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Mushrooms reproduce by making billions of spores that spread and grow into new organisms. You can take advantage of this phenomenon to make a beautiful print on paper.  

How to Make Spore Prints

All you need are some fresh, open mushrooms, paper, and a bowl. You can use mushrooms found growing outside or buy them from the market. When selecting mushrooms for spore prints, look for these things:

  • The cap should be fully open with the gills exposed
  • The gills should look good, not wet and mushy
  • The mushroom should feel slightly moist but not wet; dry mushrooms will not work
  • There shoud not be mold spots on the mushroom
  • They should look like mushrooms you want to eat
PHOTO: Underside of a portabella mushroom.

This portabello mushroom is good for making spore prints.

PHOTO: Shiitake mushroom.

This shiitake mushroom may be a little old—notice the brown spots on the cap’s edges—but should work.

First, you should remove the stems. I use scissors so I don’t pull up or damage any of the gills.

Place the mushrooms with the gill side down on a piece of paper. Mushrooms with dark gills, like portabellos, have dark spores that show up well on white paper. Shiitake mushrooms have white gills and spores that will show up better on black paper. Some mushrooms make both dark and light spore prints.

PHOTO: Mushrooms, gills down, sitting on black construction paper.

These four shiitake mushrooms were placed on black paper. They will be covered with a bowl and then left overnight.

Place the paper on a tray or other surface that can handle something wet sitting on it because moisture from the mushrooms will soak into the paper and anything underneath it. Cover the mushrooms with a bowl to prevent them from drying out. Really ripe mushrooms will make a print in an hour, but I suggest that you leave them overnight to be sure you get results.

In the morning, carefully lift your bowl and the individual mushrooms and see what you get. If the paper absorbed a lot of moisture from the mushrooms, it may need to dry before you see the print very well—especially prints made on black paper. Portabello prints often show well-defined gills. Shiitake gills are not as straight and rigid as portabello gills, so you’ll get less gill definition in the print and a more wavy, swirling print. If your mushrooms are too wet, or are starting to rot, you’ll get more of a watercolor effect instead of a sharp print.

PHOTO: Mushroom spore print.

If all goes well, billions of spores will fall from the mushroom and produce a pattern that resembles the gills on the underside of the cap, like this portabello mushroom print.

PHOTO: Mushroom spore print.

Four shiitake mushrooms leave ghostly impressions on black paper. The swirled edges were made by the uneven surfaces of the mushroom caps.

PHOTO: Mushroom spore print.

The fine lines on this print look like they might have been drawn by an extremely sharp pencil, but the spores that compose the image are much smaller than the tip of a pencil.

A Little More about Mushroom Spores

Garden scientist Louise Egerton-Warburton recently told me, “Plants are cool, but fungus rules.” As a mycologist, fungus is her passion. Now, we aren’t really interested in competition or ranking organisms by levels of interest or importance because every living thing needs the others to survive. But the fact remains that we tend to forget about smaller things, especially those that tend to be hidden from view, so let’s take some time to meditate on mushrooms.

PHOTO: Stinkhorn fungus.

This stinkhorn fungus, Mutinus elegans, is growing out of the ground, but that is where its resemblance to green plants ends. It’s named for its obnoxious odor, which attracts flies that help distribute its spores.

Scientists used to think of mushrooms and other fungi as special kinds of plants. The problem is that, unlike plants, fungi do not get energy from photosynthesis. They are composed of different kinds of cells, they complete a different life cycle, and let’s face it: they don’t really even look like plants. So fungi are now grouped in their own kingdom of organisms, and nobody expects them to be anything like plants.

There are many different kinds of fungus, so for simplicity, let’s just think about the familiar mushroom with its stem and cap. This structure is actually the reproductive part of the organism, in the same way fruit is a reproductive structure in plants. (But we are not comparing plants and fungus!) Beneath the soil where you find mushrooms growing, there is a network of branching thread-like structures, called “hyphae,” which grow through the dead plant and animal matter in the soil and absorb nutrients. This is the main “body” of the fungus. As the fungus digests organic matter, it decomposes, making it useful for plants.

PHOTO: Laetiporus sulphureus fungus, or "Chicken of the Woods".

This “chicken of the woods” fungus, Laetiporus sulphureus, doesn’t look like a mushroom, but it also produces spores.

PHOTO: Mushrooms decomposing bark on the forest floor.

The fungus that produces these mushrooms is decomposing leaves and sticks that have fallen to the forest floor.

Back above ground, when conditions are favorable, a mushroom grows up from the hyphae. It matures and releases spores, which are like seeds. (It’s really hard to get away from comparing fungus with plants!) Spores are structurally different from seeds, even though they function to spread the organism in a similar way. Spores are microscopic and are so small that mycologists measure them in microns. A micron is one millionth of a meter.

PHOTO: A ruler measures the tip of a pencil lead.

How many spores could fit on the tip of a sharp pencil? A lot! No wonder the spore print is so fine and delicate!

Look at a metric ruler. See the smallest lines that mark millimeters? Imagine dividing a millimeter into one thousand equal parts. Fungus spores measure 3 to 12 microns. It hurts my eyes trying to imagine a spore sitting on my ruler. We can only see them when there is a mass of them on a spore print. Mycologists use a micron ruler built into their microscopes to measure the individual spores.

Tiny but essential: Fungus rules.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

My daughters love fresh grapefruit, and winter is the season when this fruit is at its best. Instead of throwing away the rind, we decided to make a bird feeder. This is a great winter project for the family.

PHOTO: The supplies needed for the project.

The grapefruit sections have been cut and eaten; the rind is ready to become our bird feeder.

To make a grapefruit bird feeder you will need:

  • Half a grapefruit rind (you can also use an orange)
  • Three pieces of yarn, each cut about 18 inches long
  • A knife, skewer, pointed scissors, or other sharp tool
  • Birdseed

First, eat the grapefruit and drain the remaining liquid. Then, use the skewer or knife to poke three holes in the grapefruit. They should be about half an inch from the top edge and spaced evenly around the circumference. (Some people do this with four strings, but I find that using three strings makes it easier to balance the fruit.)

Push a piece of yarn through each hole and tie it off.

PHOTO: Skewering the grapefruit rind.

Hold the grapefruit firmly with one hand while you poke the skewer through the rind. Be careful not to poke your finger!

PHOTO: Tying yarn to the grapefruit to hang it.

Pull 2-3 inches through the rind and tie the short end to the longer strand.

Hold the grapefruit up by all three strings and adjust the length of the strands so the fruit is not tipping. When it is balanced, knot the strings together about 4 or 5 inches from the top. (The ends will probably be uneven, and that is all right.) Make a loop knot with those top ends, so you will be able to hang it from a branch. 

PHOTO: The final product.

Our grapefruit bird feeder is balanced, full of seed, and ready to hang outside.

Finally, fill the fruit with birdseed and hang it outside for your feathered friends to enjoy. If you like, you can add a little suet, but you may find it doesn’t stick well to the wet fruit. Here in the Chicago area, you’ll probably find that most of your winter guests are black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos, common redpolls, and downy or hoary woodpeckers, who balance their primary diet of insects and grubs with bit of suet and sunflower seeds.

One more thing: Make sure it’s tied to the branch firmly so that your local (determined) squirrels — who will also find this bird feeder appealing — don’t knock it down.

Don’t worry if you don’t have any visitors the first few days after you’ve placed your feeder. It can take up to two weeks for birds to discover their new food source, but once they do, they tell all their friends in the neighborhood.

PHOTO: Grapefruit birdfeeder hung from a snow-covered fir.

The final product is ready for visitors.

What is birdseed?

You probably know that if you plant birdseed, you won’t grow a bird. And there is no such thing as a birdseed plant. So what plants make birdseed? What we call “birdseed” most commonly comes from two sources: millet, which is a grass, and sunflower. Other seeds used to feed birds include thistle, safflower, cracked corn, and sorghum seed, which is also called milo. Some birds have a preference for certain kinds of seeds, so bird lovers stock their feeders with seeds to attract their favorite birds and keep them visiting the feeder.

After you hang your bird feeder, take some of the seed and plant it to see what grows. Maybe you can grow your own food for the birds this year!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Have you heard the sounds coming from nearby lakes, ponds, and puddles this month? The American toads are singing!

PHOTO: female toad looking directly at the camera

This female American toad may be listening for the enchanting song from a handsome male toad.

Every spring, the toads emerge from hibernation in wooded areas and hop to the nearest standing water to breed. The sound you hear comes from the males, who are singing to attract a mate. You’ll hear the sound of hundreds of toads at the Kleinman Family Cove for the next week or so, maybe longer.

The toads will pair up and lay a string of eggs in shallow water where it is warmest and rich in food for their offspring. After laying eggs, the adults will return to the woods or shady gardens to look for food, leaving their babies to fend for themselves.

PHOTO: the toad pair are together in the water with a string of black eggs she has laid around the algae.

The black lines of dots in the water are strings of eggs that were laid by the toad on the right.

The black embryo inside each egg will grow into tiny tadpoles and hatch in about a week. They will grow and develop into half-inch toadlets over the next few weeks. Then they will leave the water and join their parents in the shady gardens and woods. With any luck, some of them will survive the next two years, developing to full maturity, and return to the Cove to breed.

This is the only time of year to hear the toads singing, so visit the Cove this month. If you visit over the next four weeks, maybe you’ll see some little black tadpoles swimming in the water.

Please resist the urge to collect them to take home. You won’t be able to provide enough of the right kind of food for a growing tadpole or toadlet, and they will die. Watch them grow up successfully in their natural habitat at the Cove throughout the month of May and early June instead!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Stories in the Snow

Kathy J. —  February 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

After the recent snowfall, I took my camera out for a walk to find evidence of wildlife around the Learning Campus. The first animal tracks I found were those of at least one coyote running across the snow.

The individual track was not a clear footprint, but it was the right general shape and size to be a coyote.

PHOTO: the single track of a coyote is seen in the snow.

The coyote track looks like that of a medium-sized dog, with padded feet making toe impressions in the snow.

The tracks formed a few paths across the campus.

PHOTO: two coyote trails are seen very clearly running through the snow, close to the treeline.

A coyote ran through the snow toward the right of the picture, then ran back and rejoined its original trail.

The tracks did not follow the paths that people walk, but tended to run closer to trees. This makes sense for an animal that is trying to stay hidden from other animals. I also found a spot where the coyote seemed to run up, do a little turnaround, and take off in another direction.

PHOTO: The tracks in the snow look like the coyote ran and make a circle in the snow.

The tracks look like a coyote circled around after running out of the woods.

This isn’t the clearest picture, but you can still see that the coyote came from the wooded area toward the front of the picture, then it turned around and sank its front paws in the snow where you see two clear side-by-side holes in the snow. It turned and ran to the right of the picture frame. You can imagine a spirted puppy running excitedly as it plays in the new snow, and leaving tracks like these.

I was hoping to find evidence of animals interacting. The closest thing I found was this set of rabbit tracks.

PHOTO: a set of rabbit tracks appears from behind the corner of the building, turns around and goes back in the direction it came from.

The rabbit who left these tracks decided to turn around and go back instead of coming around the corner of the building.

Here the rabbit hopped to the corner of the building, stopped, and then turned around and went back the way it came. Did it possilby see or smell the coyotes that were running around and decide to go back to hiding?

On my walk I found squirrel, bird, and mouse tracks. And then I found these strange marks in the snow.

PHOTO: a nice layer of snow on top of a hedge row has long parallel lines from students dragging their fingers along the hedge as they walked past.

Fingerprints in the snow?

What could these strange lines be? “It’s elementary, Mr. Watson!” These “fingerprints” were left by elementary school students as they dragged their hands along the snow at the Learning Center this morning.

If you want to find animal tracks in the snow and figure out what stories they tell, here are some tips:

  • Go out and look when the snow is fresh.
  • Think about which animals you have actually seen around, and where you have seen them. Look there.
  • Search around trees and shrubs, especially if there are places a small animal might crawl into for shelter.
  • Be alert for sources of food; the snackers and nappers may be out looking for a meal, and they will leave their marks.

Good luck, and remember not to eat yellow snow.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Play with Your Pine Cones

Kathy J. —  January 18, 2013 — 2 Comments

I was walking under some pine trees near the Learning Campus and I took a picture of the cones I found.

PHOTO: The ground under the pine tree is covered in dry, brown pine needles and cones that are open, closed and in between.

I found two different kinds of cones on the ground under the pine tree.

When I was young, I noticed there were two different kinds of cones — some solid cones like the three in the lower left corner of the picture, and others are more like the open, branched cones at the top. I thought the pine tree made two different kinds of cones. Actually, they are different forms of the same kind of cone. I will show you how this happens.

I took three cones that were the same size and shape. Then I soaked one cone in a bowl of water. 

PHOTO: Pictured here are three pine cones of similar size, shape, and color.

I started with three pine cones of the same kind, shape, and size.

 

PHOTO: One pine cone is floating in a white bowl full of water while the other two are resting on the right side of the bowl.

I placed one cone in a bowl of water. It slowly began to change.

 

PHOTO: One pine cone is in the white bowl, now almost fully closed after ten minutes, while the other two are dry and unchanged at the side.

After about ten minutes, the wet pine cone is almost completely closed, while the dry cones are still open.

 

PHOTO: A wet, closed cone is shown next to a dry open cone.

Wet cones are closed, dry cones are open, and that is why cones from the same tree come in different shapes.

Then I let the wet and dry cones sit on my desk overnight. Guess what happened. Try it yourself to get the answer! Go outside and find a pine, spruce, or other conifer tree. Bring pine cones from those trees inside and watch them over time as they adjust to the warm, dry conditions in your home. Put one in bowl of water and see what happens. Let it dry and see if it changes again. 

What is going on here?

Pine, spruce, Douglas-fir and other conifers are so named because they produce cones that bear their seed. When conditions are favorable for the seeds to fall and grow, the cones open and release them. The seeds have the best chance to survive when the air is dry and windy, so they can blow to a nice fertile spot away from the shade of the mother tree. When conditions are wet and not so good for a traveling seed, the cones close to protect them.

Though the cones I found under the tree had released their seeds a long time ago, they still responded to the moisture levels of the ground and air. These cones were in between being damp from the rain over the weekend and drying in the sun.

Pine cone history

By the way, all conifers belong to a group of plants called gymnosperms. This means they produce “naked seeds” — seeds that are not contained within a fruit. Conifers do not grow flowers. Before there were dinosaurs on the planet, all plants reproduced by either spores or naked seeds. The seeds of some conifers can take up to three years to mature. Flowering plants (angiosperms) have a much more rapid reproductive cycle. Some angiosperms flower and produce mature seed in just one week. Understanding how cones and flowers have evolved is what Dr. Pat Herendeen is trying to figure out from plant fossils.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org