Friday, September 22, 2023

Caesar Mushroom

With names like destroying angel, deaths cap, and the panther, it is easy to understand why these mushrooms are to be taken seriously. All occur in a family of mushrooms call the Amanitas and making a mistake with any of these mushrooms will land you in the hospital or even the morgue. For those who seek mushrooms the name Amanita may conjure up nightmares of potential toxic poisoning, and with good reason. The destroying angel, if eaten will cause nausea, diarrhea, and severe stomach pain. Several hours to several days later you will start to feel better. This is the dastardly part of the destroying angel; it falsely leads you to believe you are going to be fine. Then you will find yourself experiencing pain and sickness like never before. The toxins, called amatoxins have spent your remission time eating away at your kidney and liver. You will fall into a coma, with liver damage so severe your only chance at survival is a liver transplant.  This is why I cannot express loudly enough---ALWAYS know what you are picking and plan to eat.

There are a few mushrooms within this family that are considered edible, and not just edible, but choice edibles. People who seek these mushrooms nearly salivate when the season returns for them. I am speaking of a colorful mushroom called the Ceasar mushroom, or sometimes referred to as the American Ceasar mushroom. This brightly colored mushroom is hard to mistake for any other mushroom, but always seek the help of an expert before delving into experimenting with any fungi. Ceasar mushroom caps vary from reddish-orange, red, or bright orange, with yellow stalks standing up to eight inches high. There is a highly visible “skirt” around the upper part of the stem. The cap does not have warts or patches. They grow from an egg-like structure called a volva, before eventually reaching their mature stage. They form Mycorrhizal relationships with oaks, pines, as well as other hardwood trees throughout the Eastern United States. In simple terms, mycorrhizal is a symbiotic relationship between the roots of the trees and the tendrils of mycelium from the mushrooms. The hyphae of the mycelium surround the tree rootlets with a sheath, and the mushroom helps the tree absorb water and nutrients while the tree provides sugars and amino acids to the mushroom. The organisms may need each other to survive.

During the time of the Roman emperors these mushrooms were referred to as boletus, which today are classified in an entirely different family of fungi. Eventually they were given the name Ceasar mushrooms due to the fact it was widely known the elite of Rome ate them frequently. Every man who took the position of emperor,  used the name Ceasar. Talk about confusing. One emperor in particular, Claudius, loved these mushrooms more than any other. His wife, Agrippina desired her son Nero, from a previous marriage, to be emperor. She devised a plan to rid herself of poor old Claudius. She knew of his proclivity for these tasty fungi. She conspired with the palace medic, Xenophon, to slip some destroying angels in with his meal. When he became deathly ill and called upon his medic, instead of providing him some relief for his misery, she administered another dose of deadly amanita. Such a cruel, miserable way to die, but Agrippina got her wish and Nero became emperor.

The American Ceasar mushroom is said to taste like a mixture of brie and camembert cheese with a somewhat chewing texture. They are even considered one of the few mushrooms that can be consumed raw. This may be true, but I would strongly encourage you to cook all mushrooms before consumption. Many of us eat mushrooms for their culinary value and their unique texture, and delicious taste they add to our favorite dishes. Still others consume them for their medicinal value, although these particular mushrooms aren’t known to have any medical uses.

Because these mushrooms belong to the largest group of mushrooms, which contain the most toxic of species, these are not considered beginners mushrooms. Because there is a chance that they could be confused with other more toxic species I cannot stress caution enough. If in doubt throw it out.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

European Hornet

Several years ago, while vacationing in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain National Park, I noticed a large wasp struggling to carry a seemingly paralyzed cicada. At first, I thought the wasp may be a cicada killer, the size was right, but the coloration and pattern was all wrong. When we returned home, I used the pictures I took to identify it as a European hornet. These are the only true hornet in the United States (except for one more that has recently showed up on the landscape of our country, but more on that in a bit). They may reach lengths up to an inch or a little more in the case of the queen. Their head is red and yellow, thorax brown and red, and the abdomen is striped with brown and yellow. They are a strikingly beautiful wasp. They sometimes are referred to as the brown hornet or giant hornet and were first introduced into the United States in 1840 via cargo containers from Europe. Since then, they have established themselves all throughout the Eastern United States and are locally common where they occur. Like many non-native species that show up in our country, they are eventually considered naturalized. Examples would be the honeybee, Virginia opossum and the nine-banded armadillo. However, the list definitely does not end there. 

The common name of giant hornet (mentioned above) that is sometimes attributed to them is a bit of a misnomer. While they are large for a wasp, the true giant hornet is from Japan and adjacent countries. These monstrously large hornets are the largest hornet in the world and with lengths up to 2 inches or more and a wingspan of 3 inches it is easy to see why!  The northern giant hornet (formerly referred to as the Asian giant hornet) or as it is also referred to, albeit not so affectionately, as the murder hornet…. has recently made an appearance in the United States. I’m sure this moniker bestowed upon this very much unwelcome hornet comes from the aggressive temperament and ¼ long stinger!  In 2019 it was found in British Columbia, and by 2020 was sighted in Washington state, and in 2022 a nest was located and destroyed. This has prompted all sorts of worries of an invasion, not to mention misidentifications. Any large, brown, and yellow wasp-like creature must be a murder hornet. This is simply not true. While European hornets resemble giant hornets, they have a much better disposition and are not likely to ever cause the problems its much larger cousin can and probably will. Giant hornets form massive hives and feed their offspring almost exclusively on honeybees. The USDA and other governmental organizations as well as many local (to where they were found) organizations are working diligently to keep tabs on the spread of this potential new invasive species. 

Photo By: Steve Scott
The European hornet is rarely aggressive and usually only defensive if mishandled or when the nest is disturbed. We know eusocial insects, like hornets, paper wasps and yellow jackets can and do defend their nests with vigor, as anyone who has been unfortunate enough to get close enough has found out. While this behavior can seem aggressive, it truly is defensive. They are protecting their queen, her offspring, their food stores, and each other. There is a lot at stake, and they don’t tolerate potential invaders. Many social insects use pheromones to send messages throughout the hive, but in the case of the European hornet, it is now believed they use a different form of communication. When notifying their fellow workers that danger is nearby, they perform a dance outside the hive that alerts their hive mates to an approaching threat. In no time you may have numerous hornets all descending upon you at once determined to remove you from the area by the only means available to them, the stinger.

Like all social insects there is a hierarchy that determines their job within the hive. Bred European hornet females spend the winter under leaf litter, or within fallen logs and other sheltered areas. In the spring they become active and start looking for a place to begin nest building. She wants to find a secluded, dark location, such as a hollow tree, inside a barn or maybe an attic or within the walls of a house. She will chew bits of wood mixed with saliva. The saliva acts as a cement effectively gluing the hive cells together. In the event they cannot find a suitable location that meets their requirement for darkness and safety they will form an “envelope” around the outside of the nest. This is similar to the outer covering of a bald-faced hornet nest. This envelope will protect the nest from light, as well as wind and rain. Once the queen has raised a few workers they will begin taking over the care of the queen, the queens offspring, and growing the hive. It is at this time their unique communication capabilities are put to use in another fashion called policing. Workers are capable of laying eggs that turn into males. Other workers of the hive will destroy those eggs and will often discriminate against those workers who dare lay eggs in the queens territory. By the end of the season there may be between 200-400 members within the hive. Some larger hives contain 1,000 or more hornets in various stages of development. In late summer or early fall the queen will lay eggs that will become fertile males and females. Once these reproductive adults mate and cold weather sets in the workers remaining in the hive die off, and newly bred queens overwinter and start the cycle all over the following year.

In the spring they are active hunters and put their energy into finding food necessary to grow the larvae. They do this by providing masticated bits of insects to the young larvae developing within the nest. Typically, they chose large insects such as cicadas (like I witnessed), other wasps and grasshoppers. In the fall their diet changes and they become more scavenger-like in nature. You will find the adults feasting on fallen apples, pears, and other fruit. These wasps will quickly become inebriated by the fermentation created within the fruit. This intoxicating libation will have them stumbling like a drunken sailor. Like yellow jackets, they are also attracted to garbage left behind by humans as well as soft drinks, and other sugary treats we favor. This can cause human, hornet conflicts. Most humans, when faced with a large insect packing a hypodermic needle attached to its backside, contort into all sorts of odd positions, and begin swatting at the air like they just don’t care.  Trust me, when I say this will most likely earn you a sting. Ignore the hornet and chances are everything will be fine. Just check your pop can before you take a sip.

While large stinging insects are rarely favored among humans, we must learn to appreciate the good they provide.  In the case of the European hornet, by feeding potentially injurious insects like grasshoppers, moths, and crickets to the larvae within the hive, they are providing invaluable pest control. This can, and does save the agricultural industry millions annually. They are not known to be aggressive so conflicts should be minimal and learning to respect the boundaries of their nest will allow for co-existence.


Monday, August 28, 2023

Eastern American Toad

The dour expression of the common toad reminds one of the proverbial grumpy old man. This countenance, in my opinion, gives them an endearing quality. As children, toads are one of the first wild animals we come in contact with that we find easy to capture and are not likely to be afraid of. Missouri is home to several species of toads, and the Eastern American toad (Anaxyrus americanus americanus) is without a doubt the most common type we will encounter. They are found throughout the Eastern United States and portions of Canada, and occur in many types of habitats, including yards, gardens, fields, agricultural areas, barnyards, porches, and walkways. The species name of the American toad is Anaxyrus, which comes from a Greek word that translates to mean King or Chief, and as one of the largest toads native to the United States it is an apt descriptor. They may reach lengths up to four inches with males being smaller than females.


They vary in color, and may be gray, brown, olive, or even a reddish orange. However, they are capable of changing color to some degree depending on many factors including humidity, environmental stressors, temperatures and even the color of the habitat where they live.  Sometimes there is a light stripe visible along their back and two warts on each spot located along the back, as well as large spiny warts on the legs. Usually, the belly is mottled with black or charcoal gray splotches. There are large glands located behind the eyes alongside the head. These are the paratoid glands and contain toxins called bufotoxins. These toxins are considered harmless to humans, although they may irritate the eyes, or mucus membranes. 

 Handling toads is often said to cause warts in humans. This is a falsehood, although, if you are allergic or sensitive to the substance they secrete, your skin may form painless water blisters. For obvious reasons, don’t lick the toads! To dogs, and other small mammals, however, they can be incredibly toxic and, in some cases, make your pet very sick and in need of veterinarian care. While capable of secreting toxins and poisoning animals who come in contact with them, they usually rely on camouflage, or retreat as a first line of defense.

There are some animals that have adapted to eating toads as a main part of their diet, one of the most notable is the hognose snake. These snakes have a mild toxin they deliver through rear fangs into the toad to paralyze it. This prevents it from hopping away. If they capture the toad prior to delivering this toxin they have another adaptation that aids them in eating toads. When a toad is threatened with predation, they will inflate their lungs, lower their head, and lift their body, thus making themselves larger, the snake is now faced with a much larger meal than it anticipated. It will use those rear fangs to puncture the toad, effectively deflating it with these specially adapted toad poppers.

Other animals are known to eat toads, including water snakes, garter snakes, screech owls, crows, and occasionally striped skunks. As tadpoles they are preyed upon by a wider variety of predators, including fish, ducks, aquatic invertebrates, newts, and crayfish. One pond was estimated by scientists to contain over 200,000 toad tadpoles, none of those tadpoles survived to the toadlet stage as they were preyed upon before reaching their final molt into life on land. In the tadpole stage they feed on algae, aquatic plants, dead fish, and other tadpoles. As adults they feed on invertebrates like ants, beetles, and moths as well as earthworms. Toads lack the ability to chew their food adequately, so they have evolved a work around to this problem, by using their eyes! Yes, that is correct, they use their eyes. Toads have large eyes, and after grabbing a tasty meal in the form of a beetle (for example), their eyes are specially adapted to press down into the mouth effectively pushing the insect from their sticky tongue and forcing it down the throat so it may be swallowed. Toads, like frogs do not drink water, instead hydration is achieved by soaking in available water. Toads have drier skin and are able to tolerate longer periods away form water, whereas their cousins the frogs have higher hydration needs to maintain their slimy secretions for respiration through their skin.


American toads have excellent eyesight and hearing, and it is believed they use their hearing to detect rains, from underground, which may signal the return of spring. Males emerge from hibernation first, and guided by an internal homing device they will migrate back to the area where they were conceived, often to the exact spot! It is believed they use the moon to navigate to their location of birth. This journey may be as little as a few hundred meters or as much as a few miles. Once males arrive to the breeding grounds, usually in April or early May, they begin calling in earnest to attract females which will appear on the landscape up to a week later. Females, using their acute hearing are able to distinguish her own kind among a chorus of many species of frogs and toads that may be sharing the same area. In fact frogs and toads are the only amphibians to utilize organized sound. They have distress calls, mating calls and calls to warn others of their kind that danger is nearby.

She will select the healthiest and most virile male to mate with based on the length and strength of his calling abilities. After mating, the female will lay up to 20,000 eggs in long strands often attached to plant matter within a pond, wetland, or other water source. Occasionally she will lay them along the bottom of a pond. In a few days the eggs will hatch into tiny black tadpoles. 


In about a month, seemingly all at once, hundreds or even thousands of toadlets will emerge from their watery homes. These aggregations of tiny toadlets often follow each other in unison along sandy shores of ponds, streams, and wetlands. Eventually they will shed their skins, and molt into a larger version of themselves. After multiple sheds they will reach their full adult size, typically by mid-summer. At this time, they will disperse into the landscape and set up a territory that typically ranges up to a half mile. Although in some cases this may be as much as a mile. American toads may live up to five years in the wild, with some reports claiming there are records of them living up to thirty years in captivity. Although I think these claims are exaggerated, as that would be an exceedingly long time for any amphibian to live.

Toads, along with frogs began appearing 200 million years ago, a full 30 million years before dinosaurs! For centuries they have fascinated humans, and are often the stuff of legends, and folklore. Pliny the elder referred to them as bramblefrogs, for their preferred life among the brambles and forests. Many misconceptions about toads come from their mythological association with witches. Toads were often considered familiars, or supernatural entities in the guise of a toad, that would assist witches in their practice of magic. These myths were fed by stories and legends with little basis in fact.


Even William Shakespeare in at least two of his works, MacBeth and As you Like It bespoke of the lowly toad.


 In Macbeth he waxed poetically: 

“Round the cauldron go;

In the poison’d entrails throw

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights has thirty-one

Swelter’d venom sleeping got

Boil thou first; the charmed pot”


In As You Like it Shakespeare had this eloquent prose to share:

"Sweet are the use of adversity

Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous

Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,

Find tongues in trees, books in running brooks.

Sermons in stones, and good in everything

I would not change."


In Germany it was believed the toad took up his abode in the poisonous hemlock plant. The toad was said to suck the poison from the plant thus gaining his own available toxins. Germans even referred to the deadly nightshade plant as the toad flower. As you can see the unassuming, shy toad has had an ancestry steeped in mythology, misconceptions, and witchcraft. Perhaps no other animals is as underserving of his reputation as is the toad. These sour-faced amphibians provide insect and slug control, feed a hungry population of various animals and whether you are three or ninety-three are sure to delight us with their presence.