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Puffballs remain on logs in the woods

A cluster of mature puffballs on a downed log. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A close look at the puffballs. Note the stem, giving them a pear shape.2 / 2

The AutWin (autumn-winter) time in the Northland began with a thunderstorm on the night of Oct. 16-17, when wind and rain brought down the leaves. But afterward the weather was very dry, until the recent rain and snow.

From Oct. 17 to Nov. 17, the National Weather Service in Duluth recorded only about 0.2 inches of rain, 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 being typically called "gray November," the month gave us many sunlit days and clear nights, including the "super full moon" of Nov. 13-14. One remarkable series of 10 days was Nov. 4-13, when 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.

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'm out here today in search of more. The days have been warm enough for mushrooms but with all this dryness, they are not to be found. As I search the woods for them, I do not locate any mushrooms, but I do make plenty of fall fungal finds.

Easiest to see are 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 note several kinds: tinder, birch polypores, artist conch and turkey tail fungi with concentric circles. These are no surprise and may last for years on their selected woody sites.

Continuing the walk, I also find a few jelly fungi, largely dried up now and waiting for some autumn rains. And on a downed log, among the mosses, is a growth of eyelash fungus. This tiny delightful reddish-orange growth is surrounded by black hair, hence the name. Here, too, are clusters of puffballs.

Growing as brown and gray spheres about the size and shape of golf balls, they do not resemble mushrooms at all, but are more closely related than they appear to be. Puffballs get their name from the fact that they form their reproductive spores within the body; 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. 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 decayed matter of this log.

Though they do not look like mushrooms, the spores are formed in a way similar to mushrooms. When they have matured, they are ready to get released into the air and drift in the breeze. As what 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 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.

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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