Posted tagged ‘fungus’

SILK FROST: Strange Ice Formations on the Olympic Peninsula

January 7, 2014

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic PeninsulaSilk Frost, known more widely as Hair Ice, emerging like fine hair from alder branches; the tiny water droplets show the ice beginning to melt as the temperature rises (an alternate theory is that it is condensation from the photographer’s breathing on this cold morning)

Overnight our Olympic Peninsula skies cleared and the temperature plunged to 28°F. That isn’t very cold by midwestern standards, where this winter is bringing temperatures and wind chills far south of -20°F, but it was cold enough to create something extraordinary and beautiful that I have never seen before.

I walked down the hill to our house, and saw a bright white patch about the size of a discarded Kleenex, which is what I thought it was and I wondered who had been despoiling our yard. I went over to retrieve it, and discovered that it was actually a patch of ice that seemingly sprouted from the ground and looked to be made up of fine hairs of ice. I was curious what it was, and I looked around to see if there were any others. There was a bigger blob of the stuff at the end of an old branch, and then I saw a couple more.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic PeninsulaEach of the above formations was growing from alder wood

This was a cold morning, so there was frost on the Sword Ferns and grasses around our house, but frost has an entirely different look from this hairy ice. I showed Karen, and we agreed that all these patches of hairy ice were sprouting from old branches that were either on the ground or sticking up in the air. It was distinctly different from the frost flowers we’ve seen emerging from the frozen ground around here, which are thicker and look like they are extruded.

I photographed the formations, then used the internet to try and discover more about them. It turns out that these formations are quite rare, and have mostly been observed on the Olympic Peninsula and nearby Vancouver Island, and in parts of Europe. The consensus name is Hair Ice, though the names Frost Beard, Ice Wool, Feather Frost, Silk Frost (my favorite), and Cotton Candy Frost have also been used.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

I don’t keep my yard very neat, especially in the wild patches beyond the mowed lawn and planted rhododendrons. If an alder branch falls in the forest, I’m not likely to hear it and will usually just let it be; as a naturalist, I prefer the chaos of the natural forest to the tidy landscaping around most homes. And that chaos of fallen branches is key to growing Hair Ice.

All of the Hair Ice around here was sprouting from old and decaying branches of Red Alder, a brittle tree that sheds body parts whenever we get snow or freezing rain. But where could the water be coming from that forms these hairs, which look to be as fine as human hair? This has actually been a mystery for a long time, though a German scientist described a possible association between fungus and Hair Ice in 1918. That scientist, Professor Alfred Wegener, became better known for his imaginative and long-controversial theory of Continental Drift, which has become a keystone theory to understanding the geological history of the Earth.

In 2008, two European scientists published a paper called “Hair Ice on Rotten Wood of Broadleaf Trees–a Biophysical Phenomenon.” In this paper they described their tested theory of how Hair Ice is formed. It turns out that fungus is indeed the key, and the Olympic Peninsula is renowned for its fungi. As we all know, fungus in fallen branches is responsible for recycling the nutrients in the wood, and this forest citizen takes its recycling responsibility very seriously. The fungus sets up a factory deep inside the branch, where it sets about decomposing carbohydrates and lipids–just as humans attempt to do with their New Year’s resolutions.

The fungus feasts on the nutrients, leaving water and carbon dioxide gas as waste products (hey, I would drink the carbonated water, but what do I know in comparison with a fungus?). And this is the key: the carbon dioxide forms pressure within the decaying twig that pushes the water outward through microscopic openings in the wood called rays. When the supercooled water meets the freezing temperatures outside, the water freezes into a tiny crystaline structure. Then, as the crystal is pushed by the water behind it, and the emerging water subsequently freezes, hair-like crystalline structures form that appear to be finer than the diameter of human hair. Together, the phenomenon looks a bit like white hairs emerging from an older person’s scalp–though I wish I could sprout that much hair from my bald head.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

We had a stretch of three days of clear nights and freezing temperatures, My photography activities on the first morning had destroyed the fragile formations, and I wasn’t quite satisfied with the pictures, so I hoped to see the phenomenon repeated on the next morning. I awoke to 26°F temperatures, went outside, and saw new Hair Ice at each of the places it had been the day before. I spent a couple more hours photographing, until temperatures rose above freezing and the ice began to melt. The next day, temperatures went down to about 28° overnight, and I repeated the process; once again, the Hair Ice showed up in exactly the same spots. It was wondrous to see something entirely new to us.

Living here on a small patch of forest on the Olympic Peninsula has taught me so much. I’ve seen Flying Squirrels coming to our bird feeders and entering our birdhouses. We have Mountain Beavers living in burrows amongst our ferns; though we’ve never seen one, we see the neatly clipped fern fronds outside their burrows (these are a Pacific Northwest mammal not closely related to the regular Beaver). Last spring I photographed three kinds of salamanders that were living in rotten wood around our property (thanks again to my messy naturalist’s aesthetic). I’ve photographed Bald Eagles, River Otters, Douglas Squirrels, Black-tailed Deer, Western Screech-Owls, and numerous other species here. The gifts of wild land continue to be a source of inspiration in our lives.

The Bigleaf Maple and Red Alder and Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar forest here has taught me a lot, and I like to keep it as wild as possible as a thank you to all the creatures who call this place home. The Silk Ice reminded me once again of how nature continues to amaze and delight.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

For more information about Hair Ice, here are two sources, though for the latter you will need to know German, though an Abstract is in English:

http://my.ilstu.edu/~jrcarter/ice/diurnal/wood/

http://www.iap.unibe.ch/publications/download/3152/de/

UPDATE: About a month later, there have been three more times when Silk Ice has appeared on the same branches in my yard as before; in each case, the overnight temperature dipped to the mid to upper 20s. On two of the days, the formations were well-developed and I took new photographs, but on the other day, there was wind and I think that most of the ice had sublimated away, leaving only one patch hugging the ground, where the wind couldn’t get to it.

On another day, the conditions would seem to have been perfect, with no wind and temperatures below freezing, yet no ice developed. The problem was, the temperature had dipped to 19°F, which was apparently too low for the fungal decomposition to proceed, so water and carbon dioxide could not be produced.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

MUSHROOMING LOVE

October 17, 2013

Yellow Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius,  on the Olympic PeninYellow Chanterelles possess a graceful beauty that makes them wonderful to photograph–as well as to eat

This fall, the autumn rains started in late August: our sign that summer was over. It was also a good sign that autumn mushrooms would start shoving up through the damp soil. Heavier rains came in late September, and have been with us off and on since then. The timing of the rains after the dry summer apparently brought a bumper crop of mushrooms.

Yellow Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius,  on the Olympic PeninThe chanterelles poke up through the soil, gathering lots of Douglas Fir needles during their brief lives

Yellow Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius,  on the Olympic PeninChanterelles share the forest floor with mosses and fallen alder and maple leaves

We drove to a favorite mushroom gathering place where we have picked chanterelles for years, which shall, of course, remain a secret, because we mushroom gatherers are like that. It is a tiny place under an old hemlock in a second-growth forest. It is hard to get to, off a steep embankment, so most mushroom pickers don’t know about it. There we have reliably harvested a few Yellow Chanterelle mushrooms for years, but never enough for a feast, unless we supplemented the harvest with a pound of chanterelles gathered from the Costco produce refrigerator. This year we gathered a few more than usual, then decided to spend some time looking outside of our normal favored place.

The forest was alive with mushrooms in bright scarlet, orange, and yellow hues, all of which glowed against the mossy forest floor. Before long, we found a small concentration of Yellow Chanterelles, and harvested several pounds of them. These are distinctive mushrooms, shaped like golden flutes; they have a mild earthy aroma with subtle spicy undertones. We also found a few Plush Purple Pig’s Ears, which is another kind of chanterelle, and took some of those to try. We went away happy, having gathered enough fungal reproductive organs for several meals.

Yellow Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius,  on the Olympic PeninAfter cutting this chanterelle, I laid it on the forest floor to illustrate the graceful lines of the ridges on the underside

Yellow Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius,  on the Olympic PeninThis is what a salamander sees when it looks up at a chanterelle

The next weekend we went back, and ventured further into the forest. This time we really hit the jackpot, coming away with about ten pounds of fungal gold. The only reason we stopped gathering is that gluttony is a sin. Otherwise, we would have stayed until dark and doubled our fortune.

Gathering Yellow Chanterelles on the Olympic PeninsulaIt was a great year for Yellow Chanterelles; here Karen is demonstrating how we cut them off far down on the stalk

Gathering Yellow Chanterelles on the Olympic PeninsulaThis is a particularly beautiful specimen

Yellow Chanterelles, Cantharellus cibarius,  Gathered on the OlyAfter a couple of hours, we had picked about ten pounds of chanterelles; this photograph shows about a third of the harvest

Yellow Chanterelle Bumper Crop on the Olympic PeninsulaAt home, we spread the chanterelles out on towels to dry them a bit, which helps keep them from molding; then we refrigerate them until we need them for cooking

Pig's Ears Gomphus, Gomphus clavatus, Sauteing in ButterHere I am cooking Plush Purple Pig’s Ear mushrooms, as I do chanterelles, by sauteing them in butter

When it comes to Yellow Chanterelles, I keep the cooking simple. I chop them up, not too coarse and not too fine, but like Goldilocks, “just right,” then put them in a hot cast iron skillet with butter, adding a bit of salt and pepper. Then I sautee them until most of the moisture has evaporated out, and they’ve browned nicely and gotten a bit crisp on the thin edges. Some people like them moister; some drier. Then I serve them on lightly browned toast, not too toasty-crunchy, which serves as a carrier for the mushroom flavor without overwhelming it.

Beef is also a good accompaniment, but the mushroom flavor is delicate and good beef can shove the chanterelle flavor aside. Sour cream mixed into the chanterelle and butter combo is also good, but my favorite is just plain butter. However, now we have so many chanterelles that I am going to try some recipes I haven’t used since 1991, which was another great mushroom year. Mushroom pie and mushroom stew and mushrooms with eggs and whatever else I can come up with will be on the menu.

Ramaria araiospora var. rubella on the Olympic PeninsulaWhile looking for chanterelles, I became preoccupied by photographing mushrooms of all sorts, which left Karen to do most of the harvesting. Here, I show a scarlet coral mushroom.

Woolly Chanterelle, Gomphus floccosus, on Olympic PeninsulaThis Woolly Chanterelle–a different species than the Yellow Chanterelle–is iffy for eating, and I won’t try it because of potential liver toxicity, though one classic mushroom book author said it was among the best mushrooms he had ever eaten.

Woolly Chanterelle, Gomphus floccosus, on Olympic PeninsulaWhen the Woolly Chanterelle starts growing, it looks like something we might imagine from another planet

Orange Coral Mushroom, Ramaria sp., on the Olympic PeninsulaAn orange coral mushroom with a Douglas Fir soaring above

The next day:

As I write this, sitting on a ferry crossing Puget Sound away from Seattle, I can still smell the essence of mushrooms from the spores lodged in my nostrils. Since it was a great mushroom year, we decided to go to the Wild Mushroom Show in Seattle, hoping to learn a few new wild mushrooms. This annual event, organized by the Puget Sound Mycological Society, attracted thousands of people this year to The Mountaineers building at Magnuson Park. The place was packed with people in this bumper mushroom year. And the scent of mushrooms hung heavily in the air in that exhibit hall; I found it overwhelming, others probably thought it was ambrosia.

The highlight of the event is a grand display of live mushrooms, organized according to their taxonomy, and identifying whether the mushrooms are poisonous, edible, or somewhere in between, using the three colors of a stoplight. Visitors can sniff and look and photograph–but not poke or prod the delicate creatures. I learned what legendary Matsutake mushrooms look and smell like (fish, and the ocean, in a good way).

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-48Live mushroom display at the Wild Mushroom Show in Seattle

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-25Karen checking out the amanitas; the red tag color indicates poison

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-7Lobster Mushroom is actually a parasite that takes over another kind of fungus; I’ve never eaten it, or even seen it in the woods, but it is purportedly delicious, with a meaty texture

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-40Cauliflower Mushroom is another one I’ve been looking for in the forest, but haven’t found

There is also a cooking area set up so that people can sample wild mushrooms prepared by great cooks. I tasted a mushroom desert soup made with Matsutake and Chanterelle mushrooms, with coconut milk, and tried another way of spicing Chanterelles with soy sauce–both dishes prepared by gourmet mushroom chefs.

At the show I also purchased a new book by author Langdon Cook, titled The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America. I’ve just started reading the book, so I can’t give a full review, but the first part of the book I’ve read is terrific. Langdon Cook embedded himself in the culture of professional mushroom pickers, who travel around the West and up into Alaska, harvesting mushrooms for the international gourmet trade.

This is a secretive culture that remains on the edges of society; members of the culture camp out and spend their lives in the field searching for morels, chanterelles, and other wonderful mushrooms in the damp, old-growth forests. In the introduction to the book, the author describes a surreptitious foray into Mt. Rainier National Park with a picker who hoped to get two hundred pounds of lobster mushrooms in a day. He only got a hundred pounds, but then had to hide his bounty far from his beater car, and pull up after dark to quickly load the bags of lobsters into the car–while watching carefully for park rangers.

I was interested in the culture of the professional pickers after seeing so many of them camped early this summer near a forest fire burn from last year. There is a species of morel, known as the Fire Morel, that pops up out of the ashes the year after a fire, and these mushrooms are worth a fortune. Karen and I gathered about a pound of them, but the professionals get hundreds and thousands of pounds. I saw them priced at Seattle’s Pike Place Market this spring for $60 a pound.

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-38Lovely Yellow Chanterelles on display with other species

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-35The boletes are a favorite prize of mushroom hunters, but I don’t yet feel confident enough to properly identify them. As with many groups of mushrooms, some species of boletes are edible, and some are poisonous.

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-31Another view of amanitas and other gilled mushrooms

Mushrooms are both big business and a fun tradition here in the Pacific Northwest. I hope to be out in the damp woods again this weekend.

Remember, mushrooms can also be deadly poisonous, with the toxins in some species quickly doing irreparable liver damage, so it is essential to know what you’re doing. If you want to pick mushrooms, it is good to go into the field repeatedly with an expert. A mushroom identification class would also be a good way to start. Either way, you should purchase a good mushroom field guide that has recent information about toxicity. True story: several years ago I was jogging on a trail near the town where I live, and I saw a lot of orange, gilled mushrooms. The problem was, at that point I did not jog with my eyeglasses on, and I really couldn’t see what I was picking. When I got home and showed them to my wife, she immediately saw that they weren’t chanterelles. So, wear your glasses.

Another possibility is getting lost in the woods; it is all too easy to keep your eyes glued to the ground, and oblivious to how far you’ve come. I don’t recommend going out alone: one elderly and expert mushroom picker disappeared in the Cascade Mountains this year, and searchers never found a trace of her.

But, for all my warnings, don’t let fear intimidate you: mushroom hunting is fun and is safe, once you know the essentials of identification and take precautions not to get lost in the forest.

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-53A bumper sticker seen at the Seattle Wild Mushroom Show

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website or go to my Flickr Photostream.

If you have any good mushroom recipes to share, please feel free to add them in the comments section!