The 62nd Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage is this week. People come from around the world (but mostly the eastern U.S.) to see the glory of the Smokies in April. Unfortunately, Mother Nature’s normal schedule got a bit skewed, and April’s magnificent show burst forth in March this year.
Many of the plants typically in flower can still be found. It just takes some unaccustomed searching to locate those remaining colorful jewels hidden within a swelling sea of green. Most of the Yellow Trillium are already tattered and faded, with some insect-chewed beyond recognition, yet we find a few still displaying intact mottled leaves and lemony petals. Periodically, a Foamflower stalk holds aloft a small cluster of starry flowers. A handful of Creeping Phlox peep from behind a tree, Robin’s Plantain is well past its prime, and we find one lone Fringed Phacelia flower on Porters Creek. Isolated individuals of Star Chickweed, Crested Iris, Sweet Cicely, and Bishop’s Cap require a sharp eye. A few more spring flowers are in better shape at higher elevation, but down low it is mainly developing fruit and expanding foliage.
Meadow Parsnip, Canada Violet, Dog Violet, Cream Violet, Vasey’s Trillium, and Daisy Fleabane display fresh blossoms for the Pilgrims. The shrub Hearts-a-bustin’ and the tree Alternate-leaved Dogwood are uncharacteristically in full flower, early by at least a couple of weeks. Two bright spots are Painted Trillium and the Ladies Slippers, both pink and yellow. They are stunning — at least until a hail storm wreaks havoc midweek.
The highlight, though, has to be a fungus. Yes, you read that correctly. It seems as though each Pilgrimage is characterized by a particular organism. One year it was Silverbells, another Dogwoods, last year moths. In 2012, it must be Hemlock Polypore, also known as Hemlock Varnish Shelf. This shiny, showy stalked polypore mushroom is sprouting everywhere.
Ganoderma tsugae may be found singly or in groups on dead or dying conifer trunks, logs or stumps, particularly Eastern Hemlock. Here in the Smokies there are plenty of dead and dying Hemlocks to feed this common saprobic fungus. The fruit bodies appear spring to fall and persist throughout the year.
The stalk is 1-6 inches long and cylindrical to slightly flattened. Growing laterally on trunks and stumps, the stalk often grows erect when emerging from a horizontal surface such as a downed log. The cap is a globular white knob at first and expands into a fan or kidney shape from 3 to 12 inches across. The base of the stalk is deep mahogany brown. This color progressively lightens to a pale orangey yellow with a bright white rim along the outer edge when the mushroom is young. The stalk and upper surface are very shiny giving a polished or ‘varnished’ appearance. The lower surface is white, aging to yellowish brown, and covered with minute round to angular pores in a shallow layer. Spores are rusty brown. The mushroom goes from soft and spongy in texture when fresh to firm and corky.
In Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians, William C. Roody reports that while the Hemlock Polypore is not edible, a healthful tea tonic can be brewed from the fruit. However, there are some critters who find it edible. Several of the individual mushrooms have large orange and black beetles crawling on the surface and chewing the flesh. Megalodacne heros is in the Erotylidae Family, known collectively as the Pleasing Fungus Beetles.
While searching an explanation for such a unique common name, I learned from the University of Florida Entomology & Nematology Web site that most of these beetles are tropical. Out of 1,800 known species, just 51 have been found on this continent north of Mexico. With their distinctive color pattern, they are easy to spot but due to “cryptic habits” are not often seen except by mushroom hunters and entomologists. They have clubbed antennae, among other distinguishing structural characters, and are oblong oval to egg shaped. There are other beetle species that share similar color patterns.
Pleasing fungus beetles feed on, what else, fungi. Each genus of beetle seems to specialize on a particular group of fungi. Megalodacne spp., both larvae and adults, can be found in large numbers on the mature fruiting bodies of harder bracket fungi, including the stalked polypore Ganoderma. The larvae grow quickly while fresh fungi are available. When fungi are not fruiting, the beetles will hide under bark and other places, sometimes in large numbers.
I must thank Maine Pilgrim Frances for pointing out two aging Hygrometer Earthstars (Astraeus hygrometricus) near Baskins Creek along the manway. One specimen shows the starry appearance of this puffball mushroom when the outer wall splits open and folds back. The other shows the rays closed tightly around the spore case. In dry weather, the rays curl up to protect the spore case until rainy conditions prompt them to open and recline exposing the spore case to more amenable conditions.
While photographing fungi at leisure Sunday morning, I unroll a Witch Hazel leaf in hopes of finding the culprit responsible for the furled foliage. Inside is a tiny translucent caterpillar with a shiny black head and lots of frass. After taking a photo, I roll it up again and let it resume feeding unmolested. It is such a nondescript little thing, heaven only knows what it will become.