Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Sorcerer's Heart -Clathrus ruber

My wife said "There is something odd in the hedge".  We were in the car returning from shopping and just turning the corner of the lane to enter our driveway.   It wasn't an old discarded ball but this astonishing fungus.  It is astonishing at any time.  But to see it on January 2nd (2012) is truly extraordinary.   It is only the third time I have seen it.   The last time was some years ago when I came upon a specimen growing just under the walls of the ruined chateau of Montsegur,  That place is remarkable enough; perched high on a small mountain, bleak and forbidding.  It was the last refuge of the the religious sect - the Cathars - massacred on this spot by the bigots of the Catholic Church.
Clathrus ruber is usually said to be a southern species desiring warmth.  On January 2nd it was 4 degrees in the morning. So that seems odd.  It is rare in England, having mostly been found very close to the south coast, though are a few records close to the east coast of Scotland.  Perhaps it needs warmth during the previous year? It certainly needs warmth to let its stink pervade the air.  For, so it is said, the spores are distributed by flies attracted to the stink.  This specimen attracted no flies and I had to get my nose to within 15 centimetres of it to detect its characteristic smell of rotting flesh.
The specimen was  no mean size, having a diameter of over fifteen centimetres.  The cage like structure had slightly collapsed towards the left.  It expands out of an 'egg' the soft papery casing of which can be seen at the base.  The mass of spores immersed in a brown slime is contained in the very centre and this is surrounded by a the girders of spongy red tissue.  This net of girders expands quite quickly creating a cage with the greeny-brown gooey stinking mass of spores (the gleba) sticking to the inside of the cage like structure.
It seems incredible that anyone would attempt to eat the thing, but I read from an American journal (1854) that a young man ate a portion and he suffered convulsions and lost his power of speech and became unconscious for 48 hours.   Another scientific account details that the fruit body is more than usually rich in the element manganese. That does seem odd.  Manganese is important in various enzymatic processes.  Perhaps it is important in whatever processes make the net like ball  expand rapidly?
Though it is rarely seen,  It is usually found in places with much leaf mould.
Flies which distribute the spores probably not only do this on their feet but also through their digestive tract.  I hypothesise, but it would seem not unlikely. You might suppose that the red colour (which is due to carotenes, and similar to the chemicals that make carrots red) might, in being similar to the colour of red meat, also be attractive to flies.  But do flies see colour?  If they do not, what then is the reason for this colour?  Other related species have this same colouration.
By the 6th January the gleba had almost totally been washed away by the rain and the girders, now pale pink, were left with a consistency of polystyrene foam, not at all slimy  and with little smell.
This article was first published in

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