My mushroom students and I do all kinds of crazy but fun things every Fall. This year we pulled over for a yard full of giant puffballs, a giant Amanita muscaria, and a giant oak bedizened with chicken of the woods. I routinely make my students hoot in the forest (a Cornell tradition that we find more helpful to the lost than mere whistling). Also, I often send them to the conk cupboard. The conk cupboard is a dark space under the stairs where we store conks, brackets, and hunks of rotted trees for teaching purposes. It’s dry and dingy in there, and smells reassuringly of creeping, ancient decrepitude. I can pack about six students in if they’re not too claustrophobic (or too rude). The very highest function of the conk cupboard is as a viewer for bioluminescent fungi. It’s perfect– pitch black when you turn off the lights. Why, I think even Michael Kuo could see a mushroom glow in there.
This Fall we found two fungi that spent time with my students in the conk cupboard: A great harvest of Omphalotus illudens, the sickening orange jack o’lantern mushroom. We also found Panellus stipticus in glorious abundance.
Panellus stipticus is an unassuming fungus by day. It forms waves of soft beige shelves on logs. It isn’t rare at all, just overlooked. If you take a little nibble of it you’ll find it astringent and puckery (spit it out, now)– that’s where its species name comes from. It is a striking beauty by night. Its gills glow under their own power, a property that we’ve discussed before, in Emily’s nice post on bioluminescent fungi. In our handsome movie here you can see its transformation between day and night.
I should say, this is what you’ll see if you live in eastern North America. Though this fungus occurs in Europe and in the Pacific Northwest (at least… where else?), individuals found outside the northeast don’t glow. So sorry!
I have often sent students home with hunks of wood bearing this fungus. If you are prone to wakefulness in the middle of the night, as I am lately, P. stipticus is a great thing to have on your bedside table. Waking up and finding its glow on your nightstand is a sure way to erase the day’s worries, dispel night terrors, and forget that strange clunking in the basement. You’ll need a fresh northeastern specimen–nice pliable fruiting bodies. It’s handy to know that fairly crispy, dry specimens will revive well if you wet them. I run them under the kitchen tap, and wrap them in wet paper towel. When I go to bed, I peel back the paper towel, and leave their hunk of wood sitting damply in a dish until I awake and find them glowing steadfastly beside me.
- Wikipedia has a nice article on P. stipticus, if you want something to read while you’re awake.
- And if you’d like to grow your own nightlight (did I mention that the mycelium glows too?), you can find some helpful descriptions of cultural conditions in this article:
HJ Weitz, AL Ballard, CD Campbell, K Killham. 2001. The effect of culture conditions on the mycelial growth and luminescence of naturally bioluminescent fungi. FEMS Microbiology Letters 202: 165-170. [download as PDF file]