Posts Tagged ‘fungi’

The Shoemaker Taxonomist

Inside the eight-foot tall olive-green metal cabinet are stacks of black, sturdy shoeboxes. Inside these are small cardboard boxes decorated with Victorian-style script announcing that they contain the finest buttons and sewing needles. These little boxes hold hundreds of dried mushrooms with brittle, yellowed tags looped around them, labeled in the faded, elegant hand of Charles Christopher Frost. Everything in the shoeboxes is over 150 years old.

Charles Frost described and named dozens of new species of fungi, collected specimens that are treasured by researchers, and wrote numerous scientific papers. For a living, he made shoes. Taxonomists today may make their living doing other kinds of biological research, but not one of them, as far as I can imagine, makes shoes.

Every day at lunchtime, Frost closed his cobbler shop in Brattleboro, Vermont, for one hour. He spent that hour studying fungi. He did so well at shoemaking that he cobbled together (pardon the pun) a sizable fortune.

Before he became a shoemaker, Frost attended school, but dropped out when he was 15 because a teacher beat him with a ruler. He left the schoolhouse carrying the broken ruler and never returned. In spite of this, Frost was far from uneducated. He consumed books on mathematics, languages, physics, chemistry—anything he wanted to learn, he did so from a book.

When Frost got dyspepsia (known nowadays as indigestion), his doctor prescribed two hour-long nature walks per day. These walks quickly transformed into fungus-collecting trips. He woke up early and stayed up late identifying new species, describing them in words and drawings, and writing scientific papers. His fungus collection was given to the University of Vermont’s Pringle Herbarium after his death in 1885.

Species description is at the core of taxonomy. The Pringle Herbarium archives hold five fat hanging folders full of hundreds of Frost’s meticulous notes and graceful, detailed drawings. A taxonomist today must be as detail-oriented as Frost. Frost couldn’t just say, “I’ve found a new species and it’s called Boletus pretendus.” Whenever a taxonomist claims a new species, he or she must describe in great detail each part of it, every organ, and how it is different from other species. This allows other scientists to judge whether the claim is legitimate.

Today, however, species description is just as likely to include diagnoses of differences in genetic codes as morphological details. Since the 1960s, taxonomy and systematics have undergone a molecular revolution; now both sciences are heavily reliant on analyses of DNA and RNA, though they do still depend on morphological distinctions.

If Frost was alive today, he wouldn’t be able to do taxonomy without access to a laboratory. His delicate drawings and thoughtful descriptions would be rejected from modern scientific journals without a second glance. Shoes, not fungi, would be his purview.

Chicken of the Woods

by Becky Cushing

Frog legs, rabbit, octopus, sea lamprey: Tastes just like chicken. But a mushroom? That might take some convincing.

Purple toadstools dot moist ground. Tiny aliens emerge from rotting wood. A stalk shoots from leaf litter on the forest floor. Like Alice’s Wonderland, the damp woods in and around Burlington are splattered with wild mushrooms. While identification of the 70,000+ worldly fungi species (many more unnamed) might seem like a daunting task, learning one or two of the “showy” local varieties can be a good way to get started.

Two weeks ago I was exploring Centennial Woods, a natural area managed by the University of Vermont, when I caught a flash of bright orange through the tall white pine and maple tree trunks. Like a reflective safety vest, it stood out against the earthtone browns and greens of the surrounding woods. Squinting harder I could make out suspended shelves attached to one side of the rotting trunk. Getting closer I clearly saw half a dozen two-toned fanned layers, a giant-sized carnation corsage.

Becky with her find.

Becky with her find.

Crouching down I realized this mass was more than a foot wide and each 3-6 inch orange shelf layer was outlined along the waving free edge by a pale yellow, like fresh cow’s milk. Subtle web-like strands of white mycelia penetrated cracks in the dead trunk where, hidden from view, they obtained nutrients through decomposition. If this tree had been alive, it most certainly would have minded this organism’s parasitic affinity for heartwood. As it were, the dead trunk suited the mushroom’s role as a saprophyte, or decomposer.

I recognized this rubbery fungus. I had seen it before. Some call it “sulphur shelf” or “chicken mushroom.” Wikipedia even suggests “quesadilla of the woods” — a bit of a stretch if you ask me. It was Laetiporus sulphureus or “chicken of the woods.”

I’m not a mushroom expert. In fact, I first learned about “chicken of the woods” at an informal dinner party: I thought I was eating chicken. And yes, with loads of butter, it tasted much like the popular poultry. Luckily the skilled chef had several decades of mushroom foraging under his belt but it leads me to an important point: Never ever eat a mushroom without an extremely confident identification (which is usually preceded by many years of foraging experience). For others, past mistakes have caused disintegrated livers or failed kidneys. With 70,000 to 1 odds? It’s just not a good idea.