It's winter along Geronimo Creek in South Texas. Mushrooms on the forest floor and fixed to dead trees are shedding their cargoes of dusty spores.
"Chorioactis geaster" Click image to enlarge.
Each winter the Mims place on Geronimo Creek in South Texas is sprinkled with specimens of rare Chorioactis geaster fungi that are found only on one Japanese island and in several Texas counties.
by Forrest M. Mims III
Today I photographed a brown mushroom surrounded by a pale white circle of spores. Had there been any breeze, many of those spores would have taken to the air and been carried a considerable distance.
A few years ago, my wife Minnie saw the rarest sight of all when a devil's cigar spewed a thin trail of smoky spores into a cool November morning. This strange fungus, known to botanists as Chorioactis geaster, resembles a dark brown cigar emerging from the ground.
At the appropriate time, the ugly cylinder splits open to form a striking tan star from which the spores are released.
The devil's cigar was first reported in Austin in 1893. It was later discovered in Kyushu, Japan, but 38 years passed before it was again seen there.
In Texas, the fungus has been found only in Travis, Dallas, Denton, Tarrant and Hunt Counties. Now its range can be extended south to Guadalupe County, for over the past decade my family has seen clusters of them under the cedar elms on our land along Geronimo Creek.
We knew nothing about the devil's cigar or its rarity until the September 1998 issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine arrived. A large photograph showed a cluster of them, two of which were opened into star-shaped patterns the size of a small saucer. An article by K. C. Rudy and Harold W. Keller described in detail the strange fungus we have so often seen.
The appearance of the devil's cigar is unlike that of any other fungus. It's also one of only 15 species that emit an audible sound during spore emission. According to Rudy and Keller, the hissing sound can be heard from a distance of several feet. There was once a nice photograph of one of the web, but it has disappeared. Perhaps the one posted nearby will take its place. Is the devil's cigar more common than previously thought? To find out, the editors of Texas Parks & Wildlife offered a free subscription to readers who sent photographs of the exotic fungus. Apparently they received only one photograph, which was published in the December 1998 issue. So while my family's observations along Geronimo Creek have expanded the known range of this botanical rarity, so far the devil's cigar is as rare as claimed. I plan to explore some of the questions raised about the devil's cigar by Rudy and Keller in a scientific paper they wrote about the strange fungus. Why is it so rare? What kind of climate and soil does it prefer? How often does it emerge?
I am especially interested in the possibility that spores from the devil's cigar arrived in Texas on clouds of Asian dust during spring wind storms. Every few years, huge clouds of Asian dust blanket the West. Since some of this dust passes over Kyushu, Japan, does it sometimes include C. geaster spores?
My biggest ambition is to see what Minnie saw--a devil's cigar in full smoke! I especially want to photograph this mysterious fungus as it spews forth its smoky progeny for the next generation. Meanwhile, the Texas Legislature may get to know the devil's cigar. The dramatic star-shaped fungus has been proposed as a living symbol of the Lone Star State.
Forrest M. Mims III and his science are featured online at www.forrestmims.org.
This feature was originally published in Forrest Mims's weekly science column in the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, Seguin, Texas. The column is written for a general audience.
For More information and photos: