Puzzling Pieces


In January, fallen leaves and dying vines make it easier to follow deer trails into the woods. Yesterday, along one of those trails, I found a rotting tree covered with this oddly attractive substance. Hard and smooth to the touch, the strange bits reminded me of scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I assumed the substance was either lichen or fungus: determining which was the next step.

As it turned out, that next step was relatively easy. Alexey Sergeev, a researcher whose interests are focused on such things as quantum-mechanical perturbation theory and who currently works at Tulane University, also spent time at Texas A&M in College Station. During those years, he photographed hundreds of Texas plants, as well as a good number of fungi, mosses, algae, and lichens, providing the date, location, and scientific name of each.

A search of his site using the phrase ‘fungus on oak’ found a match to my photo almost immediately, in the eighth row on the page. Ceramic parchment fungus — Xylobolus frustulatus — generally forms on the dry, well-decayed wood of oaks: precisely where I found it. Known as a crust fungus, X. frustulatus received its common name because it often looks like whitish tile fragments put together with black grout. Known as a saprobe, the ceramic parchment fungus survives by decomposing dead or decaying organic material and using it as food.

Another site, Fungus Fact Friday, provided a few more interesting details, including a way to determine the age of the fungus:

Each ’tile’ (or ‘frustule’ to mycologists) is shaped like an irregular polygon, has a smooth, white top, has sides that are black or dark brown, and has a wood-like consistency. The upper surface is irregularly lumpy but smooth and bears an uncanny resemblance to ceramic in both texture and color. It is from this surface that the spores are released. As the mushroom ages, this surface becomes pale pinkish to pale orangish with mature spores and then slowly turns brown.

Reading that, I couldn’t help thinking that, with age, this fungus appears less like a ceramic tile and more like a Scrabble tile. In either case, its appearance is fascinating.


Comments always are welcome..

64 thoughts on “Puzzling Pieces

    1. Here’s another interesting fact about this fungus. It’s almost never found on top of logs, but tends to show up on vertical surfaces, like their cut ends. That allows the spores to fall into the air when they’re released, rather than falling back on themselves. The tree trunk where I found these was, of course, vertical. Clever nature!

    1. This was especially interesting to me, because I know so little about fungi, and I’ve found it hard to get my mind around them. This one’s unusual enough, and easily enough identified, that it wasn’t such a chore to sort out the details about it. It was great to find such a large patch on the tree trunk, too.

  1. Jigsaw puzzle! Usually I’ve seen oyster mushrooms growing on decaying oaks, not sure I’ve ever seen this type – – interesting! and you’re right, kind of attractive.

    1. When I learned that this grows on the cut ends of logs, it occurred to me that I may have seen more of it than I realized. This was such a large patch, surrounded by other, smaller patches, that it just couldn’t be missed. It tickled me that, in this instance, the common name so perfectly captures the appearance of the fungus.

    1. Some of the websites I’ve visited while trying to identify a fungus have been so technical they haven’t been particularly helpful; they’ve assumed a lot of basic knowledge I don’t have. But the Fungus Fact Friday site is quite accessible, and it has links to other sites that seem useful. Alexey Sergeev’s site is worth browsing, too. He has photos from all over the world, including a photo of this fungus from St. Petersburg, Russia.

    1. Wouldn’t this one’s patterns make a great tile for your new bath? I think it’s just beautiful, and finding it was completely unexpected. Looking ‘for’ this or that is great, but sometimes just looking is better.

    1. After looking at this photo of the same fungus on the end of a log, I feel certain I’ve seen it before. I suspect it’s in your area, too, but many of the photos show much smaller patches, or scattered bits. Anyway, the next time one of us sees it, we’ll know what it is.

    1. The internet is great, especially when there are people who put so much time and effort into providing information. While I don’t expect you to be prowling fungi sites, it did occur to me that the same thing happens with genealogical research. There are a lot of people out there snapping photos and looking up records to help others who are trying to find ancestors!

      I thought of Diana while I was processing this photo. Remember her blog entry one Christmas when they finished their jigsaw, but were missing some pieces? Now, we miss her.

    1. So, my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, but I can’t resist: fungi or fun guys, we’d be poorer without either of them. More seriously, if only we could get humans to work together as well as the various parts of the natural world do, that would be something.

    1. This is another example of the way a macro lens can reveal the world to us in wonderful ways. When I saw the “whatever” on the tree, these details weren’t nearly so distinct. After I saw the photos, I just had to find out what I was looking at. It’s always enjoyable when finding an answer is so easy.

    1. You’re a fungi fan! I’ve never paid much attention to them, but they’re not as noticeable at the seashore or on the prairie. Now that I’m spending a little more time in the woods, I’m realizing how many and varied they are — here comes another learning curve.

  2. They do look like Scrabble tiles! What a wonderful thing Nature is, and what an observant person you are to bring it close to us — thank you, Linda!

    1. There hasn’t been one day in all these years now that I’ve gone out with my camera and not found something new or unusual to share. Of course I often see the same flowers, butterflies, and birds, but there’s always something. I just didn’t expect it to find an impressive fungus this time!

  3. I’ve seen this in the north woods of Minnesota numerous times, but it seems I never took the time to research it for identification. I’d certainly remember the name if I had. Thanks for taking that extra step! It really reminds me of a scene in the (really fun) movie “The Croods,” in which they have to navigate a large valley full of hoodoos. I’d love to be able to shrink myself to be able explore places like the spaces between these tiles!

    1. I’d never heard of The Croods, so I went over to take a look at the plot synopsis, I was a little unnerved by a personal — by name — invitation on the right hand side of the page to review the film publicly. Google strikes again.

      That aside, what a great thought: to reduce in size and go exploring. You’re reminded me of what it was like to roam through Monument Rocks in western Kansas. They aren’t as many or as closely spaced as the formations in the southwest, but the experience was similar.

      1. CD and I visited the Monument Rocks (aka The Chalk Pyramids) on our road trip to California in November 2014, and we found them unforgettable. I understand that the owners of the private property on which they are situated have donated them to the state and I think they are in the process of becoming a state park. I thought I had highlighted them in a post back then, but a quick review reveals that I was (for the first time, surely) mistaken. I may have to rectify this deficiency in a “Places Remembered” post in the near future. Thanks for the prod, Linda!

        1. I’m so glad you were able to visit that spot. I was there in late autumn, and there were almost no people there: just one couple visiting the rocks, and one fellow in a truck who stopped to tell me there were pronghorns down the road. I’d love to go back in spring, or earlier in the fall, to see the wildflowers. There are some unusual ones there that look beautiful in photos I’ve seen.

  4. This is really terrific; it represents the very best of blogging. The whole thing was new to me, and I found it quite fascinating. Gotta do a little more research now!

    1. When I was researching and writing this, it occurred to me that I need to go back and take a look at that book about fungi you reviewed. I started to read your review and then was distracted, but I do remember you mentioned it was applicable to species here as well as in Europe.

      Like any new subject, finding an entrée is key. I’ve tended to throw up my hands when it comes to fungi, lichens, and such just because there are so many, and so many are similar, and without even the basic vocabulary, identification is almost impossible. But now I’ve managed it with one species, so why not two?

  5. You spelled this one out quite well. I am not sure whether I have seen this or not. It seems widespread so I’ll be looking for it. You never know what you might come across once you start looking.

    1. I found two more trees with the fungus today. One still was standing and one apparently had been felled at some time in the past, since it had a clean cut where the fungus had attached. Apparently the fungus grows only on oak, so if you’re keeping company with maples, don’t bother looking for it!

      1. I keep varied company. :) I read up on it and saw what you said about oaks. This isn’t the best time of the year for fungi around here but the last few days have been warm and the last time we had a warm spell like this I found that oyster mushroom. I’ll keep my eyes open.

        1. Now that you mention it, I suppose snow and ice aren’t the best conditions for mushrooms. On the other hand, when I looked up mushrooms that can tolerate winter, one that was listed was the oyster mushroom. Sure enough, that’s the one you recently posted about. I really like that one, too. It looks like an elegant highrise designed by some really creative architect.

          1. The one I posted is the Late Autumn Oyster which does handle cold weather a little better than most fungi. I’ve found a couple that are bearing the cold reasonably well but most shrivel. Their work was done when the let their spores fly so it’s on to the next generation for the majority.
            The clusters/clumps can get quite large in the right circumstances. This, which is one that you have already seen, being one of the nicest I have found.

    1. What a great connection, Gerard! Even though the books say this one isn’t edible, the shape certainly is appetizing.

      Sometimes I surprise myself with what I find to post here. I certainly never imagined I’d be photographing and researching a fungus, but here we are. I keep thinking about something our writer Flannery O’Connor once said: “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” I suppose that’s true for the photographer, too — or even just for plain old human beings like us. Kids will stand and stare, but somewhere along the line we get the sense that we shouldn’t: that it’s impolite. Well, maybe sometimes it is, but there’s still a lot out in the world that deserves a good stare.

    1. It’s was natural, indirect light. The tree was in the middle of a grove of mostly young trees, and it was a little cloudy, so there weren’t any harsh shadows. I brightened it just a touch in processing, but otherwise it’s as I saw it. If I’d been an hour or two later, I don’t think I could have managed the photo. I stopped by the tree today, and the sun had moved far enough that the fungus-covered side was quite dark.

  6. A fabulous find with great information too. It does look like a very difficult jigsaw puzzle. I don’t recall seeing any fungi such as this one. But from time to time I see various mushrooms growing in my yard and some are very interesting but I have only bothered to research one of my rather rare ones. At this time I can not even recall the name but there is a post on my blog about it. Perhaps it behooves me to have a look at my long neglected blog to see which one it is that I found about 5-6 years ago.

    1. I have a friend who nearly drove herself crazy trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with a black and white spiral. I think this just might rank up there on the crazy-making scale.

      We get a lot of lawn mushrooms, and almost every time I bring home a certain landscape mix from our local nursery, I’ll find the prettiest, pale lemon-yellow umbrella-type mushrooms growing in it. They’re quite pretty, and I need to see if I can identify them, too.

      It is nice having the blog archives, isn’t it? Sometimes I look for specific things, but just as often I’ll go back and browse, just to see what I’ve written. After ten years, it’s easy to forget. If you find your rare one, let me know what it is.

      1. I decided to look up the post and is from 2014. It was easier to find than I thought. Funny but when I contact a prof at Baylor he claimed he had them popping up all of his 30 or so acres or what ever it was.

        Anyhow, your friend has/had an infinite amount of patience with that type of puzzle. I just can not go there. The anxiety of trying to fit just one piece would have me bonkers. I love crossword puzzles, medium hard. I used to the Daily commuter puzzle in the Dallas Morning News and then stopped taking the paper Now, my hometown papers is one that I enjoy six days a week and I love it. Sundays puzzle has ridiculous clues that I find boring and utterly useless as entertainment.


    1. I like that you saw it as a watercolor. If I had any extra wall space, which I don’t, this is one I might print and hang — I like it that much. But I must say, that puzzle… I just spent a few minutes with it, and even full screen on my nice big monitor, it didn’t get any easier. I thought I surely could fit a few pieces together, but I haven’t done it yet. We’ll see how it goes.

    1. They grow in St. Petersburg, Russia, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see them in your neighborhood as well. I read that they’re one of the most widely spread species, and you certainly have enough wood to make them happy — at least, if you have oaks. They only grow on oak trees. Picky things, those fungi!

      1. We only have a hundred or so on our property. Grin. But it was at a slightly higher elevation and a different species than our white oaks that I remember the fungus growing on. I think. You’ve inspired me to go looking, however, Linda. –Curt

    1. This is only a small portion of the fungus that covered the tree. The entire patch extended all along one side of the trunk: about a foot wide and four feet long. That’s part of what caught my attention. At first, I assumed it would be fuzzy like mold, or lichen like, but when I looked more closely, it did look as though someone had covered the trunk with small tiles.

    1. Fun, too. I wouldn’t be at all frustrated if something this fascinating showed up on my neighborhood oak. Well, except for the fact that this fungus likes dying and decaying trees. I wouldn’t like that at all.

    1. I was filled with curiosity as a child. I lost some of that as I moved into adulthood, for a number of reasons, but then I began to recapture that part of my personality — and heaven knows there’s enough around us to be curious about. Add in a love of research, and I’ve got enough to keep me busy and entertained for the rest of my life.

  7. This is so cool. I’ve never seen it. You were smart to search using the oak substrate. You must have been thrilled to find it – fungi can be so hard to identify. It’s a gorgeous image!

    1. I have a terrible time with fungi. So many of them differ from one another so slightly, it can be daunting at best to try and identify them. But this one was easy — at least, it was easy after I got a photo and enlarged it enough to see what was going on. I do love the image. Odd as it may seem, it reminds me of Mondrian.

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