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May fungi grows among the spring wildflowers

A growth of yellow "witch's butter" jelly fungus on a tree branch in May. (Photo by Larry Weber)

As we get further into May, walking in the woods is one of constant discoveries. Often our eyes are kept on the trees to locate and take a closer look at the newly arrived migrants. Songbird migrants have been with us for several weeks already: robins, blackbirds, grackles, sparrows and phoebes. But now in this warming and greening month, I seek more returnees.

Each spring the Northland is host to 26 species of warblers, making this region one of the best places in the country to observe the diversity of these small, quick-moving birds. This year I recorded the first, a yellow-rumped warbler, on April 10, a bit earlier than normal. I expected it would be followed by more of their kinds.

But with the return of cool weather this lone warbler species was all I saw for about three weeks. In their northing flight, May is the warbler month and most years a woods walk becomes a warbler walk. And with the coming of May, I have been able to see other kinds. They are not alone and with these active birds, I also note the presence of thrushes and maybe a few vireos and grosbeaks. Soon orioles, more flycatchers and even the diminutive hummingbirds will be here, too.

Though much is going on among these birds flitting through the branches, so there is an abundance of happenings on the forest floor. During the first half of May, the leaves have not yet formed on the trees overhead and the sunlight penetrates all the way through.

This unique time slot is used by the flowering plants that grow here. Taking advantage of this light and warmth, they develop stems and leaves in the few inches above the ground and quickly open their blossoms to get the attention of early spring bees and flies. This is the time to walk in the woods to see these fast-growing and flowering plants; there's news each day. Many of these spring wildflowers are called ephemerals, meaning a short life, and by summer it will look like they never were here. But now they are and in huge numbers and diversity.

While taking a recent walk on a sunny day, I found the white hepaticas and bloodroots, pink spring beauties and nearby in a wet site, yellow marsh marigolds were blooming. Though not flowering, I also found many other plants: ginger, anemone, violets, trout-lilies, bellworts and trilliums. All will soon be flowering; their pace is fast now. With shady days soon to cover this whole space, they grow and bloom rapidly, always more to see.

As I walked here looking at the spring wildflowers, I found that there is more going on and growing in the soil under the forest trees. The new branches and leaves of ferns, called fiddleheads, are emerging from the ground. Newly-formed fronds (fern leaves) unroll in a shape of a scroll on a violin, a fiddlehead. They also grow rapidly and tall, taking over the forest floor during the summer, but now they appear quite small.

With all of this greening on the ground here, it was quite a sight to find something that was bright red. But here it was, a circular red growth on the soil in the midst of the rotting leaves. Getting down for a closer look, I was able to determine that it is a fungus known as scarlet cup. Cup fungi is not that rare in the Northland forests, but that which does grow here tends to be more gray or brown and more likely seen in summer and fall. This is about the only cup fungus to appear in spring. Indeed, May with all of its growth is mostly devoid of any fungi. But there are a few that we may see.

Best known of these "May mushrooms" is the morel, present but not common in our woods. Its cousin, the false morel, is bulkier, darker and more likely for us to find at this time.

Fungi is highly influenced by moisture and with the rains of late April, I was able to locate another spring fungus. This one was not on the ground, but grew on tree branches and looked quite slimy and jelly-like; it is called a jelly fungus. This particular jelly was yellow and therefore has been given the unusual name of "witch's butter."

Though we are not likely to pick and eat either, I find these red scarlet cups and the yellow witch's butter as delightful additions to the May woods.

Soon the flowers will proliferate and fade, ferns and blossoms on the trees will appear and the woods will leaf out and bring shade. But fungi will be with us all through the coming seasons. It begins now with a few colorful and different May fungi.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

A red scarlet cup fungus grows on the forest floor among the spring wildflowers. (Photo by Larry Weber)

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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