September 19, 2022
Good evening, friends,
This weekend I helped lead a walk in eastern Long Island and we found jelly babies (Leotia lubrica), also known as ochre jelly clubs, growing abundantly. These diminutive mushrooms were erupting out of dense mats of moss and, as it turns out, they have quite the penchant for these dewy, downy beds.
In latin, lubrica means slippery – relating to the texture both inside and outside of these colorful clubs. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what Leotia means. However, per the ever-reputable babynology.com, the name Leotia is used for girls in Australia and people with that name are “cheeky, sociable fun-lovers”. Honestly, that pairs with the mushroom nicely.
These mushrooms were super gelatinous. The inside of the larger, fresher specimens had an aloe-like texture. There are probably lots of interesting, novel compounds in that substance just begging to be discovered. When I let the substance dry on my finger I thought it smelled like chicken, but I could’ve incepted my own brain with that by calling them “chicken lips” (explanation coming later), or it was a residual odor from some previously handled mushroom.
There isn’t much else known about these mushrooms in the realm of fun facts, but I did want to focus a bit on the moss out of which they were emerging. I sifted through Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss and wanted to include this passage on the resiliency of moss:
“…But most mosses are immune to death by drying. For them, desiccation is simply a temporary interruption in life. Mosses may lose up to 98 percent of their moisture, and still survive to restore themselves when water is replenished. Even after forty years of dehydration in a musty specimen cabinet, mosses have been fully revived after a dunk in a Petri dish. Mosses have a covenant with change; their destiny is linked to the vagaries of rain. They shrink and shrivel while carefully laying the groundwork of their own renewal. They give me faith.”
The book is an artistic balance of scientific writing and personal reflection on her specialty – the overlooked, and often stepped on – moss. Evolution has designed moss to be the ultimate water retainer, and she notes moss leaves are just one cell thick to allow for seamless water absorption. This subsequently connects moss with fungi, since mushrooms are 90% water, and a walk in the woods after a nice rain will illuminate you to that special bond with visuals like the one below.
L. lubrica is saprobic, consuming dead organic material in the soil. The mushrooms are known to grow with moss, and that was reaffirmed as we found them growing rampantly in clumps or solitary specimens throughout this moss-laden property. They grow summer through fall and have a widespread distribution across the five continents you see below – yet to be seen in Africa, it appears. This map entails all the observations of L. lubrica reported to iNaturalist.
L. lubrica is an ascomycete, part of a different fungal phylum than our common gilled and pored mushrooms, the basidiomycetes. That’s why these jelly babies don’t have gills – although interestingly they do for the most part assume the typical toadstool shape of a gilled mushroom. They produce their spores in sacs, called an ascus (pl, asci), where as the gilled and pored mushrooms produce their spores at the end of club-shaped cells known as basidium (pl. basidia).
As previously mentioned, I was calling these “chicken lips” in the field. That’s the common name of the similar species, Leotia viscosa. L. viscosa has a richer, more vibrant green at the top of the “cap” (technically not a cap since it’s an ascomycete), whereas our jelly babies have just a hint of olive green on their heads. It seems that there may be several genetically unique species in the genus Leotia, with several species lurking under the two epithets L. lubrica and L. viscosa, but more research is needed to parse them out. Regardless, I found some actual chicken lips, Leotia viscosa, last year in the White Mountains of New Hampshire so you can at least get an idea of that vibrant green below.
The equinox is this Thursday, the 22nd,
1) Kuo, M. (2012, July). Leotia lubrica. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/leotia_lubrica.html
2) Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. First edition. Corvallis, OR, Oregon State University Press, 2003.