Imagine that when you were very little, your mom drilled a small hole in a plant and placed you inside. The plant’s reaction to the hole was to quickly enlarge that section of the plant where the tiny you was nestled. This new plant growth gives you a round home that protects you from the weather and provides all the food you need to grow into an adult. This round home is called a gall.
Most galls are formed by insects, others by fungus or bacteria. Each gall is unique to the plant that it grows on. Galls come in a variety of colors from red to yellow, green and black. There are three types of galls:
Leaf galls are the most common. They can be found on the lower or upper part of the leaf, and they may deform the leaf.
Twig and stem galls look like an odd growth on the stems and twigs of plants. They can be small or large.
Flower or bud galls disfigure a plant’s flowers or buds.
The Smithsonian notes that in North America alone, there are almost 1,500 different insect species that cause plant galls and most of them, over 800 species, make galls on oak trees.
Here is a sampling of some of the many galls you may see during your winter walks:
Oak apple gall
Walking under an oak tree, you may notice small, brown balls about the size of a ping pong ball hanging from the branches. These galls are the home of the oak apple gall wasp, Amphibolips confluenta. The galls are hard on the outside and soft on the inside. If you see a small hole in the gall, that hole was made by the adult wasp as it was emerging from the gall last summer. Oak apple galls are commonly seen on scarlet and black oaks.
Oak apple gall after the wasp has emerged, Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
Male,oak apple gall wasp, photo accessed from Wikipedia
Goldenrod ball gall
Round galls on a goldenrod stem are an indication that a goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis) is living inside the gall. Fly larvae live inside the gall all winter and emerge in the spring. You can find these swollen stems in meadows and along paths.
Goldenrod gall after the fly has emerged, photo by Mara Koenig_USFWS, accessed from Bugwood.org.
Golden gall fly, photo by USDA Forest Service – Ogden , USDA Forest Service, accessed from Bugwood.org.
Eastern spruce gall
Eastern spruce gall adelgids (Adelges abietis) cause galls on both Norway and white spruce. Look for the small (½”-1” long) pineapple shaped galls near the tips of the branches. One sign of eastern spruce gall adelgid is a scattering of brown spruce branch tips on the ground under a spruce tree. The tips break off during a heavy snow storm or wind storm.
Eastern spruce gall, photo by Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service, accessed from Bugwood.org
Eastern spruce gall adelgid, photo by Lorraine Graney, Bartlett Tree Experts, accessed from Bugwood.org
Cedar-apple gall and rust
The fungus Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginiana infects both cedar trees and apple trees during its two-year life cycle. In the winter, look for the fungus on eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana; also known as eastern juniper) trees. Spores develop in the gall during the early spring and they are released in May and June after a warm rain. If the spores land on apple or pear trees, they will infect the leaves of the tree where they land. Spores from cedar-apple gall on apple or pear leaves are released in June and July and may infect nearby cedars and other kinds of junipers and the cycle continues again.
Cedar apple rust on a cedar tree, photo by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, accessed from Bugwood.org.
Cedar apple rust on a apple leaves, photo by George Hudler, Cornell University, accessed from Bugwood.org.
One bacteria that forms galls is Rhizobium Rhizobium radiobacter. Grapes, walnuts, black cherry and other stone fruits are susceptible to Rhizobium radiobacter. The bacteria enters a plant when an insect or weather-related event injures the plant. For example, if the winter is severe, plants are more likely to get damaged from strong winds and crown gall bacteria will enter the plant. These galls can become enormous, over three feet in diameter when in the crown or body of trees, thus the name crown gall.
As part of my duties as an Invasive Species Project Steward, it has been my pleasure to join the Forest Health Specialists in their fieldwork. The Forest Health Specialists travel to priority park lands throughout the region to survey and monitor for forest pests, with an emphasis on areas previously treated for pests and on early detection of emerging threats to forest health. Although our focus in these surveys have been hemlock woolly adelgid, southern pine beetle, and spotted lanternfly (see DEC website or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information), we see so much more in our state’s lush woodlands. Spending time in wild spaces and amongst such biodiversity ignites a sense of curiosity that no number of office supplies can replicate. Dendrology (the study of trees and shrubs), entomology (insect study) herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians), ornithology (bird study) – with all these -ologies everywhere you turn, how can you ever pick just one to invest your energy in learning about? The more time I spent hunting for the aforementioned pests, I found myself increasingly drawn to the study of one particular organism: mushrooms. Maybe I liked how they can be beautiful and disgusting, delicious and deadly, beneficial or parasitic, and all share a space within the field of mycology. Whatever the reason, I found them fascinating and had plenty of run-ins with them.
One particularly distinct and common mushroom is chicken of the woods, scientifically named Laetiporus sulphureus. It is also called sulfur shelf because of the sulfur-yellow color of the pores, and its overlapping disk-like growth form protruding from oak, hemlock and other trees like a shelf. Each lobe is an inch thick, up to 20 inches across and can weigh up to a pound apiece! It is very common in our neck of the woods- the specimen pictured here was found at Waterson Point State Park in the Thousand Islands, though I have also seen it at Minnewaska State Park, John Boyd Thacher State Park, and Harriman State Park.
Another fungus you may see protruding off a tree, often birch, is the hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius), named as such for the hoof shape and hardness of the brown-ringed cap (Roberts and Evans, 383). It has also been called tinder polypore because “amadou,” the inner fibrous flesh, was historically used as tinder to start fires and cauterize wounds (Lincoff, 457).
Also in the polypore family, Polyporaceae, is the Cinnabar-red polypore (Pycnoporus cinnabarinus) pictured below. The distinct red caps are 1-5 inches wide and round, often growing on dead deciduous trees (Lincoff, 486). Another member of Polyporaceae is the violet toothed polypore (Trichaptum biformis). They have round, overlapping caps up to 3 inches wide with a leathery texture and are brown with purple, wavy margins. They are found by the hundreds on deciduous trees, and over time will diminish them into sawdust (Lincoff, 490)!
False turkey-tail (Streum ostrea) is another fungus often growing on downed deciduous trees, although not a member of Polyporaceae. Its name stems from often being misidentified for the fungus turkey-tail (Trametes versicolor), which is a polypore (Lincoff, 497). The species name ostrea is Latin for “oyster,” the shape of the tan, tough and papery caps, often tinted green with algae (Roberts and Evans, 438). Research indicates that they produce laccase, an enzyme used to break down contaminants.
This common inkcap, Coprinopsis atramentaria, was found at Mills Norrie State Park along the Hudson River. The name atramentaria comes from the Latin word “atramentum,” meaning ink (www.first-nature.com). The French mycologist Jean Baptiste Francois Pierre Buillard, who first described the species and named it, realized that the gills turn to a liquid with age and can be used to make ink. The cap is light gray, thin and shaped like a partially opened umbrella with a smooth white stem and can be found growing on stumps, roadsides, and gardens.
Keep a lookout on your woodland adventures for the highly sought-after chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius), also called golden chanterelles for their yellow-orange coloration. They have smooth stems that widen at the top to a funnel-shaped cap with gills on the underside and a smooth top with wavy edges. This is one of the best-known mushrooms and is exported commercially worldwide (Roberts and Evans, 476). The ones pictured here were found at Schunnemunk State Park in the Hudson Valley.
In your exploration of State Parks, you are likely to stumble upon puffballs, family Agaricaceae, growing in the leaf litter. They are round to upside-down-pear shaped, sometimes with a grainy texture and usually 3 inches tall and 2 inches wide. They are called puffballs because as they mature, a hole opens on the top of the rounded cap that enables the spores to puff out. Historically, they were used to seal wounds, start fires, and stun bees as we use smoke today. But be cautious around them, their spores are known to irritate the nose and eyes, and if breathed in excess can cause an allergic reaction in the lungs called lycoperdonosis (Roberts and Evans, 520). The puffballs pictured below were sighted at Taconic Outdoor Education Center in the Hudson Valley. The giant puffball (Calvatio Gigantea) is a particularly interesting variation that has been seen on State Parks’ land. As its name implies, they are round, smooth and typically 30 inches by 30 inches. The largest recorded, however, was up to 5 feet wide and weighed in at over 40 pounds (Roberts and Evans, 512)!
Then there’s the coral mushrooms, named for their resemblance to undersea coral colonies. These white spindles (Clavaria fragilis) were found growing in the leaf litter at Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Hudson Valley. The species name fragilis pays homage to the extremely brittle nature of the fungus (Roberts and Evans, 486). It used to be called Clavaria vermicularis, white worm fungus because of its tubular white spines growing upwards in a cluster (Lincoff, 400).
It’s relative, golden spindles (Clavulinopsis fusiformis) is also a saprotroph, meaning it feeds on dead matter like leaf litter (Roberts and Evans, 494). Golden spindles also grow in unbranched needles, but as the name implies, are yellow.
This white coral (Ramariopsis kunzei) was also found growing in the leaf litter of the forest floor at Minnewaska State Park. Unlike the spindles, the fruitbodies of the white coral are branched. There is still much to be learned about this species (Roberts and Evans, 504).
A much shyer mushroom, despite the name, is lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus). It is also called bearded tooth, as it grows downward from trees or logs in a cluster of white spindles up to 3 inches long. Similar to human teeth, it yellows as it ages. In Asia it is called monkey head and is used to strengthen the immune system, available as a pill for stomach ulcers or as a tonic drink in a can (Roberts and Evans, 468). The cluster shown here was found at Minnewaska State Park.
Mushrooms like moisture and cool temperatures, so now is the time to seek them out. I am sure you will have no trouble finding them, and although they can be very tricky to identify, perhaps you may recognize some of the species featured here on the many trails located at our State Parks. Happy Mushroom hunting, but remember not to disturb them, as they are a much-needed member of the ecosystem.
Post by Sara Mitsinikos, SCA intern
“Coprinopsis Atramentaria (Bull.) Redhead, Vilgalys & Moncalvo – Common Inkcap.” Coprinopsis Atramentaria, Common Inkcap Mushroom, First Nature.
Lincoff, Gary H. National Audubon Society: Field Guide to Mushrooms. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Roberts, Peter, and Shelley Evans. The Book of Fungi: a Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from around the World. University of Chicago Press, 2011.
If you frequent nature trails, you have likely passed by stones or trees with some kind of crusty material on the surface. Is it a moss? No, moss is a plant. Is it a fungus? Well, yes and no. This crust is actually a partnership between at least two different organisms, making a composite organism called lichen (pronounced “LIKE-en”).
Lichens are made of multiple fungi – a diverse group of organisms including mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and others – living with algae and/or algae-like bacteria called cyanobacteria. The fungi provide a pleasant, hydrated shelter to live in, while their partner provides food through photosynthesis. Photosynthesis means using sunlight, water, and CO2 to create sugar (and the oxygen that we breathe, no big deal). Cyanobacteria can also “fix” or make use of nutrients from the air, further helping the fungi to grow. This mutual relationship between different species is what biologists call symbiosis.
Thanks to the many possible fungi-algae-bacteria combinations, lichens take on many different forms and colors. In New York State alone, there are over 800 types of lichens! Lichens can look like small flaky crusts (“crustose”), flat leaf-like growths (“foliose”), or even branched (“fruticose”) like miniature shrubs. Many take on a greenish-grey hue, but other colors include brown, black, white, yellow, bright orange, red, and blue. You might see these unique fungal partnerships on all kinds of surfaces along nature trails – adding a nice flair to wooden sign posts, historic stone walls, boulders, tree bark, the forest floor, and decaying logs.
People have used lichens for a variety of purposes for thousands of years. Lichens with antibiotic properties have been used in traditional medicines and embalming practices. Some of the more brilliant-colored lichens have been used to make dyes for yarn, cloth, and even litmus paper (a quick, easy way to measure how acidic something is). Several cultures worldwide include lichens in their diets, making soups, side dishes, beverages, and even molasses. But watch out – not all lichens are safe to eat! Those involving cyanobacteria can produce toxins; these lichens have historically been used as poisons in hunting.
While all these uses of lichens are interesting, we at New York State Parks want you to simply enjoy observing the beauty and impact of lichens in their natural habitats.
Lichens in Nature
Lichens serve several important roles in our parks. As one of the first lifeforms that established on land, they helped create much of the world we live in today. They play a role in soil formation, slowly breaking large rocks down into smaller pieces. Then they carry out processes that add essential nutrition to forest soils, allowing trees and plants to grow. Lichens also benefit wildlife. Northern flying squirrels, deer, and moose are among those known to graze on lichens, particularly in the winter. In the spring, birds like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird and the Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher often use lichen to build and camouflage their nests.
Lichen populations also give important clues about environmental health. Studies have shown lichen to be sensitive to air pollution, and so a decline in lichen may be a warning sign of worsening air quality nearby. Similarly, lichen growth rates react to long-term changes in moisture and temperature, and so they can help monitor the climate. Scientists take advantage of the slow-growing nature of certain lichens and use their size or branching patterns to estimate the age of rocks in the forests, similar to tree rings on a tree stump.
By keeping an eye on the lichens in our parks, we can discover fascinating patterns in our local ecosystems. And we can have a deeper appreciation for the beautiful landscapes that New York State has to offer!
See if you can spot these and other lichens the next time you are out enjoying nature:
Reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina) in the winter. Despite the name, this is actually a lichen. There are many similar species of Cladonia that can be seen in New York State Parks. (Photo by Steve Young, NYNHP)
Grey rock tripe (Umbilicaria sp.) and a finely-textured crustose lichen on a cliff community. (Photo by Gregory Edinger, NYNHP)
This spongy gray-green lichen was found in a chestnut oak forest. (Photo by Gregory Edinger, NYNHP)
Orange-brown rock tripe (Umbilicaria sp.) can be found on big rocks and outcrops at State Parks such as Minnewaska, Sterling, Moreau, and others. (Photo by Steve Young, NYNHP)
Up-close and personal with a leaf-like (“foliose”) lichen on a tree in Thacher State Park. (Photo by Erin Lennon, NYS Parks)
Stepping back to admire a mix of foliose lichens (grey and light-green), crustose lichen (small golden speckles), and moss (dark green) on the same tree trunk at Thacher State Park. (Photo by Erin Lennon, NYS Parks)
Post by Erin Lennon, State Parks
Featured image: A common sight: lichen attached to tree bark in New York State. (Photo adapted from Wikipedia, public domain)