WITCHES’ BUTTER, JACK O’LANTERN MUSHROOMS, WITCH HAZEL AND CARRION BEETLES! HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Aside from orange leaves that may be floating down on your heads (or accumulating on your lawns), let’s do a little spooky nature hunt! First, for some special fun(gi), scout around for yellow Witches’ Butter. It looks like jellied globs on felled trees and logs. If you try to spread this growing, and almost glowing, plant on your toast you will find it is tough and somewhat rubbery. It is supposed to be edible, but I’ll leave this fungus for the witch who may be out having breakfast in the woods..

There is a halloweeny mushroom that you may still find growing in clumps, and this really will glow if observed in the dark! Its gills (on the underside of the cap) give off an eerie green glow on dark nights. This is an orange Jack O’Lantern Mushroom. It’s a good one to know since it is one of the poisonous varieties we encounter in the woods, or even on our lawns where trees are growing. I am quite sure a witch dreamed up this mushroom to keep us on our toes.

But on to more Halloween tricks and treats. This week while walking in the Maine woods, I noticed that Witch Hazel has burst into bloom! Now here is a shrub that defies tradition and picks Fall to flower. Just as its wavy-edged leaves turn yellow, spider-like blossoms burst forth to treat us to its unusual form. Each has four, stringy petals that look like ribbons gone awry. Surrounding the central pistil are curious stamens that pop open to discharge their pollen. Later, those peculiar petals drop leaving a cuplike urn as a floral remnant. Inside this "urn" brews up nourishment for seed production. There again, this inspiring plant plays a trick. At this time of year, the seed pods from last year are exploding and shooting their seeds at passersby. Of course there is no intention to hit hikers, but all the same, these seeds are shot away from the mother plant to grow and flower just like "mom". So beware of flying seed missiles – it’s sort of like a woodland witch with a pea shooter!

For more seasonal fun, now that you’ve found this witch called Hazel, carefully cut a forked twig from this plant and set out to find water! Legend has it that these branches can be used as divining rods to locate hidden springs. It is believed that the twig will turn down in the hand when the one who holds it passes over a hidden spring. It is worth trying. So put on your witch’s hat and try your hand at dowsing!

Speaking of witch’s hats, this plant also grows curious galls that are shaped, you guessed it – like a pointed cap! An aphid creates these concoctions in a Halloween theme to house its offspring preferring the leaves of Witch Hazel.

Finally, as you consider disguising for seasonal parades, take a clue from our avian friends. Many of these feathered creatures have drastically changed their appearances. The male Goldfinch masquerades as its female counterpart! The Laughing Gulls are playing a joke on us by molting and losing their black head feathers. The Loon has lost its bands and striping. So strike up the Halloween band and do a jig on a nature trail. Look for witches, pumpkins and bring some toast for buttering (just kidding).

And one final note: Check out the colors of the Carrion Beetle. If you can’t find a corpse or carcass, look it up in your field guide. Yes, you might have guessed – it’s decked out for the Halloween parade. Come to think of it, I just had a costume idea. If you see a Carrion Beetle in the parade, it might be me!

If you have any other Halloween ideas on a nature theme, email me! ............................................10/26/03 The Witch called Ron….