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critters

Are you tired of mushrooms yet?

You’re kidding, right?

We continue the amazing mushroom walk that happened after a Great Big Rain not so long ago …

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For a while, no new shrooms showed up. I looked in all the usual places, like this rich, red leaf litter beneath a north-facing wall. I wonder what cool critters live under there?

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No mushrooms here, but wow, what a cool composition of rock, moss, and organic debris!

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It was not until after I passed the school that the grove of trees in front of SRI became visible. On the left side of the street, an old, open forest of different kinds of trees, and under them, an unbroken stretch of mature, relatively undisturbed leaf litter.

Just barely visible in far left background of the photo above, a tiny row of white dots at the base of a tree. What do you suppose those are? Between here and there, there was much to see.

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Possibly my favorite fungus in this adventure. Dark, ear-like folds with prominent gills, and of course! The obligatory fungus fly, reddish brown, perched daintily on the edge of a cap.

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A pale yellow, wavy-edged wonder and gosh darn if there isn’t another fungus fly!

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A perfect dome, with a delicate translucent edge. No fly this time.

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Who could resist photographing these three little charmers?

Next: more forest floor charmers

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You may recall Elizabeth’s new ecogarden with the redwood rounds, the beehives, and the chickens.

These days we are calling them deep nature gardens, but the project in Elizabeth’s back landscape has continued. There was a break during the summer, partly because this nature garden space is non-irrigated, so not much happens during the dry California summer, and partly because I needed some time to figure out some of the details of the deep nature gardening business.

Changes since our last update include the removal of the walkway made of redwood rounds. Elizabeth sometimes visits the chickens at night, and does not want to risk tripping on the wooden rounds in the dark. Sounds reasonable to me!

Instead, for now we will create a leafy pathway using some of the large fig and persimmon leaves that cover parts of the back yard in autumn. Later we might create a path using crushed shells or small gravel.

Some of the redwood rounds will be used to make pathways into the deeper recesses of the garden.

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Above: During the summer we dug a little rain garden, marked out by the sticks in the photo. A test with a hose spray showed that sure enough, it works! Look at that sweet puddle. To the right of the rain garden is the path to the chicken run, now free of redwood rounds. At the left, under the edge of the fig tree, we have created a low mound using the soil removed from the rain garden. In the foreground is a plum sapling that we want to keep.

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Above: Months have passed, and the rains have come. The rain garden and the low mound have both become covered in a mixed carpet of buttercup oxalis (Oxalis pes-caprae), cutleaf geranium (Geranium dissectum), common chickweed (Stellaria media), and many more kinds of sprouts.

Trees have lost most of their leaves, covering the ground with wonderful-nutrient rich food. In the background, between the rain garden and the persimmon tree, the path to the chicken run is now covered with leaves.

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The lush, green carpet is certainly beautiful, but the highly invasive oxalis is overtopping almost everything else, and if nothing is done it will hamper many interesting kinds of plants that struggle to compete for nutrients and light. So it is now time to do some serious thinning.

The oxalis has deep bulbs, very hard to extract. For this first round of thinning I did not even try to dig down to the bulbs. I simply pulled up everything from the bulb up, by grasping each plant firmly just below the crown with two fingers. If this is done correctly, you end up holding the green plant and a long, tapering, white underground stem. The stem can be as long as a carrot, though it is much thinner. Like all the non-bulb parts of buttercup oxalis, it is edible. Sweet and tangy!

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I worked in a patchwork pattern, focusing especially on the low bank, where some pretty rocks were added during a non-photo visit while it was still summer. I’ve also cleared out part of the basin of the rain garden, leaving behind a few patches for artistic balance.

Because the bulbs are still underground, many of these buttercup oxalis plants will grow back. The new growth will be flatter to the ground, smaller, and easier to pull out. There may be two or even three of these re-sprouts from each bulb, but eventually the bulbs will become exhausted and die.

What about the rest of the oxalis-dominated area? The plan is to continue working in patchwork patterns, clearing one area and then another, always leaving behind any interesting plants that managed to sprout between the oxalis. Discovered in the above clearing operation: miner’s lettuce, groundsel, scarlet pimpernel, and many small sprouts I did not recognize.

Am I worried that the sorrel and other fast-growing plants will get ahead of me? Nope, as long as I keep coming back I can move faster than they can. Look how much I was able to clear in just two hours or so, then consider that it took nature more than three months to grow that carpet of green.

The fig tree in the background above has been pruned so that it is possible to walk underneath — but please, let’s stay on the redwood rounds!

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Above: A closer view of the rain garden and the bank, with a row of rocks holding it up. At the right, redwood rounds lead behind the bank. At the far right, the edge of the leaf-litter zone under the fig tree.

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Last, this view of the far east corner, under the newly pruned fig tree. Big, floppy fig leaves cover the ground, partly smothering the oxalis and other plants trying to grow there. Lots more wait to fall. This is good, we want to create a nice deep layer back there. Any leaves that land on the rain garden or bank will be tossed into the east corner to make it even deeper.

Also in this zone are some irises that need pruning, some old, tangled roses that need shaping, and a very out-of-place palm sapling. That one might have to go. Eventually, it would be nice to add some native shade-loving shrubbery.

It was nice to get back to work in this happy little garden space. Stay tuned for more updates!

We continue our mycological meanderings with the first Boletus encountered…

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It was in a moist, low place among live oak litter. Accompanying it, from the lower right: a seedling of petty spurge, a very tiny winter cress in the shadow of an excellent rotting branch, and an unknown plant at the top.

Boletes have pores underneath instead of gills. The spores float down vertical tubes and out into the air. The caps often have a felty, rough look and decay in wonderful, artistic ways. Many of them turn blue or green when they are bruised. That does not necessarily mean that they are (or aren’t) poisonous!

Something seemed to be glowing in the shadows…

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The photo above does not adequately convey the way the bright white rims of these three stood out. Naturally, there is the seemingly obligatory fungus fly.

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At the base of a tree with beautiful rain-enhanced bark, this neat row of big fleshy mushrooms with wavy caps.

Suddenly… mushroom pay dirt! In a front yard under a very sick, almost completely dead oak tree, an amazing outcrop of fungi.

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At first it seemed like there might be several different kinds, but then the forms merged together: this could all be Armillaria mellea, the honey mushroom, commonly seen emerging from dead or dying wood of many different kinds.

While this fungus might not have been the original reason why the old oak tree is dying, it is certainly making it happen a whole lot faster.

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This young clump emerged from the base of a multi-branched stump. Definitely lignicolous (taking its nutrients from wood). In the lower right of the photo, green leaves of delicate winter cress, closely related to Arabidopsis thaliana, the miniature rock-cress that is so popular among genetic researchers.

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Another sweet young clump, nestled among delightful micro-flora of the forest floor, also emerging from dead oak stems.

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An older clump, fully expanded and just beginning to decay, probably coming from an underground oak root. Note the tasteful white narcissus.

Next: Jackpot!

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After our recent rainy spell I had the opportunity to walk home from a client’s house through a wonderful section of Menlo Park with no sidewalks and lots of old-ish, interesting small ecosystems to explore.

Above is a great example, a front yard with various zones of shrubs and wild-looking areas. Beautiful, no? This comes very close to being a true deep nature garden.

There were many wonderful photos that offered themselves in that diffuse, after-the-storm lighting. They will fuel great future blog posts.

This particular sequence is about the amazing fungi (and two slime molds) that manifested along the way.

This will require several posts, or maybe a few more…

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Above: This was the first one that popped out at me. Mushrooms that get their nutrients from wood are called “lignicolous” and this one certainly is. It’s coming right out of the bark of an old oak tree.

Mushrooms are notoriously hard to identify, which is one reason why it’s such a bad idea to try to collect them yourself for food. There are a few obvious ones like the shaggy mane and the meadow mushroom, but people get in trouble all the time.

Some of these shrooms I can identify right away, some I can pinpoint with some research, and some will forever remain unnamed. Such is the lore of fungi.

What kind is this oak-eating mini-jewel? It’s what we call an “LBM” or “little brown mushroom.” Might be an Armillaria, but its surface looks too rough.

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Scouting eyes soon picked out the next catch, a waxy, wet looking yellow beauty in the deep shade under some old live oaks. See the acorns in the back?

Right there on top, another special find! A fungus fly, magically materialized out of nowhere just to sit serenely atop this amazing shroom.

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Deep in the dark recesses under a huge mass of mixed oak, laurel, and ailanthus: A noble temple of the fungi, fully expanded, shedding millions of spores into the moist air.

The upper right dark spot on the cap is — you guessed it, a fungus fly.

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Beneath a laurel tree was this trio of white parasols. One of them has tilted, probably from its own weight in the soft leaf litter.

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This beautiful domed shroom emerged under a live oak among struggling Vinca and wild strawberry. The striations around the rim reflect the gills underneath. The stem is surrounded by a veil of thin tissue.

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We end this segment with a distinctive purple jewel. If I am right, it’s a blewitt, which is frequently seen around here, especially in the coastal hills.

What a beautiful purple being!

Next: Boletus

You may know that we just had a rather large and exciting storm here in the Bay Area. We usually get one or two like this between Thanksgiving and New Year. This one included a vast amount of rain, some of it applied in huge downpours. Fun!

The deep nature gardens took it all in stride, mostly. There were a few small injuries and other changes.

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Above: This red clover in the upstairs container garden looks a bit beaten down, but it will recover quickly. This container is one of the “old style” boxes that dries out rather fast because it lacks a proper moisture barrier. The clover will do great over the winter now that its deep roots are finally getting enough water from the rains.

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Above: The main garden downstairs is looking very crisp and green. The bright orange flowers of the leonotis bush (at right center) have finally finished, and now they droop all brown and wilted from its branches. Still, they remain noble and beautiful. One of the leaves of a Swiss chard plant (front center) has been knocked down by the heavy rain. You can’t see it in the picture, but recent frosts have killed off the above-ground growth of a lush patch of purslane that was growing near the sidewalk at lower right.

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Above: A favorite wild strawberry plant soaks up some late afternoon sun after nearly a week of dark skies. It opens a cheerful white flower or two and offers its bright fruit. Sweet and delicious!

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Above: This bluish-white lichen on a rock has expanded and soaked up the rain. Right now it is soft and flexible, clearly alive. It grows in these times, when its tissues are moist and vibrant.

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Above: the most obvious damage in the garden is this cherished avocado sapling, which tilts at a windblown angle. Stepping into the center of the garden, keeping my feet on the stepping rocks, I was able to set it back mostly upright with a careful foot down onto its roots. I think it will be fine.

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Above: Another bit of wind damage is this fallen branch. It belonged to a medium size bush, which might be some kind of heath or heather (Calluna or Erica). The fallen branch will hardly be noticed by the vigorous bush from which it fell.

Maybe you can help me identify the shrub. Below, a close look at some of its flowers, along with a little visitor, a hover fly in the family Syrphidae:

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I wonder where the little fly took shelter during the storm?

If butterflies were cars, skippers might be tiny little sports cars. They are very distinctive, with their unique resting pose and hook-tipped antennae.

Skippers are common, flicking around among the flowers almost too quickly to follow. There are many kinds of them, and they can be hard to identify down to species. This one poses on a Swiss chard leaf.

As larvae, many skippers eat grasses, perhaps explaining why they are so common – their food is everywhere! But because their larvae are usually nocturnal, hiding in the grass root zone during the day, they are seldom noticed.

This first one is an unusual variety, not often seen in this garden. I like its dark brown background with yellow dots in a row on each forewing. Like most skippers it perches with its wings open. Does it do this to catch the sun?

Doesn’t it just look fast and active, like it is crouching to flit away?

The second skipper is a much more common variety, very likely the same kind as this one previously featured. It poses for us on a clump of white flowers, probably Bouvardia.

At left, the dark edges of the hindwings show up clearly. Look how streamlined this critter is!

Maybe they aren’t really sports cars.

Maybe they are actually little jets.

This beautiful little wasp poses on an avocado leaf with a fuzzy salvia flower for added color. Yellow and purple and green are so nice together!

This could be a paper wasp in the genus Polistes, possibly the common European paper wasp (P. dominula) but I’m not certain. Her abdomen is a little too yellow, with black stripes too narrow. But there are variants in the species and there are also other kinds of paper wasps.

Paper wasps are some of the most streamlined, beautiful wasps. They are fairly docile unless you mess with them or with their nests. They often appear in this garden among dried stems, using their mandibles to chew off cellulose-rich material for their hanging, cooperative, hex-celled, papery brood homes.

Here’s another post about a beautiful wasp.