Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fungal Artillary

Most fungi tend to be associated with autumn but there are a number of perennial species that can be found at any time of year, including this one - variously known as King Alfred's cakes, cramp balls or Daldinia concentrica. The first name refers to King Alfred's culinary accident while hiding from marauding Danes in the humble abode of a cowherd; the second refers to the folklore that carrying this fungus around in your pocket stops you getting cramp in the legs (doesn't work for me); the last refers to .....

.... the concentric rings of annual growth that you can see if you cut the fungus open.
The blackened surface of the fungus is covered with scores of these 'pimples', each with a pore in the centre. Each leads to a chamber below, packed with tubular flask-shaped fungal hyphae called asci, each with eight ascospores inside. Cut one of these chambers (in mycological parlance a perithecium) open and this....
... is what you see under the microscope - rows or rugby-ball shaped spores, seen here at around x100 magnification and ....

.... here at x400 magnification. In spring each ascus of eight ascospores elongates in turn, until its tip protrudes from the pore in one of those surface 'pimples', like a cannon protruding from the gun port of a man 'o war. Pressure builds inside the ascus until it ruptures and fires out its salvo of spores. Then it withers, another elongates to take its place and the discharge is repeated. This can go on for 6-7 weeks before all the asci have fired their broadsides, with most of the spore discharge taking place at night. You can watch this by placing the fungus in a light beam in a warm room - if you've got sharp eyes you can see what look like little puffs of smoke all over the surface - the fungus firing its silent broadsides. In England Daldinia concentrica mostly grows on ash trees but in Scotland it also grows on birch.

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