A Species of Fungi to Catch Your Eye

Anyone can be a naturalist. On the Academy blog, our scientists and staff share their knowledge of the natural world and highlight a seasonal plant or animal that you might find right in your own backyard.  Below, David Hewitt, research associate in botany, draws your attention to a species of fungus that is sure to catch your eye.

If you’re walking on some wet ground this summer and you look down, you might see what looks to be a reddened eye winking up at you. And, if you kneel down closer, you might see other eyes, growing on rotten, wet wood or in the nearby soil. You may see them growing tightly clustered together, bumping eyelash to eyelash, or perhaps a bit more spread out, giving each other room to grow. They are about a quarter inch across, sometimes less, with brilliant red coloring in the middle and black filaments raying out from their margins.

What you’re seeing is the eyelash fungus, or Scutellinia scutellata. This fungus commonly grows throughout Europe and North America and is easily recognizable due to its bright red or orange color and the striking “eyelashes” that line its edges. The eyelash fungus is a discomycete, meaning that its spores are produced on an exposed surface, called a hymenium (the red or orange top surface on the fungus). While there are a number of discomycetes growing in the woods, this is the only one with that particular combination of characteristics.

As with most fungi, there is a connection to Lewis David von Schweinitz, one of the founding fathers of North American mycology, or the study of fungi. He was born in the United States in 1780 and, when he was 18, went to Europe to study (he returned to the U.S. some years later to work as a Moravian priest). During his studies in Europe, Schweinitz, who was enamored by the natural world, worked with one of his teachers to produce a monumental work in mycology, called the Conspectus Fungorum in Lusatiae superioris agro Niskiensi crescentium e methodo Persooniana—generally just called the Conspectus Fungorum, published in 1805. Schweinitz drew and painted some spectacular illustrations associated with this publication, which he bound into volumes, now located in the Academy’s Ewell Sale Stewart Library. Most of the illustrations have a distinct charm and are so accurate that they remain some of the best illustrations available today.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of Academy Frontiers.

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