. Last summer when I made regular rounds of the perimeter of our three-acre property I had noted the presence of moss on the ground in the southwest corner, under some Bur Oak trees we planted shortly after we moved here in 1984. It seems like a strange place for it to thrive, exposed to the wind as it is. Hiromi had noted it too. He is very fond of mosses, remembering the pleasure people in Japan take in collecting and cultivating it. The north side of the old sheep barn is the only other place either of us recalled ever seeing moss growing on this property.
Admittedly, I've not been particularly tuned in to identifying different kinds of mosses, but I think I've only ever seen one kind growing in Kansas. My knowledge of other kinds of mosses comes from walking in woodlands in other states.
My search for field guides on mosses was mostly fruitless. The only publication specifically on mosses in Kansas is in black and white--something I don't think would catch the eye of students. I didn't see much value in getting publications that were specific to other areas with a climate very different from ours.
In preparation for the Expotition focusing on mosses, I provided the other teachers with some background information on how things that grow in moist places can be classified, and information on how to grow a moss garden, and then we all set out to bring back samples of whatever we could find.
I learned that mosses are part of the Plant Kingdom--Bryophytes. They have stems and leaves and produce chlorophyll, but they have no roots. Mushrooms are Fungi--not plants. Lichens (which we will study next) are both fungi and algae, growing in a symbiotic relationship. Algae can be part of any of four different Kingdoms, plants among them, so lichens may or may not be part plant and part fungus.
If anyone in the reading audience can point me to sources of good accessible materials on mosses, I would appreciate it. One outstanding book on Lichens is prohibitively expensive, but I can at least find better online material on lichens than I was able to find on mosses.
Maybe it shouldn't surprise me that few people have taken up the matter of mosses in Kansas as a specialized field of study. The pickings are thinner here than in the temperate rain forests of Oregon, for example, or the damp forests of the Southeastern U.S. That means though that the study should not be too daunting, so there's no excuse she said in a firm teacher voice