Thursday, July 20, 2017  

Ferns, Fungus and Fuzzy Plants


Insects In the heat of the late summer and early fall, it is delightful to escape to the quiet refuge of the forest. Walking these leaf-encrusted paths leads to a myriad of surprises and prizes.

Cooled and sheltered by the shade of multiple specimens of towering giants the meandering paths offer a multitude of gifts along its floor. So look down and around. Peak around fallen logs and behind piles of brush. See what awaits you.

Where and How to Go

Along with the wonderful water views of this area are many sheltered, preserved and conserved woodlands. It is said that there is more forested land here than during the early 1900s. As the species are managed, protected and preserved we have more and more choices of paths to walk. Check with your local county park, forester or county office for nearby nature trails. Wear comfortable sturdy shoes, protect yourself against insects (they like it here too), wear a hat and sunscreen, take water and a companion and carry a field guide or even a small notepad and pencil. A lightweight camera helps you to document and learn. Always go prepared to spend more time than you anticipated. Remember a hike in January will yield a totally different view than one at this time of year. This season, despite its powerful heat, or perhaps because of it, yields a bountiful array of lush plants.


These graceful diverse plants present in a wide variety of shapes, that are mostly green and in the case of our Christmas fern, evergreen. The following are some seen in our area.

Christmas fern Polystichum acrostichoides, prefers sun to part shade, grows 1-2 foot in height and can be identified by small Christmas stocking-shaped leaves running up its stems. Early settlers used this fern for Christmas decorations. As in all natives it is encouraged that they be allowed to remain in their native habitat and not harvested for decorations. Most are available for purchase from reliable nurseries with native stock. Always check that their stock has not been harvested from the wild.

Some ferns are edible. In fact, fiddlehead soup is a delicacy in the New England states. The fiddleheads are aptly named for the curled fronds that present in the early spring and are said to taste like asparagus with an earthy taste. In case that has you concerned that fiddleheads taste like dirt, I have it on authority that “they taste green”. Edible ferns can be identified by the u-shaped groove on the inside of the stem and a thin brown papery coating.
Commonly seen in this area is the Cinnamon fern Osmunda cinnamomea. Cinnamon fern likes full to partial shade and grows 3-5 foot in height. Its name comes from its cinnamon-colored stems that mature from green in the early spring.

Maiden hair ferns Adiantum pedtum, are delicate beauties. They prefer shade and as in most native plants the deer tend to leave them alone.

Many other ferns can be seen here. Look for Southern Lady fern, Sensitive fern and New York fern.


Fungus have always have had a bit of a fuzzy distinction. They break down dead organic material, recycle nutrients and are an immense group of plants. They can produce helpful medications such as penicillin and other useful antibiotics and foods such as mushrooms, truffles and morels. They cause bubbles in the form of yeast for bread, beer and champagne. Commonly seen on cheeses and bread, they can also cause difficult-to-treat diseases such as athlete’s foot and ringworm. Rusts and smuts are fungi that can cause extensive crop damage.

We will focus on fungi that grow in our forests and enjoy their beauty. Some are edible but because of their great diversity, should not be harvested for consumption unless done by experts.

Mushrooms Psilocybin, come in a large diversity of color, shape and size. They are easily identified by large fruiting bodies and can range from red, white, brown, orange and even jelly-like with hues of blue. They grow by emitting spores from their fruiting heads which prefer to grow upon decaying matter such as rotting logs. Mushrooms are a fungus. Fungi are spore producers. You may be familiar with puffballs along woodland walks. The spores can be expelled over long distances to produce new generations.


Lichens, pronounced like-ens, are a plant with a mutualistic association between fungus and alga. Algae are a group of plants that lack true stems, roots and leaves but usually contain chlorophyll. Kelps and seaweed are algae.
The alga and fungus form a symbiotic relationship living together for mutual benefit. Their shapes and sizes, colors and locations are as varied as the day is long. They can range from blue green, green and even red (part of their reproductive parts). Often they can be spotted growing on the side of a rotting or nurse log. They are lelerotropic which means they need to live in or on a food source as they do not make their own food. They can live in and consume a host. They can grow on rocks, soil or trees. They survive on rocks by secreting organic acids that dissolve the rocks for nutrients. Some grow in water, both fresh and salt. They need water in their tissues. When this moisture is depleted, even to 2-15%, they can still survive. They simply go dormant. Lichens can absorb three times their weight in water.

Some lichens that are adhered to bark are easily removed and others not so much.

Symbiosis is the term given to two organisms living together. They can be parasitic or independent. Fungal cells help the alga cells survive by supplying food through photosynthesis (the changing of sunlight into nutrients).
Growth-forms of lichens range from crust-like, leaf-like and fructose or shrub-like. Lichens were found growing inside of rocks of Antarctica 20 years ago. Some more familiar lichens are: Cladina (reindeer moss), which grows in a fine light gray-green mesh-like structure. The Cladonic form has a structure with protruding neck features.

Hummingbirds often use lichens in the nest-building process. Lichens are strong indicators of air pollution, with
few seen in the inner city but more in more natural areas of our country.

Lichens that were used for the dying of the original Harris Tweed, a well-known Scottish pattern, are unfortunately among those that are now extinct. There are other collections of lichens that date back into the 18th century with no reported evolutionary changes.

For further information consider reading Lichens of the North Woods by Joe Walewski.


Moss is defined as “various, usually green, small plants in the class Musci within the division Bryophyta.” Mosses love shade and moisture. Sometime in early spring they can be spotted in moist, shady spots where later in the year they seemingly disappear. They are soft to the touch and often harbor tiny seedlings of other species.

Other Gifts in the Forest

Deep in the woods there often can be seen creeping cedar Lycopodium digatatum, otherwise known as running cedar. These delightful plants look like a miniature nursery of evergreens. They are a member of the club moss family with creeping, erect stems with needle-like leaves topped spore-cases. They are club-shaped, giving the club mosses their name.

Princess pine lycopodium obscurum, or ground pine, resembles a tiny Christmas tree. It ranges from 1-8 inches tall and likes very moist soil and cooler temperatures in forests that are 10-30 years old. Their populations decrease in older forests.

While you are in the forest, look for Solomon’s plume, low bush blueberry, wild ginger, trillium, may apple, virgins bower, bearberry, jack in the pulpit…but more of that in the spring.

Watch for the announcement in a local paper of a fungus walk with the Native Plant Society. Pick up a “Go Native, Grow Native” booklet at your local nursery. Venture out with children; they do not miss a thing. Remember the phrase “there is a fungus among us”? There are also algae abounding and ferns fumbling, and wonderful wildflowers. There is so much to see and so little time.