Living in America: Part 3, The Fruited Plain

[Apologies, readers, for once again enduring an exceptionally long, drawn-out absence in the middle of multiple post series. This is nothing new for SYDKAB, and it’s perhaps not all that surprising considering since 2012, I’ve moved to Hawai`i, started grad school, came to terms with going a different route within grad school, finished grad school, moved BACK to the mainland, gotten engaged, attempted to kick off a freelance career, and settled in a location to prepare for the birth of my first child. Here’s hoping things are a little more stable from this point out.]

This entry is Part 3 in a three-part series on organisms found in the United States in celebration of the country’s 240th birthday. Part 1, which featured some of the U.S.’s less widely-familiar vertebrate inhabitants, can be found here. Part 2 addressed a number of invertebrate species, which can be read here. This entry will go over some of the non-animal organisms that call the U.S. home, in particular, fungi and plants.

Not every life form in the USA bellows, sprints, or slinks its way across the landscape. Animals are great and all, but there is an entire world of organisms that silently spend their lives growing up from their anchored position in our sweet, sanctimonious soil, and they are no less important to the American wilderness. I’m of course talking about those multicellular cousins of the animal kingdom: fungi and plants. These organisms are far more than just idyllic backdrops for the charismatic, ambulatory stars of America’s natural history pageant, and the intricacies of their biology and diversity exceed the scope of existing in “amber waves”, or simply playing a part as filling for an insufferably Yankee Doodle dessert.

The United States is gifted with an exceptionally diverse set of biomes and ecosystems, meaning that within its borders, there are a remarkable number of species of flora….a great of them endemic to tiny, ultra-specific locations. An example of one of these local homebodies is pictured at the very top of this post. That sea of flaxen gorgeousness is made up of common monolopia (Monolopia lanceolata), a flower found in a variety of habitats from California’s Bay Area, south to the San Diego/Riverside part of the state. There are actually several species of Monolopia, and all of them are endemic to the Golden State. Appropriately enough, Monolopia is somewhat closely related to the greenswords and silverswords of Hawai`i, another set of unique plants endemic to the United States (and a remarkable example of what happens on isolated islands when evolution is given the “solitary confinement” treatment). These unassuming, attractive, yellow flowers are just the tip of the iceberg of the U.S.’s floral diversity, and included below is a small sampling of some particularly interesting stationary denizens:

Ascomycete fungi

Fungi (specifically, members of the kingdom Fungi) range from massive, tangled networks of cells (sometimes big enough to match the square area of a small town, and the mass of hundreds of whales), to initiators of the ruination of bread and fruit, to microscopic entities that we inhale shitloads of daily without even batting an eye. The varieties you are most likely to see on a hike in some local woods, or sprouting up out of some soggy bark mulch—the ones big enough to notice with your naked eye—these fungi make up the subkingdom of Dikarya. Dikarya breaks into two divisions, and one of these divisions is Ascomycota, the largest grouping of fungi on the planet with more than 60,000 known species. Ascomycetes are commonly called “sac fungi”, and no, giggling 7th grade boys snickering in the back of the room, it’s not because they look like testicles. The “sac” refers to the way in which these fungi reproduce; they make long, cylindrical cells that are loaded with spores in single file, which then bust open and free the spores to the outside world. Basically, the structure is like a microscopic condom filled with gumballs. And yes, again, children in the back of the room, I did say ‘condom.’ Ascomycetes are pretty goddamned amazing, considering they’re responsible for the existence of beer, wine, and bread, fancy, tasty mushrooms, and a drug that can cure you of a disease that melts your face and makes you psychotic.

The brilliantly-colored orb above is the fruiting body of the crimson cup (Sarcoscypha dudleyi), this post’s American representative for ascomycete fungi. Most of the fungi can’t be seen, as it exists as a fine tangle of white threads called hyphae that crisscross and invade the dead wood from within. The mycelium—made up of this burrowing hyphae—do the eating and degrading of the wood, growing and infiltrating every crack and crevice. The “mushroom” you can actually see is the fruiting body, a structure that produces the spore-generating cells, and disseminates the spores out into the world. They’re sort of like an open-air uterus, sending out legions of microscopic, dust-like progeny. For crimson cups, the fruiting bodies tend to appear in the spring on sweet, delicious, rotting basswood, a common deciduous tree in eastern North America and Europe.
Sarcoscypha comes from the Greek ‘sarco’ meaning flesh and ‘skyphos’ meaning drinking bowl, and indeed, they look a little like the dishware Ed Gein would fashion. There are more than a dozen species in the genus, and they all generally look a little like the worst case of cauliflower ear you’ve ever seen, and are named some variant of “scarlet/crimson” or “elfin” cup. They are found worldwide in a wide array of moist environments, both temperate and tropical, but most are found in the Northern Hemisphere. The crimson cup appears to be mostly restricted to the eastern U.S., although there is a single record of it popping up in Bulgaria. It seems not likely that the natural range of the crimson cup includes Eastern Europe. Rather, it was probably introduced there….somehow….*eyes humanity with suspicion*

Basidiomycete fungi

Basidiomycetes make up the other big arm of the Dikarya group of fungi, pairing with ascomycetes in the category of decently-sized, fruiting body making thingies. The division of Basidiomycota differs from Ascomycota in a number of ways, but one of the most fundamental is the way in which the spores are produced: on a “basidium”, which is a little dangly, club-shaped cell that makes four spores on one end that hang on like dingleberries, making it look like a faceless cartoon ghost wearing a crown. No sacs here, just the dumpy, royalty version of Casper. Basidiomycetes are about half as diverse as ascomycetes, with some 31,000 species. Basically all the “mushrooms” that normally come to mind belong to this group, and while the U.S. has countless examples within its borders, none are likely as spectacular as the noble polypore (Bridgeoporus nobilissimus), shown above.

The noble polypore is possibly a true endemic of the United States. It’s been found in a handful of locations in the Pacific Northwest, all in lush, temperate rainforest habitats: far northern California’s redwood forests, the Oregon Cascades and Coast Range, and Washington’s rugged Olympic Peninsula, to name a few. The fungi is only very rarely seen in these wet, western forests, and it wasn’t even described to science until the 1940s, which seems unbelievable when you realize that the noble polypore makes a fruiting body as big as a fucking NFL lineman. Yes, some of the biggest ‘shrooms this species puts out can be nearly 300 pounds of humongous fungus, rising from the base of the firs and hemlocks it associates with like a zombie coffee table angrily bursting out of its shallow grave. The fruiting body of the noble polypore is the largest in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the largest in the world, only beaten out by a 600 pound European fungus—Rigidoporus ulmariusand a Chinese species that can get larger than a concert grand piano.

The noble polypore is a giant variety of “conk”, which are fungi that make fruiting bodies that are tough and rigid, and sprout out of the decaying or parasitized wood at right angles, looking like someone made a run for wall shelves at IKEA and installed them all over the forest. However, not all polypores (members of the family Polyporaceae) are “conks” or “bracket fungi”; the hard, woody, shelf-like structure is just a particular form a fruiting body might take, and it isn’t all that tied to evolutionary relatedness. Some polypores are soft and fleshy, and almost indistinguishable from typical toadstools. The noble polypore itself doesn’t make a fully stony structure as its fruiting body. When you get close up, much of the underside of the “shelf” is covered in a thick, silky, faux fur-like integument that makes the ginormous fungal brick before you look like someone put a wheelbarrow of Furbies in a trash compactor and dumped the resulting abomination out on Forest Service land. For this reason, “noble polypore” is definitely Bridgeoporus nobilissimus’s most dignified common name. This species is sometimes called a “fuzzy pizza”, which is a word pairing that possesses the rare and unforgivable power of making a heavenly food like pizza sound absolutely, dismayingly revolting. Even worse is “fuzzy Sandozi”, which sounds like an obscure sex act involving pubic hair trimmings, a lint roller, and a shirtless bathroom attendant with a bushy mustache and a bad cough.

Because the biggest and furriest of pizzas *cringe* is not commonly encountered, scientists don’t have a good idea of what its life cycle is like, or how threatened it may be. It does appear to be dependent on healthy forest with lots of decaying matter, and it’s possible it can take many, many years of growing while not being disturbed before it produces a fruiting body…giant or not. That would be a bit of problem in the face of, say, logging operations, which—while heavily reduced these days—still occur all over the Pacific Northwest.

Seedless Plant

Most of the plants you’ll see walking around outside are seed-producing plants. However, the first vascular (as opposed to primitive plants with no vascular, water/food-transporting tissues, like mosses and liverworts) land plants to evolve did not make seeds, and instead reproduced with spores. Today, seedless plants include things like ferns and horsetails, which are generally shorter than waist height, although at one time, hundreds of millions of years ago, many species grew large enough to create towering, primordial forests. There are a few holdovers from that time still kicking around in the age of tweets and fidget spinners. These are tree ferns, plants in the order Cyatheales, which can grow to thirty or forty feet tall in some cases, with great fronds suspended by a straight, fibrous “trunk.” Proper tree ferns are almost entirely native to the Southern Hemisphere, with a handful of exceptions in some Oceanic islands and southern Europe. One of the Pacific island locales that hosts a few endemic tree ferns is the State of Hawai`i.

While there are a few species of native tree fern found in the Hawaiian Islands (all members of the genus Cibotium)—where they are collectively called hapu’u i’i—the largest by a wide margin is Cibotium menziesii. The Hawaiian tree fern can grow three stories tall, but is more often between the height of a tall human and the bottom of a freeway overpass. They grow on the rainy windward side of all the main Hawaiian islands, hugging places with lots of surface water and humid air, like deep, creek-cut rainforest canyons and gulleys. Having lived in Hawai`i for a few years, and hiked on a few islands, I have seen these plants up close more than a few times, and the “tree” part of their name is no exaggeration. These ain’t anything like the dinky low-light houseplant you’ve got parked in the corner of your living room. For a sense of scale, the photo below is of my five-foot four-inch fiancée hiking on the Kilauea Iki Trail in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island back in the spring of 2015; the Cibotium (not positive what species) tree ferns in the photo are “small.”

Hapu’u i’i trunks have an edible and somewhat nutritious, starchy pith, which native Hawaiians would cook and consume in times of food shortage. Of course, this same energy-rich core is tempting to the eager noses and ever-ravenous guts of the introduced, feral pigs that ravage native plants across all islands. Feral pigs can and will utterly destroy hapu’i i’i in an attempt to rip out and snarf down the precious innards of their trunks. These native tree ferns are also slowly getting booted off the islands by the spread of introduced ornamental tree ferns from Australia. Thus, the story of hapu’u i’i is the same as everything else endemic to the archipelago: unyielding, depressing usurpation.

Gymnosperm

Gymnosperms (which I have written about at length here) are vascular plants that make seeds, but don’t have flowers. Gymnosperms had their heyday during the Mesozoic, when dinosaurs strode across the landscape. These plants fertilize each other using pollen, but the process is often wind-driven, and not facilitated by buzzy pollinators drawn to the reward of nectar. They don’t produce “fruit” technically, but can sometimes encase seeds in structures meant to protect or spread them. There are plenty of gymnosperms around today, of course, most familiarly in the form of conifers like pines, firs, and spruces. The U.S. has quite a large number of gymnosperms found only within the country’s borders, and often times the range is a tiny, isolated little region.

This is the case for the California torreya (Torreya californica), found only in a smattering of small areas in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, and a few locations in the Californian Coast Ranges north of the Bay Area, and little bit near Monterey and Big Sur. It’s the tallest Torreya species, sometimes reaching more than 80 feet in height. There are only several Torreya species total, and the majority of them are native to Asia, but a couple are found in the U.S. Torreya are sometimes called “nutmeg yews”, partially in reference for their closest relatives the yews, with which they share their taxonomic family, and partially due to the nutmeg-like nuts that form around fertilized seeds. A species of Torreya native to Japan and South Korea called ‘kaya’ has edible nuts, as does the California torreya, but this is not a trait shared by several other species.

California torreya is a weird conifer, with a spotty, limited geographic distribution that makes it fairly vulnerable to being wiped out by human activity. It doesn’t even have the advantage of being exceptionally valuable lumber or something. It’s occasionally planted as an oddity and an ornamental, or harvested as knock off raw materials for making Go boards when the traditional and coveted kaya wood isn’t available. But outside of that, it’s a representative of an oddball group of plants long past the peak of their diversity and ecological relevance. That said, the California torreya is in a better place than its nearest cousin geographically speaking, Torreya taxifolia, which is critically endangered, reduced to scrapping it out along a few miles of the Apalachicola River on the Florida Panhandle. The entire species is found within the borders of Torreya State Park and a couple nearby nature preserves, is made up of mostly immature trees no taller than a person, and typically goes by the decidedly unflattering name of “stinking cedar”, which is not even fair, because 1) it’s not a damn cedar, and 2) can’t afford deodorant, assholes. It’s also sometimes called “gopher wood”, which sounds like a horrifying and devious state of penile arousal only possible in the sweaty land of id that is the State of Florida. The California torreya’s floundering Floridian cousin is also faced with inevitable extinction in the wild, with less than a dozen plants currently capable of reproduction following a catastrophic fungal blight which nearly obliterated the plant in a single go.

Angiosperm

Unless you eat a shitload of pine nuts and fiddleheads, just about every plant you eat is some variety of angiosperm. These are the flowering plants; plants that bear flowers and make fruit that envelop their seeds. Angiosperms came onto the scene during the butt end of the age of dinosaurs, and they’ve been a huge hit ever since. While the number of U.S. angiosperm species is astronomically high, there are few that I can safely call my favorites (not to their faces, of course).

An example is the sweet pinesap, or pygmy pipe (Monotropsis odorata). It’s a true ‘murican, found only in Coal Country up in the Appalachian Mountains, and occasionally in lowland areas in Florida and Maryland. Their species name, “odorata”, refers to their fragrance when their flowers are in bloom, which is apparently smells like the goddamn Yankee Candle corner of a Bed Bath & Beyond, ranging from violet scent, to cinnamon, to nutmeg.

The pygmy pipe is the only living member of its genus, although it has plenty of more distant relatives; other “monotropes” in the heath subfamily Monotropoideae. Yep, that droopy sprig of what strongly resembles a few inches of dying asparagus is allied with things like blueberries and azaleas. Monotropes all have one key thing in common: they’re shameless parasites. Specifically, they are what is known as “mycoheterotrophs”, which means they get all their nutrients by sucking off the fungi that, in turn, are interacting in a more mutually beneficial manner with the roots of certain forest plants. Because monotropes steal everything they need from fungi, they lack pigments like chlorophyll entirely, giving them an unsettling, anemic complexion compared to their heath relatives. Yes, much like the trope of the Internet troll living in their parent’s basements, pygmy pipes and other monotropes are pale, flabby mockeries of their peers, wholly dependent on the hard work of other organisms.

Image credits: Monolopia field, crimson cup, noble polypore, Hawaiian tree fern, California torreya (W. Mark and J. Reimer), pygmy pipes (Jim Fowler)

© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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