The other day our dog Toby chased a squirrel past the tree in front of our house. He enjoys running after squirrels, although I’m not sure if he’s trying to catch them, herd them or play with them. It’s on my list of questions to ask him should he ever learn to talk, right after “What are you discussing with the three dogs next door when you bark at each other?” and “What’s so great about goose poop?”
So, anyway, I trailed after Toby as he chased this squirrel to make sure he didn’t go too far and fly off the ledge just on the other side of the tree. It’s not like a cliff or anything; he’d probably just roll down the hill and get up, looking all embarrassed like he does when he catches a blowing leaf and then can’t get it out of his mouth.
With the squirrel gone and Toby safely spinning in place at the top of the hill (Question #8: “What’s up with the spinning in place business?”), I looked down to see these enormous mushrooms growing at the base of the tree. Not only were the mushrooms huge, they also had this gauzy substance on them, like spider webs or mold. Or gauze.
That evening I pointed them out to our resident fungal expert, our daughter’s boyfriend Alex, who had previously demonstrated an intense, and perhaps suspicious, knowledge of mushrooms of all kinds. He took one look at these and said matter-of-factly, “Oh, yes, those are artist’s conchs.”
He went on to provide a lengthy description of these mushrooms and their superpower, which is evidently to suck stuff right out of their host tree, or something like that. He even knew a ratio that calculated, based on the size of the mushroom, how much stuff the shrooms could suck if, you know, a wood shroom could suck wood.
Great. People pay big bucks for fungi sniffed out by pigs in France, but I get vampire mushrooms the size of nuclear bomb clouds growing out of my tree in Stamford.
But Alex wasn’t finished. He described a test arborists use to determined how much the tree had been compromised. It involved electrodes and other complicated equipment and sounded more like it would be used to execute the tree than test it.
Finally, he told us that we really needed to do a mushroomectomy to remove the offending fungus. My wife Barbara and I questioned him further. Did this need to be done by an expert? Did you just chop them off? Did you have to make sure you didn’t leave any spores, or seeds, or mushroom pieces or something behind? Did you have to give the tree radiation treatments afterward?
Alas, this is where Alex’s expertise ended. What kind of incomplete education do they give kids at Cornell anyway?*
Anyway, I looked it up online and found this:
Ganoderma applanatum is called the artists conk (sic) because it has a very good surface for painting and carving. This is the end of the list of good qualities for this fungi. For trees, this disease is devastating...It can destroy the structural integrity of a tree in one season, leaving the tree a hazard waiting to fall at any moment…
Oh, wonderful. This was one tree whose structural integrity we did not want destroyed. This is a big tree. It is maybe a couple of yards from our house. If it fell, it would slice our home in half as neatly as a Ginsu Knife slices through butter…if pieces of the butter ended up strewn across a half-mile radius. Suffice it to say that our new 3D TV would no longer be three dimensional.
We decided we needed to go over Alex’s head and contact an expert on arboreal mushroom damage. But since we didn’t know any of those, we contacted our landscaper, Brian, who seems to be an expert on everything. I e-mailed him the photo above (the mushrooms, not the Ginsu Knives), and he replied from his smartphone:
Mushrooms not indicative of a true problem. How is the rest of the tree? Healthy with green leaves ?? or turning, any rotten pieces in tree (limbs crotches etc ?_) these are the things I will be looking for
Okay, so maybe he’s not an expert at punctuation. And what the hell was a “limb crotch?” So I went back to Google, and searched “limb crotch.” The first two listings I found involved one Israel Sarrio, a 25-year old truck driver who…
…had his arm reattached after it was torn off in a tragic accident, but when it became infected, doctors had to re-amputate it to treat the ailing limb and stump. The arm was attached to Sarrio’s groin, which kept the limb alive by feeding it blood through its veins and arteries while doctors worked to cure the infection on the stump it was taken from. It was later successfully reattached.
I stopped my search at this point, for some reason no longer interested in limb crotch, and determined to live the rest of my life without shaking Israel Sarrio’s hand.
By the time Brian arrived, Barbara had removed one of the mushrooms by stepping on it, which was not the sort of surgical precision I thought was called for. The thing was about the size and hardness of a dinner plate.
Brian looked up at the tree. “Hard to tell,” he said at last. “It’s an oak. Oaks are very thick. They’re always the last to go in a storm. But just the right wind comes along…you never know.”
He looked up again, then continued. “You don’t want to take this down if you don’t have to. Because of the proximity to the house, you have to take it down chuck by chunk from the top. And like I said, it takes a lot to bring down an old oak. But you never know.”
I asked if there was any way to tell how much…whatever…the mushrooms had sucked out of the tree. “Yeah,” he said. “You just drill a hole. If you stop meeting resistance, it means there’s a hollow spot.”**
I wondered aloud if it was a good idea to be drilling into a tree that might already be compromised. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. He said it in a way that indicated I had better things to be worried about.
He said he’d be back to drill. “Anyway,” he said in a weak attempt to ease our concern, “the way the tree is leaning, it would probably fall away from the house and down the hill. But you get the wind blowing from that way, and you never know.”
I wished he would stop saying that. I wanted him to know. I certainly didn’t know. What’s the point of calling in an expert if they don’t know?
I mean, here we are looking at a skyscraper of an oak tree and not knowing if it has been turned into a WMD by a bunch of friggin’ dinnerware-like mushrooms!
A few days later, a couple of guys rang the doorbell wanting to know if they could plug in their drill. Since we don’t often get people coming to our door with that particular request, I assumed they were Brian’s guys. In any case, considering the length of the drill bit they were pointing at me, I wasn’t going to argue with them.
They drilled a couple of holes in the oak, examined the color of the tree dust that came out, and pronounced the tree healthy. Then they broke off the mushrooms and left.
Thus ended our mushroom adventure. I hope that the next time we find such things growing near our house, they are of some value, either as a cooking ingredient or an hallucinogen.
Something to put the “fun” back in “fungus.”
See you soon.
*This link provides an answer to that question: “Students Flock to ‘Magical Mushrooms’ Course.”
**I later confronted Alex with this other, simpler-sounding testing method. “Oh, sure,” he replied. “You could do it that way.” And then he added. “But it’s much cooler with the electrodes.”