Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sandra's Garden: The saddles are here, but the Dryads are missing

Species name: Polyporus squamosus

Common name: Dryad's saddle

Location: Sandra's garden

I'm a bit late for Fungus Friday and Shroom Saturday, but I'm just in time for Sunday Fungday (I just made that last one up)! So here's a mushroom post since I haven't done one in a while, and it fits right into the blog theme of "Stuff in Sandra's garden".

One thing I love about Sandra's philosophy to gardening is "if it grows or visits and I like it, it stays" and this idea is applied to literally everything in the garden from visiting neighbourhood cats to mushrooms growing on trees or in the soil. There's apparently a yearly bloom of earth stars (you can read about the ones I found in my garden HERE; these are usually fall or late summer fruiting fungi), and this colony of Dryad's saddle has been fruiting on half a dead tree for a while now. And who wouldn't want to keep this beautiful fungus around?! One absolutely fascinating thing to watch when it comes to the Dryad saddle is the release of spores. You have to wait until it's a sunny day with just a light breeze in the late spring or early summer. Park yourself in a chair (or on the ground) with a good view of the underside of this fungus and watch the show. Trillions of spores will be released from the pores on the underside of the fungus into the wind, and you can literally watch them blow away in a swirling cloud of (what looks like) smoke. I've only seen it once, but it was definitely a sight to behold.

The Dryad's saddle is a great example of a fungus that we believe very strongly to be a "native North American mushroom" but in all likelihood isn't. This fungus lives for the majority of its life cycle in dead or dying trees where it causes a disease called "white rot". This happens when the fungus releases enzymes from the fungal threads called hyphae that digest lignin in the wood. This is GREAT if you're into making paper; lignin is the number one cause of paper crumbling and yellowing with time. Normally the paper industry uses chemical bleaches to get rid of the lignin and turn the remaining cellulose (the light and fluffy part of the tree; the lignin is like a glue that holds everything else together and hardens significantly with age) white, but this fungus does it all on its own. Unfortunately for you, this also weakens the tree enough that it will likely collapse under its own weight or get blown over in a wind storm. If you're a crafty person though this could be a great source of inspiration and raw materials; well-rotted white rot trees are PERFECT for making your own paper. Take the squishy, sponge-like white rot and put it in a pot with plenty of water. Put it on the stove and cook, cook, cook. After it's literally mush, pass through a strainer to remove a lot of the water, put it in a food processor or blender, and blend to further break up the fibres. Once blended, pour a bit of your pulp over a screen with a wood frame submerged in some warm water to "block" the paper, pull straight up out of the water to set the pulp, press with a finer mesh screen to extract as much water as you can, then set in an oven on very low heat (as low as it can go; you don't want to be burning your house down!) for a few hours to dry. Once most of the moisture is gone, carefully peel off the screens and hang in the sun to completely dry. Voila! Paper. You can add some pretty things like small leaves or scented plant products to give your paper some extra oomph (lavender and rosemary work really well!), or some dried or fresh flowers (and who doesn't have an over-abundance of pansies at this time of year?). If this sounds easy and idiot-proof, you would be correct. Making your own paper is fun and easy, once you get the hang of it. And there are so many possibilities for thickness, colour, texture, shape, could spend your whole life just making paper every day! The paper-making industry is slowly starting to take note of "natural" ways to make paper; fungi like Dryad's saddle and other white rot fungi are currently being looked at as a natural means of ridding wood pulp of lignin and naturally bleaching the wood fibres before the paper is made. Perhaps one day we'll start seeing paper products advertised as 100% free of chemicals in the paper itself as well as the pulp production process. See?! Fungi are cool! As a side note, the same process outlined above can be used on the mushroom itself; different species of Polyporus have been used for centuries to make a cardboard-like paper.

Back on topic, the Dryad's saddle probably isn't native because of the type of hosts you most likely find this fungus on. Most of the trees it prefers to rot are European trees. If this was a truly parasitic fungus than you would expect to see that kind of relationship; a good example of this is the European Dutch Elm disease that is killing all of the North American elm trees. Since this isn't a parasitic fungus but rather an opportunistic rotter (something has to have already come along and weakened the tree in order for this fungus to colonize the wood; if there are no appropriate trees like that around it will exist solely on dead logs) it would prefer the wood of the trees it "grew up" or evolved with. This leads me to believe this is a European fungus that probably arrived very, very early in human colonization and has been here ever since. The other possibility is that this really is a North American fungus, and what is found in Europe is a completely different species. Both options are pretty common stories in the fungus world once a population-level analysis is done with special genes called microsatellites.

Apparently this mushroom is edible. To me it would be like eating cardboard, but when it's young you can slice off the edges of the fungus and fry them in bacon grease to get fried Dryad's saddle. To me, this is essentially making a mushroom taste like bacon, and who doesn't like bacon? You could make almost anything edible by frying it in bacon grease. Cooking it on its own sounds like you would end up being mighty disappointed with the results. If you have ever cooked up this mushroom and liked the taste and texture, let me know! I'd be interested in hearing about it and whether it was as uneventful as I'm imagining it would be.

Happy Father's Day to all you dads out there!