Monday, November 12, 2012

Fungal frustrations

I've been wanting to write about this situation for quite a while, but only now have found the time: nuisance fungi in landscape beds. I'm going to zero-in on the two most aggravating groups: the stinkhorns and the artillery fungus. Other nuisances include the bird's nest fungi and certain true mushrooms. The "dog-vomit slime mold" is a very different sort of organism and was covered in our June 2011 blog post.

Stinkhorns. Wake Co., NC. Oct 2012. Photo: Greg Florian
Most stinkhorns are very conspicuous horn-shaped fungal fruiting bodies several inches tall that produce strong odors, unpleasant to humans. It's a bit hard to write about the stinkhorns without losing our PG rating, so I'll leave it to you, the reader, to look up the meanings of some of the Latin names if you want to know more. We received the image at left from a homeowner in Wake County. These are almost surely Phallus ravenelii, and they appeared in his mulched bed in early October. The submitter said he could smell them from two houses away. Is there a purpose to this odor, you ask? Take a close look at the picture and you can see that flies have been attracted to the stinkhorns. Why, you wonder? Well, the sticky green portion at the top contains the spores of the fungus. When flies visit, they pick up some of the spores and carry them away to new locations, so they're a means of dispersal for the fungus. You may have heard of a similar raison d'ĂȘtre for the foul smell of skunk cabbage, though in that case it's to attract pollinators. Fortunately for farmers and home gardeners alike, the odor does not persist once the fungi are gone.

Clathrus columnatus. Wake Co., NC. Jan 2008
Over several weeks in October and up until about our first frost, there were large numbers of stinkhorns in a the landscaped median of a major road near campus. Traffic didn't allow me to get a good look, but I think they were Mutinus elegans. This genus has a more tapered apex than Phallus. Back on January 18, 2008 I found a specimen of Clathrus columnatus on a south-facing slope here on the NCSU Campus. It had the smell of spoiled fish wrapped in a wet diaper. The fruiting body of this species has four "arms" fused at the apex.

Sphaerobolus gleba on siding. Jackson Co., NC.
Oct 2010. Photo: Christy Bredenkamp
Sphaerobolus gleba on gardenia leaf. Wake Co., NC. Oct 2012.
A very different dispersal mechanism is used by fungi in the genus Sphaerobolus. Their fruiting bodies on the mulch are small and inconspicuous, but they launch tiny dark spore balls for distances up to several feet, earning them the name "artillery fungus" or "cannonball fungus". The spore masses, known as gleba, stick fast to whatever they hit: plants, siding, and vehicles. Even when scraped off, they leave a stain, causing great frustration for the owners of affected homes and cars.

There's a lot more to these fungi than meets either the eye or nose. Their real "body" consists of a network of fine threads called hyphae that grow throughout the soil and mulch, where they decompose dead organic matter such as the mulch itself. The good news is that they do no harm to trees, shrubs, or bedding plants. The bad news is that there's no easy way to get rid of them. There are certainly no fungicides or disinfectants you can use in these situations. Removing stinkhorns as soon as they appear will help with the odor problem. Turning under the existing mulch and replacing it with composted mulch or a coarse pine bark mulch may help. Dr. Harry Hoitink of the Ohio State University has a very interesting fact sheet that includes a discussion of the microbial ecology of composts. One of his conclusions: "… water applied at the right time during composting, storage, and mulching can solve most of the fungal nuisance problems." Another very informative resource comes from Dr. Donald Davis at Penn State University. His Artillery Fungus FAQ gives details about this organism, how to deal with it, and suggestions from readers about how to remove the spots. It appears from reading his page that Dr. Davis has dealt with everyone from homeowners to attorneys about this issue.

Most fungi outdoors in North Carolina are going to be hidden from view over the winter, but keep the nuisance fungi in mind when planning your next landscaping project. You may be the next one to notice an unusual smell in the neighborhood.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Don’t Move Firewood!

Photo: Larry Grand
With a chill in the air and leaves turning brilliant colors here in Raleigh, our thoughts turn to cozy firesides, big bonfires, and warm campfires after a long day’s hike. With this in mind, we asked Rob Trickel of the North Carolina Forest Service for a timely reminder about the dangers of moving firewood. 

Invasive Pests and Firewood Movement

Non-native invasive forest pathogens and insect species have potential to cause great harm to North Carolina’s forests and landscapes.  The fungus that causes laurel wilt is killing redbays and swampbays in the Coastal Plain and we think it may also devastate sassafras across the state.  Other invasive diseases and insects that have the potential to cause great harm to walnuts (thousand cankers disease), ash (emerald ash borer), and a variety of hardwoods (gypsy moth) are found in counties in Tennessee and Virginia adjacent to our state (see current invasive monitoring map).  In addition, Asian longhorn beetle is devastating a wide variety of hardwood tree species in the Northeast and Midwest, and has the potential to do the same here.   All of these pests have the following in common:  they move naturally from place to place at a very slow rate, but can be spread rapidly if moved in firewood.

Emerald Ash Borer Galleries in firewood. Photo: Troy Kimoto, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Moving firewood can introduce invasive pests to new ecosystems, where they can cause ecological, economical, and social problems in our forests.  In response to the rapid spread of emerald ash borer via firewood, some states have even enacted laws regulating the movement of firewood to slow the spread of invasive species.  North Carolina is approaching the problem with public awareness and education campaigns and has joined with other southeastern states to promote the use of local firewood or firewood that has been treated or certified to be pest-free.  

As part of the effort, the Changing Roles program of the USDA-Forest Service has developed two fact sheets about firewood movement as a means of spreading invasive species to new areas. These fact sheets help equip our partners who work with various audiences (consumers and producers of firewood) with information to combat the spread of invasive pests.

Fact Sheet 5.4 (Invasive Species and Firewood Movement) is firewood/invasive species 101 and covers:  What is firewood?  What types of invasive pests are transported in firewood? Why is the movement of firewood a pathway for the spread of invasive pests? What are the ecological, economical and social effects of invasive pests?  

Fact Sheet 5.5 (Preventing Firewood Movement) concentrates on how to engage a variety of audiences on firewood issues including:  How do we (foresters, extension staff, natural resource professionals) communicate with and engage different audiences on this important topic? How do we work with homeowners and outdoor enthusiasts (also parks and campground staff, arborists and green industry professionals, wood processors and producers) to combat the spread of invasive pests?  How is the movement of firewood regulated? And, where can I find more information about preventing firewood movement?

You can find more information about firewood movement and forest health, excellent images of the insects and diseases that can be spread by moving firewood, some very entertaining videos at   

Photo: Rob Trickel
Prepared by Rob Trickel, Forest Health Branch Head, North Carolina Forest Service