Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mushrooms Can Save the World!

I've always been fascinated by wild mushrooms, though I have never tried to eat any. Since it's hard to distinguish between edible and downright deadly I've always just enjoyed them where they grow. Last year I asked for, and received, a book on identifying mushrooms, so at least I can tell what I'm looking at. This was in no way an attempt to figure out which are edible. I just like knowing the names of things.

But I also have learned that mushrooms (or more properly fungi) are probably the foundation species for life on earth as we know it. In fact fungi expert Paul Stamets now believes that we could solve six of the ecology's most pressing problems using fungi. He explains how here in a TED talk. Watch this 17 minute video and come away with an amazing respect for the "humble" mushroom. Or read about it here, in less scientific terms.

This "mushroom" which grew in my garden last summer, must be in the "Ear Fungus" family, but it is somewhat different from either of the ear fungus mushrooms listed in my book. The shape is right but the flesh of this one is semi-transparent, gelatinous, and extremely delicate. [Edit: This fungi is in the cup fungus family, and is a Peziza vesiculosa.] Beautiful!

Over the year I took a number of pictures of shrooms growing in the park, and I thought you might like to see some of them. (Click on the Flickr icon in the right hand column.) They ranged in colour from white to silver to orange, in texture from corky, shaggy to gelatinous. There were many I didn't get pictures of, mostly because they are such brief visitors. Several times I noted an interesting and lovely specimen, only to return with the camera the next morning to find a collapsed and blackened husk.

While the "fruiting body" (that bit we call the mushroom) lasts only for a short time, it's underground structure (called the mycelium) can be huge and live for many centuries. A ten kilometer square mycelium in Eastern Oregon is probably the world's largest living organism. It's estimated to be over 2000 years old.

This year I have my book, so will try to identify these by their "official" names, but I will do so with a heightened appreciation for these amazing organisms.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Is it Spring?

Or is Winter just backing up for another go at us?

Spring is only a few sleeps away on the calendar, but is definitely dragging her feet. Maybe her watch is slow! Nonetheless (knock on the wood paneling next to my rocker) the piles of snow which were in the park have mostly melted. And, it may be my imagination but the willow branches seem to be taking on that incandescent glow that comes with rising sap.

The juncos and finches are growing ever more belligerent with each passing day. Reeling, squalling, pecking, wing-thrashing and kickboxing are signs of rising sap in the boy birds too. As yet the girls are giving them the cold shoulder, but it won't be long before they start to swoon and bat their eyes.

And the most reliable sign of spring are the snowbirds passing at 90 kms per hour up on the highway, towing their 5th wheels and trailers back from a winter in more southern and gentler climes. I've seen three go by in the past five minutes.

I'm eager to get out and into the garden. I expect everyone else is too. Just about everyone has a pot or two of flowers in the summer, some people have small gardens bursting with colour and fragrance that we all enjoy as we walk past to and from the beach.

But we are surrounded by natural beauty without even breaking ground (or a sweat). I wonder how many realize the diversity of native plant life in and around the park? See photos of some of the many native and naturalized plants which grow here. Some of these are already up and active, as the chickweed pictured here, whose portrait I took just this afternoon. You can see that some of the leaves are bleached, killed by the extreme cold we've experienced in the last week or so. Chickweed is considered a nuisance by most gardeners and yet it is an extremely useful plant. There's no reason it couldn't be used as a ground cover plant in zeri-scaped gardens, as it survives on little water and forms an attractive thick matt.

Because it is such an early riser in the spring it was used as a fresh potherb by settlers starved for anything fresh and green after a long winter of preserved foods. The flavour is like a mild spinach. Chickweed is high in vitamin C, beta-carotene, calcium, potassium, magnesium and other minerals and nutrients.

As an Herbalist I wince when I see people chopping out the beautiful rosettes of the Great Mullein, which surely has to be one of nature's most useful gifts. A valued and much-loved garden flower in England, mullein survives some of the toughest conditions with grace. Settlers used to dip the dried flower stalk in wax to form candles. A tea made of the soft fuzzy leaves is an excellent remedy for cough, and can clear asthma in many people with no harmful side effects. A cup of the yellow flowers and olive or grape oil can be gently simmered in a double boiler for 20 minutes, then bottled to use as a treatment for earache or muscle aches. The tiny black seeds can be used the same way.

Burdock is another introduced invasive plant which produces a stunning addition to the garden, with large, tropical-appearing leaves, but this bi-annual should never be allowed to go to seed, as the seeds are marble-sized balls of barbs which can trap bats and small birds, and fatally lodge in the mouth or esophagus of any animal which tries to browse the attractive plant. Plants should be dug out or turned out of their pots as they bud. The roots can be washed, dried and then chopped and used to make a healthy tea which is full of minerals.

Many of the native plants we consider "weeds" were used by the First People as medicines, and those introduced, like mullein, dandelion and burdock, were brought to the New World because of their use as medicines in Europe for centuries. Knowing about how plants were used by our ancestors really increases your appreciation for both the plants and the wisdom of those "Old Ones".