Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Grass IS Growing Under Our Feet

It is!  I checked.  Yesterday, desperate to see something green out here just off the one-lane road, I dug down through the ice and snow and burrowed under a small log.  There they were!  Green, vibrant --albeit tiny--blades of grass, letting me know that they, and I, are still alive after winter's rage!
As we look out on a landscape of unrelieved whiteness, it's hard to remember that things are working as they should be.  We long for the sight of something green, something yellow, something gaudy...something besides the tedium of white. 

But winter is for regrouping, reorganizing and just as much so for plants, even as they continue to grow beneath the surface of the deep cold.  They are gathering strength for the coming season.  Many will lie dormant for months well after winter has released its grip in response to nature's metronome.

The world of non-flowering plants is especially fascinating and includes some of the most interesting but poorly understood individuals of the plant world.  Lichens, for example, are the pioneer plants that convert weathered rock into soil, yet we hardly notice them.

We treasure the edible fungi.  And we are curious about other species we know to be deadly.  There are more than 350,000 plant species that can be labeled as non-flowering.  About one third reproduces without bearing flowers.  Included in this humble and majestic group are the lichens, algae, fungi, mosses, liverworts, and hornworts, ferns, and conifers, to name just a few.  They range from microscopic to the largest of all trees, the Sequoias.

One of my favorite fungi are the puffballs which we find in the meadow come fall.  These are the ones you kicked as a kid, just to watch them "puff" out great smokey clouds of black spores into the air.  When they first emerge, though, they are solid, pure white inside and....delicious!  It's such a surprise because seemingly overnight, they appear in the pasture and they are often huge!  The photo shows a puffball I harvested (and ate!)(yes, I'm still here!)with a quarter beside it to give an idea of size.

Another edible and very popular group of fungi in this region (for those who know how to harvest them) are morels.  These are found in the spring in open woods and along stream banks.  Some mushrooms are quite easy to cultivate like these Oyster mushrooms.  Shitakes which are cultivated on oak logs, are highly prized, as well.

Lichens grow where other plants don't:  on rocks.  We used to have a huge patch of "elephant ear" lichens on a group of limestone rocks at the back of our property, but I would have to imagine that deer eventually ate it because it's no long there.  They were--as their name would indicate--huge.  Lichens are also found on tree trunks, logs, sand and bare soil, as is moss, which is a whole 'nother subject unto itself.  We'll explore that one of these days!

Simple building blocks of our environment, we pay scant attention to them.  Sometimes it's rewarding to re-focus and "see" in another way, perhaps look in a different direction, and open our eyes to new realms of wonder.


  1. Ahh, the lovely lichens, one of my favorite niches in the natural world. Looking for wildflowers once with an old professor of botany, she informed me that some of the most miniscule forms around us were also the oldest in the forest. A rock lichen might be growing as slowly as 1mm/yr, taking over 200 years to become an inch across, watching massive trees rise and fall in its lifespan. Lichens are of course a partnership of a fungus that roots it and an algae that feeds the fungus. Perhaps the fungal action on the substrate also feeds the algae, but it mainly has its own photosynthesis going on using the fungal platform.

    I love the wallpapering they create on tree trunks, especially the smooth barked characters like beech and gingko. The latter survive many tough urban conditions, but if there’s much air pollution, the lichens refuse to grow there, a dire meter on a city’s air quality. Keep cleaning us up, Elora thanks chris

  2. I think I might prefer the tedium of white to the tedium of grey that is the British winter but anything that lasts without change would be tediuos. The anticipation of change and the pleasure in spotting the first small signs are big factors in the joy of living an outdoor life.