Our woods are old. Many of the spruce have celebrated more than 150 summers. Poplar don’t live nearly that long and many now are showing their age, like this balsam poplar sprouting a hefty load of fungi.
Unlike the hard, woody bracket fungi that also grow on tree trunks, these gilled mushrooms are soft and fleshy. By the time these spore-producing parts appear, the inside of the tree is well-rotted — the mushroom “roots” (mycelia) have spread through the trunk, digesting the wood.
While the mushroom is feeding on the tree, insects begin feeding on the mushroom. Other insects feed on them. Cycles within cycles.
This is a clock. It is marking the slow demise of an old poplar.
Many of the trees in our woods sport visible signs of inner decay and rot — firm, bracket-shaped fungi growing on their trunks.
Some tree fungi live only one season. This one is a perennial, adding new “rings” each year. It will continue to do this even after the tree has died.
The “shelves” or brackets are the fruiting part of the plant, producing air-borne spores some of which may infect other trees. The main part of the fungus is invisible. The “roots” (mycelia) grow throughout the inside of the tree. Fungi can’t produce their own food but rely instead on the energy stored in plants that do, like trees.
These fungi are vital to a healthy forest. They break down dying and dead trees, recycling the nutrients and minerals back into the soil to be used, perhaps, by new trees. This dissolution may take decades or a century or more.
If they gave out gold medals for mushrooms, the award — at least in our woods — would go to this fab fungus. I found it growing alongside a rotting poplar.
Most mushrooms are diminutive and except for odd growth forms or striking colours don’t really shout Here I Am! Not this one. Bright white and the size of a dinner plate, there’s little chance you’d miss it.
Growing alongside rotting poplar.
This mushroom easily breaks apart. Perhaps a passing mouse or a squirrel or simply age caused a chunk to fall out.
This giant mushroom turns brown as it ages.
Here’s to big and bold.
Best guess? Giant leucopax Leucopaxillus giganteus (aka Clitocybe gigantea)
I wrote recently about The Silk Road. This is the rest of the story.
How many mouths does it take to eat a tree? Not the wood. Just the leaves. All of them.
That’s what has happened in our corner of the world. Most of the aspen poplar have been completely defoliated by armies of small black caterpillars.
The caterpillars, or larvae, are the second stage in the life cycle of the Large Aspen Tortrix. The name Tortrix comes from a Latin word meaning to twist. When you see the leaves they’ve been feeding on, you can see why that name was chosen.
These photos and captions tell more of this tale …
Aspen defoliated by caterpillars of the Large Aspen Tortrix. The other leafy trees are balsam poplar which are mostly unaffected.
The start of the infestation — larvae have eaten much of the leaves.
Larva on a spruce branch. Strong winds and the search for more food sent larvae groundward on strands of silk. This one landed on a spruce tree.
Larvae that weren’t able to find poplar leaves to pupate in settled for spruce.
Tortrix larva beginning to spin silk on a poplar leaf in readiness for the next stage in its life cycle.
This larva is spinning silk on a balsam poplar leaf, drawing the leaf sides closer together until it is completely hidden. It will hide there, turning from an active leaf-eating caterpillar into a non-feeding pupa, the next stage in its life cycle.
Here’s an interesting grouping (L to R): a fully formed pupa, the larval skin it shed as it pupated, and a caterpillar beginning its transformation.
Some pupae have already split open, releasing the adult moths. I imagine we’re in for quite a show when the big hatch happens.
We’ve had defoliations in the past, but I don’t recall anything like this — it stretches for kilometres in all directions.
Although this feeding frenzy sounds disastrous for the aspens, it’s not as gloomy as one might expect. The trees are already sprouting new leaves and before long will look more like they should at this time of year.
Conditions this year are different. Winter was mild. Spring came early. It turned hot. Rainfall has been little and sporadic. Are we seeing the effect of climate change? Or merely a brief climatic blip?
It’s an ongoing evolutionary dance as we each strive to adapt to our world.
Large aspen tortrix Choristoneura conflictana White spruce Picea glauca Trembling aspen Populus tremuloides