Mar/Apr 2009Hidden In Plain View by Dennis Chastain

Learn to spot some of nature's hidden treasures by focusing on the forest floor during springtime walks in the woods.

Believe it or not, you can actually enhance your next walk in the woods by learning a little lesson at the grocery store. The next time you find yourself pushing a buggy down one of the center aisles of your local supermarket, stop at any point and turn your head to the right. You will be looking at the highest per-unit priced items on the store shelves. It seems that the wizards of supermarket psychology know more about us than we know about ourselves. They have determined that it is our natural tendency to focus primarily on those things located right at eye level.

This is where they put the so-called "value-added" items, the brightly-packaged items with the highest profit margin, things like pre-packaged complete meals-in-a-box and microwaveable cups of soup. If you want the lower-cost items, the more basic ingredients you need to prepare a home-cooked meal (things like sugar, salt, rice, dried beans and grits), you will have to take the extra time and effort required to visually scan the shelves down near the floor. If you want to purchase one of these more mundane items, you may have to actually get down on one knee to lift it from the shelf.

And so it is when we go for a walk in the woods. We tend to see mostly those things located at eye level, such as wildflowers and big, showy, brightly packaged things that jump out and grab our attention. But there is a whole world of somewhat more subdued natural wonders located down below, down on the forest floor. You should see what you are missing.

Take "little pigs," for example. Some people, mostly older folks who grew up in the country, may remember going out in the woods and looking for little pigs, the pot-bellied flowers of plants in the Hexastylis genus that go by several common names: wild ginger, heart leaf ginger, or simply heart leaf. Be advised, it takes some effort to find them, and you will have to learn to visually scan the forest floor, but it is worth the extra effort.

Step one is to learn to recognize the plant. Look for a low cluster of dark green, waxy, heart-shaped leaves held erect on reddish stems. Note that one species has leaves that are shaped more like an Indian arrowhead than a valentine heart. Once you have found the plant, you will need to get down on at least one knee and pull back the leaves from the base of the plant. If you happen to be doing this during the months of April through June, there is a high probability that you will find the little pigs.

The rigid, reddish-brown, open-faced flowers are mottled with specks and patches of creamy white. Perhaps it is only in the vivid imagination of a child that they resemble miniature barnyard porkers, but they are very interesting flowers, nevertheless. You might legitimately ask if these are real flowers. Yes, they are real flowers, and they are located down under the leaves because they are pollinated by beetles and that is where beetles spend most of their time. The rotund little pigs are remarkably rigid because beetles are not the most delicate pollinators of the insect world. More ornate, flimsy flowers likely would not survive their clumsy crawling around. The plants have no need to put up tall flower stalks or develop brightly hued, frilly flowers because they are not trying to lure flying insects. If you have children, or even grandchildren, do yourself and the kids a favor and spend some time in the woods this spring looking for little pigs.

In the process of looking for little pigs, you may encounter another plant of the forest floor, a rather obscure plant that has twin flowers and produces a double berry.

Partridgeberry, also sometimes known as checkerberry, squaw vine or twinberry, is a running, creeping, ground-hugging vine, with small, paired-oval leaves, that sometimes covers a fairly large area with a continuous mat of vegetation. In April and May, look for the tiny, white funnel-form flowers.

There is something interesting going on here. Get down close and look at the way the two flowers are fused together at the base. This is very unusual in the world of wildflowers and requires some explanation. When both of the paired flowers are successfully pollinated by long-tongued insects, the female reproductive parts of the two flowers work together to produce a double berry, actually a double fruit to be botanically correct. Thus we get the common name, twinberry. It is similar to the mechanism that produces conjoined twins in humans.

The bright red fruits of partridgeberry are often present year-round, so you may find last year's edible, but quite bland, fruit present at the same time the plant is flowering. Get down on your hands and knees and look closely at the fruit; you will notice that it has two "eyes" or small indentations. This is the result of the fact that the ovaries of the two flowers are fused together, producing a pair of botanical bellybuttons.

Our final curiosity found on nature's bottom shelf is one that many outdoorsmen have heard of, but few have ever actually found - morel mushrooms. Finding morel mushrooms requires exactly the same skills we just learned in the grocery store. You have to actively look for them down at ground zero, the forest floor. Few things in nature are more perfectly camouflaged than a morel mushroom. If hunting apparel manufacturers could come up with a camo pattern as effective as that of morel mushrooms, deer hunters could walk up to a ten-point buck and touch him on the nose.

Look for something that resembles an open-celled sponge, the kind people used to use to wash a car. The conical cap, the part that looks like a sponge, is mounted atop a relatively smooth stem that appears to be solid but is actually hollow. The thing that makes them so hard to find is the fact that the overall tawny tan or light brown color and the textured surface of the elusive fungus almost perfectly match the background of dried and partially decayed leaves that carpet the forest floor. But keep this in mind, once you have trained your eyes to scan the ground-level landscape for their unique shape and texture, you will never have to look for morels again, they will just jump out at you.

This is a skill well worth acquiring, as morels are without a doubt among the very best of the edible wild mushrooms. Of course, it should go without saying that you must be absolutely certain about identification before consuming any wild mushroom. But with proper caution used in identification, morels can be a wonderful complement to a wild game dinner. Simply brush off any dirt or debris with a soft pastry brush, slice lengthwise, and sauté in real bona fide butter. You won't regret it.

Once you have learned to pay more attention to all things wild and wonderful that inhabit the basement level of the woodland landscape, you will discover a whole new world of natural wonders that often go unseen by more casual observers.


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