What’s the use of Xylaria?

Pretty much every time I give a talk on the ecology or taxonomy of Xylaria, I get the question “what are they good for?”, which breaks down into two other questions: “can you eat any of them?” and “do any of them have medicinal uses?”

I used to answer these questions by saying no, there aren’t any Xylaria that are eaten or used medicinally, but they are nonetheless interesting because of their ecology, their evolutionary history, and their diversity.

It turns out, I was mistaken on both counts!

Alan Bergo (left), and Anthony Michael Blowers both enjoy Xylaria polymorpha, the classic north temperate dead man’s fingers, with beef tartare.

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Xylaria apiculata

Xylaria apiculata Cooke, from Reserva Los Cedros, Ecuador. Given the paucity of functional illustrations of this taxon, I wanted to create one of my own. This was the first Xylaria that I figured, back in 2012. While my illustration technique has certainly improved, I still remain proud of the functional beauty of this illustration. (scale bars: a = 2 mm; b = 1 mm (including stromatal section); c = 10 µm; d = 50 µm).

This is one of the more common of the tropical/subtropical Xylaria that one is likely to encounter, and represents the typical form for a large species complex that includes many similar taxa, largely distinguished from one another by microscopic characteristics of the ascospores. I’d like to spend some time considering this taxon, the history of its taxonomy, and the larger group of which it is a part. Members of the “Xylaria apiculata group” will typically have delicate stromata with a distinctly pointed (acute!) sterile apex (sterile, meaning that there are no perithecia) and an ectostromal layer, generally remaining well into maturity, which has been split into vertical striations by the expansion of the perithecia. Continue reading

On identities

I’m a mycologist. This is part of my identity. It’s a part that I’ve chosen, but one that it would be hard for me to give up, at this point. Why am I a mycologist? What brought me to the love of fungi? I think a lot of it has to do with an interested in the peculiar and the odd, and some deep-seated need to root for the underdog. I like fungi because they’re under-studied, poorly comprehended, misunderstood, and misrepresented. I identify with that; I feel a kinship with fungi because I feel like there’s something in common between myself and them, in a way.

Also, I am queer. This is part of my identity, but not one that I chose for myself, though it has been a long, slow road in recognizing it within myself. And it’s not unrelated to being a mycologist — that feeling of kinship with fungi because they’re misunderstood and misrepresented? I think that comes from my queerness. Growing up in the military, in a family from rural Appalachia, there was no way to express certain feelings, even to myself. My own attractions (call me pansexual, if you need a word) and my own gender expression (I am cis-male, but my concept of masculinity is radically different now from anything I had access too as a young person) were confusing and contradictory as I grew up, and I did not even have the vocabulary to talk about them. Now, looking back, I can recognize that certain discomforts and confusions stemmed from the conflict between how I was feeling and how society expected me to feel. But, not having even the ideas, much less the vocabulary, to think about it, I had trouble recognizing what was going on; I just felt other and different. Continue reading

Some history about handwashing

As some of you know, I’ve been working at the Biology and the Built Environment Center at the University of Oregon for the last few months as a microbial ecologist. The first project with them has come to fruition: a review of the concept of hygiene as it relates to human-associated microbial ecology. I blogged about that at MicroBE.net (you can read that post here, which includes a link to the BioRxiv preprint of the full review article).


Today, I’d like to discuss a bit of history that only made it into the Review briefly, but I think is absolutely fascinating. It turns out, you can trace hand hygiene back to a discrete starting point in the middle of the 19th century. In Boston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. — now more famous as one of the Fireside Poets, along with Longfellow, but renowned as a physician in his own time — noticed the contagious nature of puerperal fever, which affects women shortly after childbirth. He published his findings in 1843 (though it went largely unnoticed until reprinted in longer form as a book in 1855), arguing that physicians with unwashed hands spread the disease. Holmes’s views were ridiculed by the established obstetricians of the time, but laid the foundations for thought about hygiene and the spread of infection in the American medical establishment.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., on the left, and Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis on the right. Images shamelessly taken from their wikipedia pages.

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The application of names

I’d like us to all think for a little bit about the way that we apply names to organisms around us.

I started thinking about this after my friend Danny Newman hijacked the comments thread on this Mushroom Observer post of a Xylaria from Portugal. This post, but the amicable and cryptically-named zaca, was of a cute little Xylaria growing on a mossy log in a park in Lisbon. They’d tagged the find as “Xylaria polymorpha“, one of the two names for species of Xylaria often included in field guides; the other, of course, is “Xylaria hypoxylon“. Danny used the application of this widely misapplied name in such circumstances to start a more general conversation about how we apply names to fungi. I’d encourage you all to go read that comment thread, if you haven’t already.

Xylaria cf. cinerea, photographed by zaca.

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The Earth’s Breath

Following up on my last post, this was prepared as a sample section from the children’s educational book about fungi that I’m starting to put together. I’m hoping to post more stories like this, and updates on the illustrations, content, and organization as it comes together. Hope you like it!

 


The Earth’s Breath 

When next you are out-of-doors, look up into the sky. That sky is but a skin of air, a few miles thick, floating over the whole surface of the Earth. It’s made up of many things, all mixed together — one very important part of the air is its carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide), which is the primary stuff out of which all life is made.

Plants and fungi form two great halves of the Earth’s lungs. The plants breathe in the carbon, turning it into more of themselves — the leaves and the wood and the roots. This feeds all the world’s animals, eventually. The fungi breathe the carbon back out into the air, so that the cycle can continue. Continue reading

The Living World of Plants: a review

I recently came across a book for school-age kids, recommended for fifth graders (10–11 year olds), called The Living World of the Plants: A Book for Children and Students of Nature, by Dr. Gerbert Grohmann. Doctor Grohmann (1897-1957) was influential in the early days of the Waldorf educational system, and wrote a treatise on biodynamic farming, among other things. First translated into English in 1967 (translated from the German — I believe the original edition was Kleine Pflanzenkunde für Kinder, published in 1939, but it is hard to track down), this book has been reprinted many times (the one I have is from the year 1999), and is still used as a resource for teaching botany to 5th graders in some Waldorf schools, as well as being popular amongst homeschoolers.  

I want to focus on the section of this book about mushrooms and fungi. I’m going to ignore the obvious fallacy of the inclusion of fungi in what is essentially a botany primer, because of the context of the time that it was written, and because I don’t necessarily think it’s bad to expose kids to fungi in the same space that they’re being exposed to plants; there is a natural alliance there, in terms of education. But the treatment of fungi in this book is… problematic, to say the least. (There is also much that could be said about the treatment of plants in this book, but I’ll leave that to the botanists.) Continue reading

Basidiomycetes and Ascomycetes

Last month, the Cascade Mycological Society asked me to do an educational piece of art for a fungi-themed show they were were organizing. I decided that I wanted to clearly illustrate some of the differences between Basidiomycota and Ascomycota, particularly with regards to reproductive structures. The show, and this painting, is now hanging up at Morning Glory Cafe!

asco-basidio003sm

 To help, I’ve written a limerick for each close up frame. Starting at the upper left, and proceeding clockwise:

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Xylaria: What, where, how?

This post was originally published in The Journal of Wild Mushrooming, and is modified slightly for this format.


 

What: recognition and classification

Any avid mushroom hunter will likely have seen them, reaching blackly (and vaguely ominously) upward from twisted, rotting wood on the forest floor. Maybe you’ve ignored them—‘there’s no way that can be edible’, you might have said to yourself—or maybe you’ve pulled a few from the log they were growing on for closer examination later, noting their reluctance to separate from the decaying but surprisingly hard wood. They might have been hard, brittle, black, like charred twigs, or maybe they were a little cartilaginous, black below, but with pale, powdery tips, releasing a small puff of white, dusty spores to the air as you pulled them from their wooden home. Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified takes you to Xylaria hypoxylon (Fig. 1), the candlesnuff fungus (“much too tough to be of value”), or maybe Xylaria polymorpha, with the morbid sounding common name of dead man’s fingers (“much too tough and rough to be edible”). The notes here hint at a hidden diversity, but the descriptions in this and similar mushrooming guides leaves the reader wondering, holding a small, black fruiting body, with a name that may or may not be correct, and more questions than answers.

Xylaria hypoxylon

Xylaria hypoxylon, photo by Alan Rockefeller (MO 225661). This is a young fruiting body: note the pale surface at the upper end (from which it gets the name candlesnuff fungus) and the flattened branching tips, characteristic of this species and close relatives. Perithecia have not developed yet, but will swell from beneath the outer white coating, which will eventually slough off, leaving the black carbonized layer exposed.

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