The Bad in 402

With three days left of the year 402 ME, I have just enough time to squeeze in a few words about the real bad guys I saw this year. The very baddest of the year have to be these two goats. The one on the right leaped into the air as I watched and head-butted the other one with a loud thunk. That must have hurt! If I’d gone head to head with another person like this, I think my brains would have ended up scrambled. They continued butting heads until the goatherd came and broke it up.

Don’t ever believe that the small Indian Robin (Copsychus fulicatus) is a cuddly little thing. It is highly aggressive, not only picking lizards bigger than itself as a tasty snack for the chicks, but is also highly territorial. It’s sense of self is utterly contained within its body, and it is aggressive enough to attack its own reflection!

He who underestimates scorpions learns a painful lesson. So I was taught by one who found a scorpion curled up inside trekking shoes. They are aggressively territorial, but are also prey to several larger predators. The really badass thing about this photo is the UV fluorescence. I must get one of those black light lamps for the future.

These centipedes (Chilopoda) have lived in the Indian landmass from before the times when it broke off from Gondwanaland. These original inhabitants of India are decidedly bad for interlopers like H. sapiens, leaving painful welts on the skin if they crawl over you. If you see a swarm like this you better move quickly, these carnivores are faster than you may think.

How bad can these pretty mushrooms be, you ask? These looked similar to the poisonous and widespread Galerina marginata, and I would not take chances with it. Those cause, at the very least, permanent damage to the liver but also result in death in a very significant fraction of cases. Visual similarity is not a great guide in choosing mushrooms, but I would not risk picking them. Foraging for mushrooms is not common in India, and there is little know-how. What you see here is a possible bad guy, but the real baddie is the camera with which took the photo. It’s a small, light thing that fits in my pocket and takes sharp and bright macros. I’m so happy that I got it this year.

Desert mushroom

Where do mushrooms grow? I’d thought that wet decomposing leaves and wood are their niche. So I was quite surprised to see them growing out of bare ground in the Rann of Kutch, and almost completely ignoring the few twigs and leaves nearby. A couple of weeks later, I saw the same varieties at the edge of the Thar desert. The Rann is part of the Thar desert, so the commonality did not surprise me. But seeing mushrooms in that habitat took me aback. I had to take photos.

I know a couple of other dedicated fungivores. This tribe is as uncommon in urban India as wine drinkers were twenty years ago. With this tiny tribe I’m trying to figure out whether we can find edible mushrooms. There is a difference between a wine drinker and a mushroom eater: a wrong choice could kill one, but not the other. So the first step is to document the mushrooms that we see, before we go on to try to find whether they are edible. I think I managed to photograph all the ground-living varieties more than once.

As it turned out, this was also an opportunity to learn something new. Mushrooms, as you may know, are the fruiting bodies of fungi. The body of the fungus is a mass of filaments that lives and grows underground or in dying wood. They are neither plant nor animal, but an entirely different kingdom of life. What I was surprised to learn is that fungi grow in all kinds of enviroments: polar valleys and glaciers, deserts and salt flats (aha, for the Rann and the Thar). All that is required seems to be oxygen. It also turns out that understanding the ecological niches they inhabit is an active area of research. The moment you move out of admiring plants and animals, you hit the boundaries of human knowledge!

Hidden world

Monsoon can bring out hidden life in the garden, as I discovered on a walk this weekend. A beginning like this year’s is not routine, but not uncommon either: a couple of days of hard rain followed by a few days of sunshine. On a tree-stump that I have inspected at such times for several years now, I found the familiar bracket mushrooms sprouting (featured photo). Through the next few weeks they will grow into amazing dinner-plate sized bodies. Are they edible? I’ve seen this variety in forests near villages and they are not harvested by locals. In the absence of evidence, I have been cautious and not tried to eat them.

Further on, I found a treasure of a tree which I hadn’t noticed before. Its branches have sprouted mushrooms in this week. The fruiting bodies of mushrooms that we see, and sometimes love to eat, are just the tip of an ecological iceberg. Beneath it all is 90% of the lifecycle, the wonderful web called the mycelium. When they intermingle with the roots of trees, they seem to be symbiotic, exchanging nutrients and signaling molecules with the host. And sometimes they seem to provide a means of communication between plants, even those of different species (A BBC article colourfully names this a wood wide web). It is also possible that the webs of these hidden mycelia determine whether or not a forest supports an invading species of tree.

But these mushrooms that I see on this branch are not the soil growing mushrooms associated with trees which are the staple of forests. Are they among the edible mushrooms native to India which are slowly being identified and marketed? I wish I knew. The wonderful umami taste of mushrooms is widely recognized, and I do not mind adding a couple of new flavours to my food. I was not very surprised to find that they are called ‘vegetarian mutton’ in parts of India as widely separated as Maharashtra and Jharkhand. On this one branch of this single tree, I found three varieties of mushrooms sprouting. Does that mean that the tree is dead, and its decay is being hastened by these saprophytic fungi? Or are these the so-called endophytes, which are symbiotic with the tree? I’m afraid it will take an expert to tell.

Looking at these photos and wondering about them led me to documentary films and other information on a wonderful world which I did not know much about. Apart from these ecological connections, there are new horizons of different kinds. An interesting article told me about the possible industrial uses of the mycelium; among others, that mats of mycelia are being marketed as a alternative to styrofoam in packaging! The next time I inhale the wonderful earthy aroma of cooking mushroom, it will not be just the omelette I’ll be thinking about.

A surveyed garden

An act of the parliament in 1951 gave over a list of monuments for preservation to the Archaeological Survey of India. It has been doing this job pretty well for over half a century. Some years back it took upon itself the job of planting gardens around monuments. While this is a wonderful idea, it is executed in typical bureaucratic fashion: top-down without a thought to the local ecology. Dhar is one of the places where it is successful. In one particular property, about which I’ll write later, I was enchanted by the Rangoon creeper (Combretum indicum) whose vines had been planted along the fence to make a wonderful hedge. I grew up in houses where this flowering vine had taken over some corner of a garden. The flowers bud white, then turn successively pink and a pleasantly deep red over the next days. The woody vine is a good choice for a boundary fence, since it grows fairly fast and can be easily draped over a wire fence.

A wide lawn was being tended by a bunch of gardeners. The July rain was sufficient to keep it lush and green, although I suspect that in other seasons this is a water guzzler. Under a spreading kadam tree (Neolamarckia cadamba) I found mushrooms sprouting from the lawn. Mushrooms do not feature in my childhood memories; did I not see any, or did they just not make an impression? But with a camera in hand, I love the varied textures that they present. You can see a yellow kadam flower which has dropped on to one of the mushrooms. Unfortunately, I learnt about mushrooms only from supermarkets, so I give them a wide berth in the wild. Is this one of the poisonous false parasols or the edible parasol, or neither?

Two paces on a large mushroom had been uprooted. I took a closer look at the gills. If I were an expert this would have told me which mushroom I was looking at. I’m not an expert. The only interesting fact which I know about mushrooms is that a significantly large part of the mushroom grows underground, or inside rotten material. The buds which are visible in the form of parasols or brackets are just the fruiting bodies. The underground mycelium branch into this body, through the stalk, and are packed into the gills that you see above. Through these gills they release spores into the surroundings. A friend tells me of a spot in his garden where he finds morels year after year. That is because the underground mycelium remain after the umbrellas are harvested, and send up the fruiting bodies again the next year, to be collected again and eaten.