Autumn outdoors oddities can be untangled

posted Aug. 21, 2017 7:50 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Jerry Davis | Correspondent

  • con_ct_fungi_3a_081617
    A horn fungus on elderberry is a strange-looking disease but somewhat attractive.
  • con_ct_fungi_2a_081617-1
    Slime molds are a fungus-like mass that dries into a clump of spores by mid-morning.
  • con_ct_fungi_1a_081617
    Stinkhorn fungi attract flies to disperse their spores.

Now is when keen observers hit the brakes on their truck, ease up on the ATV gas pedal or stop a morning hike to determine if what they saw was real or imagined.

It could be the varied summer temperatures, plentiful rainfalls or daytime humidity coming to an end that help to bring so many autumn outdoor peculiarities to the forefront. Whatever it is, these quirks in nature are piling up in August.

Can a knowledgeable outdoors person explain what they are?

Some are not so much quirks but real things that grow in unusual ways. They are growths of fungi, diseased plants, a few animals and sometimes simply weathered objects.

Plants fight among themselves, as any gardener can attest. Quackgrass rhizomes have no problem growing entirely through potato tuber stems. Some plants, corn and crabgrass included, do better during hot, humid weather. Remember the saying about the temperature being so hot we can hear the corn grow? Now that’s over and those weird flowers are growing out of the stalk tops. Corn and crabgrass grow best — warm-weather grasses, they’re called — with their modified chemical pathways to make sugars in ways most plants didn’t evolve.

Split names give away many fungal secrets and describe their somewhat supernatural forms: Tooth fungus, hedgehog mushroom, stinkhorn fungus, and slime mold, fungus-like plops of yellow goo.

But rusts are best described as rusts. Imagine a pipe or iron beam rusting so fast that the debris piled up underneath the item. Rusts are fungi that produce so many spores that they fall as dust on the items, leaves and fruits below.

One rust on elderberry grows into a horn-shaped, twisted-orange ring that defies all imagination as to what it really is, what caused it or where it came from.

Other leaves are dotted with rust spots; sometimes there are sooty spots on maple leaves.

Fungi fight among themselves, too, even entangle and grow together to become something unlike either of the separate parts. The lobster mushroom, more common in northern Wisconsin, is red on the outside and white on the inside, just like boiled lobster. One mycologist suggests it be used as lobster helper.

Black knot on cherry branches are a disease that looks like something you’d never buy at a state fair, dung on a stick.

One more fungus fooler is corn smut. It appears mostly on the corn ear, nearly replacing the fruit kernels with purple to black bulges of enlarged cells with gobs of black spores. Most sweet corn is quickly tossed when inflicted with corn smut, but some folks eat it, consider it a delicacy, and even sell it fresh and canned.

Animals, all by themselves, get into the act of deception, too, best seen locally as a walking stick, which is easily detected when it is not perched on a stick but a screen or rock. But walking sticks rarely expose themselves that way.

When it is 90 degrees and feels like 100 degrees, check out the seed cones of fir trees. They grow in all shades of green, brown and purple but instead of hanging pendant, they stand upright on fir tree branches. Now they’re exuding more than enough resin to drip and form icicles that are as far from freezing as the actual temperature is.

Try to convince someone that the “lemons” hanging from the mayapple herbs are edible. They smell like they should be, and even though the plant is quite toxic and can be deadly, the fruit is fine when properly prepared.

Keep noticing and then begin digging for the answers.

Jerry Davis can be reached at

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