Thursday, October 28, 2010

Haunted Horticulture V - Jack-o-Lantern Mushroom

By Noah Siegel (Amanita virosa) (Omphalotus olearius (DC.) Singer (33857)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This week's blog was written by guest blogger Dustin H. Purcell, MS.  Dustin is a Mycologist/Plant Pathologist who studied at the University of Florida.  Many thanks to Dustin for his eerie contribution!

If you ever come across glowing toadstools in the woods, do not be alarmed. You are not imagining things or having an alien encounter. You are one of the few to have observed the bioluminescent (light generating) jack-o-lantern mushroom in person. It earned this name not only because of the spooky iridescent glow it emits but also because of the large clusters of pumpkin-orange mushrooms it produces. They grow on rotting logs and buried stumps and can be found in Florida sporadically throughout the year following rains… unfortunately, due to this year’s very dry October, you are not likely to find any this Halloween.

By Noah Siegel (Amanita virosa) (Omphalotus olearius (DC.) Singer (33856)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Like all mushrooms, this is a fungus and not a plant. Mycologists (scientists who study fungi) have named it Omphalotus olearius, though older field guides may call it Omphalotus illudens or Clitocybe illudens. It is relatively common in wooded areas throughout the southeast: You may have even seen its pumpkin-like masses of mushrooms during the day. However, few have witnessed its jack-o-lantern-like glow. The light is produced very dimly and requires the right combination of total darkness, a healthy growing mushroom, and eyes that are well adjusted to the dark… However, photographers easily capture their eerie green light on film using long exposures to magnify the intensity of this bioluminescent phenomenon. Many Pinellas county residents have witnessed two other bioluminescent phenomena that our area has to offer: fireflies (also called lightning bugs) and the phosphorescent glow of plankton in our warm coastal waters. If you’d like to add the jack o’lantern mushroom to the list of glowing creatures that you’ve seen, you have two options:

1. Wander without a flashlight through a wet forest on a dark moonless night far away from the light pollution of the city while hoping to see glowing toadstools, or

2. Keep your eyes peeled for a pumpkin-looking cluster of mushrooms in your yard and neighborhood

I would be a little reluctant to take option 1, especially on Halloween night. While not nearly as spooky, option 2 still may not be an easy task. Mushrooms, even glowing ones, can be very difficult to identify. Dr. James Kimbrough, a mycologist at the University of Florida, has written a field guide called Common Mushrooms of Florida that can help with the identification. Unless you have access to a mushroom expert, this IFAS book (or another good mushroom field guide) is probably your best bet. Once you find some, I’m told that you can collect them, wrap them in some moist (not soggy wet) paper towels to keep them from drying out, and take them into a dark closet to behold the spectacle of their eerie jack o’lantern glow.

In case you were wondering, this mushroom is poisonous! It is never recommended to eat mushrooms, except those found in the grocery store or farmers’ market… The chance of misidentification is too high, and the risks are too great… But there’s no reason to be scared of wild mushrooms (after all, they are a neat little bonus in the landscape), just don’t eat them.

IFAS Extension Bookstore link for Dr. Kimbrough’s book.
Firefly link.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Haunted Horticulture IV - Alien Invaders!

There is an alien invader taking over Florida land as we speak. It creeps slowly across the landscape right in front of us. It spreads with the help of birds, small mammals, and unsuspecting homeowners. Wherever the alien goes it chokes out native habitats to establish strongholds of its own kind. Even more sinister, just touching this alien can be dangerous for some people. What is this strange invader?

The name of this alien invader is Brazilian pepper, Schinus terebinthifolius.

The plant was introduced to Florida in the mid 1800s as an ornamental plant. It has since taken over and continues to spread and destroy natural habitats in Florida. If that wasn’t enough to prove to you what a nasty plant this is, it’s also a member of the same plant family as poison ivy. Yes, that means that contact with the plant may cause a rash or irritation. Some people experience respiratory irritation while it’s in bloom, from late summer through November. You may see them in bloom right now.
Now that you know this alien invasion is taking place, you can help stop it! If you have a Brazilian pepper- remove it! Don’t think you can control it. Birds will eat those seeds and they will disperse them far and wide once they digest and pass them. Helping control the spread of these alien invader plants is one of the many ways you can help protect Florida’s unique ecosystems.

Click here for more information.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Haunted Horticulture III - BATS!

No Halloween is complete without a terrifying bat, right? But bats should not be feared- they provide many beneficial services. Hollywood has long pushed the image of the vampire bat that sucks human blood. This is not an accurate portrayal of bats at all. In fact, only 3 out of the more than 1,100 species of bats consume blood. Those that do consume blood, lap it up from small cuts in the animal- not by sucking the blood at all. Moreover, the typical victims are livestock that don’t even seem to notice these bats. If you are still worried, relax- these kinds of bats are only found in Central and South America.

The bats that are common in Florida are actually quite beneficial. Many of them eat insects- and we know how much insect control help we need here. One bat can eat thousands of insects in just one night! Furthermore, their droppings, known as guano, are a nitrogen rich organic fertilizer. In the tropics there are bats that help with seed dispersal and pollination too.

What’s even more exciting about bats is that they are the only mammal that can truly fly. It is a common misconception that bats are “flying rats”, when in fact they are believed to be more closely related to monkeys. (Note: although flying monkeys may conjure up frightful images of their own, do not be alarmed.)

Bat populations in Florida are on the decline, mainly from habitat destruction, but our use of pesticides has reduced their food source as well. Click here if you would like to learn more about building your own bat habitat.  Of course, you want to avoid having them roost in your attic. They can cause unpleasant odors and frightful sounds, so be sure to seal all holes and gaps on the exterior of your home. Click here for more information on bat proofing you home.

Some other useful bat links:

Conservation of Bats in Florida:

Friday, October 8, 2010

Haunted Horticulture II - Huntsman Spider

Seeing one of these spiders in your house would be pretty scary, right? The huntsman spider, Heteropoda venatoria, is a spider that does not use webs to ensnare its prey. The huntsman relies on speed, strong mouthparts, and poison injection of their victims. Even scarier right? Only if you are a cockroach! That’s right, this scary looking, rather large arachnid (3-5” leg span!) is actually a helpful predator of cockroaches and other home-invading pests.

The huntsman is a tropical species, and while it is not a native of Florida, our warm climate has allowed them to become established in south Florida and they are seen throughout the southeastern U.S. It has adapted to human environments and is often found in homes or sheds. If you are so inclined you can hunt for the huntsman outside at night as well. If a light is shined on them their eyes reflect that light and look like blue spots in the darkness. Spooky.

Even though it looks pretty intimidating, the huntsman is not a dangerous spider- but it will give a painful bite, so I would refrain from playing with one.

Click here for more information.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Haunted Horticulture I - Carrion Flower

Carrion Flower (Stapelia gigantea)

Carrion flower is also known as the giant toad flower or the dead horse plant.  The flower blooms this time of year and smells like carrion- the carcass of a dead animal.  Spooky, isn’t it?  The flower attracts blow-flies which in turn pollinate the plant.  The plant itself resembles a cactus with spineless stems.  Carrion flower likes sun and a moderate amount of water in a well-drained soil.  This plant can be propagated by cuttings in the spring.  Due to the smell of the blooms I recommend growing this outside.  These photos were taken this morning at the Floida Botanical Gardens.