Thursday, March 4, 2010

Springtime! Look for Devil’s Urns!

There’s a wildflower in these parts called harbinger of spring. To be absolutely clear, it’s also known as Erigenia bulbosa, and it’s a member of the carrot-parsley-dill family.

And yep, when you see one, it truly is a sign that spring is on the way, because they start blooming in February and March and disappear soon after that. They are one of the earliest flowers to bloom in the Ozarks.

But they’re little sons-of-guns, and dang hard to see. Well, at least when you’re as tall as I am. If you go for walks in the woods this month with little kids, be sure to show them a picture of harbinger-of-spring, and tell them to hunt for it. You’ll have better luck finding them that way.

Also, harbinger of spring has never seemed very common, in my experience. When you find a patch of them, great, but you can hunt and hunt sometimes and just never find any.

Which is kind of a let-down, this time of year, when you’re thirsty for any and all signs of spring that you can find.

But I went shoe-shopping the other day, and the sight of all that rich, soft, tan, brown, and black leather and suede got me thinking of another favorite sign of spring.

Allow me to introduce an alternative “harbinger of spring”: the devil’s urn fungus.

Now you’re probably going, “ew, yuck, a slimy icky fungus is no substitute for a pretty spring wildflower,” but hold on a second. First, they’re not slimy.

Second, they only grow in the spring, and they begin early—as soon as we start getting some warmer days. Like today, for instance. (Hooray!)

And the harbinger-of-spring wildflower isn’t really all that showy, anyway. They usually are only about a few inches tall when they’re blooming, and the petals are tiny, mostly whitish. The anthers and stems are maroon, and that’s about all the color you see. . . . And that ain’t much.

Meanwhile, the trusty and more common devil’s urn can be fairly large and striking—when they’re fully open, they’re a few inches wide with a bowl that’s slightly deeper than that. And they usually form in clusters.

No, they’re not very colorful—before they open they look something like a bunch of suede brown grapes on the ground, usually alongside a fallen dead tree, but sometimes growing from the ground, attached below to a buried limb, root, or something that you can’t see. They like oak wood.

Once they open, they look like goblets. In fact, the scientific name references this shape twice: The genus portion of the name Urnula craterium means “little urn,” and craterium is from krater, which, you might remember from your art history classes, is a round, wide-mouthed jar the classical Greeks used for mixing wine and water.

(Supposedly the Greeks diluted their wine to keep their party guests from becoming too inebriated—kind of how people at parties today sometimes alternate alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks over the course of the evening to keep from getting too sloshed too fast. But I digress.)

No, they're not strikingly colorful, but these products of earth, water, and wood are readily spotted and have a striking appearance, despite their earthy tones. And before you go dissing on fungi, remember that “‘beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Indeed, there is something very simple, forthright, and truthful about the devil's urn.

These fungal goblets are gray-brown on the outside, with a texture that always seems like fine suede to me. Inside the bowl, where the spores are produced, the surface is darker and smoother, even kind of shiny. The rim of the opening is usually ragged from when the little ball tore open to become an urn. The overall texture is rather leathery. They’re fleshier when they’re young, especially inside their skins, and become tougher as they grow old.

And when you see them, you’ll know why looking at shoes yesterday brought them to mind!


JaneL said...

Those shoes are nice! So are the fungi. I found the first flower blooming in my yard yesterday. Not the crocuses, which will probably be another week, but the itsy-bitsy Veronica persica, which I wouldn't have even seen if I hadn't been down on the ground with my camera.

JaneL said...

Also, I do have some harbinger-of-spring planted in the flowerbed, so I know exactly where to look for them, but they're not blooming yet.