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Northland Nature: Puffballs remain on logs in the woods

Until the recent rains and snow, the AutWin time in the Northland has been quite dry. Following a thunderstorm on the night of Oct. 16 with winds and rains that brought down the leaves (and so began the time of AutWin). we have been very dry. From Oct. 17 until Nov. 17, the National Weather Service in Duluth had recorded only about 0.2 inches of rain, and no snow. This absence of precipitation combined with an average temperature of about 45 degrees, far above the normal of 35 degrees, made for a very mild 30 days. Despite the reputation of clouds, this month that has been called “gray November” gave us many sunlit days and clear nights (including the “super full moon” of Nov. 13). One remarkable series of 10 days was from Nov. 4-13, where we had only one cloudy day. Each day during this AutWin interlude was an invitation to get out and wander the woods, and so, I did.

The walks have revealed a plethora of late-season happenings. Chipmunks, squirrels and mice were gathering for the coming cold season. In the trees, woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches sought out insect meals while grouse found seeds and buds. The flight of the insects continued as long as possible. The gray-brown linden looper and fall cankerworm moths, often called late-season moths, basked in the sunlight. Small red dragonflies, the autumn meadowhawks, were sitting in the sun as well. And by late afternoon, I noted the up-down flights of swarms of crane flies. Not interested in me, these insects were engaged in courtship flights of their own. And though I get in the midst of them, they were oblivious of me. Also on these clear days, the threads of silk laid down by spiders tell us of their autumn treks.

Among the fallen leaves on the forest floor, all looking brown, are the greens of other plants. I found an abundance of mosses, clubmosses, ferns and some flowering plants. Above these, hanging onto branches and tree trunks are a variety of lichens. Despite all of this happening here in the woods, I was out in search of more. The days had been warm enough for mushrooms, but with all this dryness, they were not to be found. As I searched the woods for them, I did not locate any mushrooms, but I did make plenty of fall fungal finds.

Easiest to see were the solid and often large shelf fungi, so named because they stick out from the trunks of trees like a shelf. They are also called bracket fungi. I noted several kinds: tinder, birch polypores, artist conch and turkey tail fungi with concentric circles. These were no surprise and may last for years on their selected woody sites. Continuing the walk, I also found a few jelly fungi, largely dried up now, waiting for some autumn rains. And on a downed log, among the mosses, was a growth of eyelash fungus. This tiny delightful reddish-orange growth is surrounded by black hair, hence the name. Here too were clusters of puffballs.

Growing as small spheres, about the size and shape of golf balls, they do not resemble mushrooms at all, but they are more closely related than they appear to be. Puffballs get their name from the fact that these fungal growths of brown and gray form their reproductive spores within the body and then when ripe, the top of these clustered global growths split open and the spores get released, often in a big puff of “smoke.” When mature, the fungus is ready to release its spores and it may be only a drop of rain, a tree branch hitting or a footstep to cause this puff.

All summer this cluster of puffballs was growing on the rotten wood of a downed dead birch log. They grew as a tight group, each supported by a stem that gave these puffballs a pear-like appearance; they are sometimes called pear-shaped puffballs. Their nutrition was the decay matter of this log. Before maturing, the ball-shaped fungi grow their reproductive spores on the inside. And though they do not look like mushrooms, the spores are formed in a similar way as mushrooms. When they have matured, they are ready to get released into the air and drift in the breeze. As usually happens with fungi, most of the numerous spores do not grow, but enough do to keep puffballs common in the Northland forests.

Growing here, puffballs are hardy and are able to survive the winter. The recent snow cover that ended the days of AutWin does not bother the puffballs. Mature spores will continue to be released all winter and these clustered puffballs will stay on this log either above or below the snowpack throughout the cold season. Viable spores may still be released in spring. And I expect that walking here next summer and next fall, I will see puffballs again.

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