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Cori Brown: Creepy beauty can be found in the woods

Don’t look at dog vomit slime mold after eating a meal!
Don’t look at dog vomit slime mold after eating a meal! (Cori Brown photo)

They have names like dog vomit and wolf’s milk, and this is just a start.

They come in every color under the sun except true green. They’re globe trotters, too, with over 900 varieties in the world.

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Some people believe they are the source of inspiration for the movie “The Blob.” Remember that sci-fi thriller from 1958? When I was old enough to watch it, it scared me to death.

Of course, Steve McQueen was there to save the day (in his film debut no less) so no need to worry.

That gooey mass of mess (it reminds me of Turkish taffy, only a lot bigger) looks like amateur hour now with all the sophisticated special effects we have these days. Back then though, it was downright petrifying. Even with computer generated monsters, why bother when we have the real deal in our midst? Have you guessed yet what I am talking about?

Here are a few more clues. It is neither plant nor animal. It used to be classified with fungi but no longer is. It is typically single celled (like protozoa and amoeba) but in times of hunger will mass together. It loves moist habitats, especially rotting wood. If you guessed slime mold, you are absolutely right!

These incredible organisms certainly have grabbed my attention and imagination. A few years ago, I noticed brown fuzzy things growing on some of our pine trees. Initially I thought they were some kind of fungus. I worried that they were eating up the trees. After a bit of investigation, I discovered that they were slime molds called chocolate tubes (another favorite name is tree hair).

I am a seriously big fan of chocolate but these tubes did not look tasty at all. As it turns out, I was seeing a mass of individual tubes called sporangia. Each one sat on a stalk and held dark brown spores waiting to be released. Once that happened, they faded in color and fell off the tree. They would have made nice Halloween decorations had they lasted.

As a dog lover, I find another slime mold discovery most interesting. Dog vomit slime is very aptly named. I’ve seen it in both its brilliant yellow bloom (I use the term loosely since it is not a plant) and its namesake stage when it starts to turn shades of brown.

Don’t look at dog vomit slime mold after eating a meal!
Don’t look at dog vomit slime mold after eating a meal! (Cori Brown photo)

At this point, it looks exactly like the lovely gifts the dog occasionally leaves me on the carpet. Fortunately for me, the slime doesn’t have offensive smells to go with it nor do I have to clean it up! I typically find dog vomit slime on large rotting logs but it is quite common on mulch, too (any gardener will recognize it immediately).

Wolf’s milk slime is at the top of my favorites list. Its name, along with its appearance, is so bizarre that it truly belongs in a sci-fi movie. Other common names for it include bubblegum slime or toothpaste slime.

Where does the “wolf’s milk” come in? It’s not at all what I thought. Apparently if you burst the tiny pinkish salmon colored balls that make up the slime, a gooey, paste-like substance leaks out. Someone decided that it reminded them of a plant called wolf’s milk, which also has gooey sap when the stems or leaves are broken, hence the name.

Again, wolf’s milk slime likes to hang out in clusters on large damp logs. It shows up in the spring through the fall and as it ages, it turns gray. At this point, it is not unlike puffballs. If you touch it, a gray poof of spore-laden air escapes.

Slime molds are quite fascinating. They move, they eat, they transform themselves and they fill our woods with visions of creepy beauty. They are simple, yet seemingly complex in their makeup, lifecycle and variety. They live in a no man’s land between plants and animals. They are the ultimate sci-fi flick. Filmmakers, take notice!

Save our planet, save ourselves hint: Reduce your use of plastics by storing leftovers in glass containers (yes, a throwback to the old days but a really good one). Look for alternatives to consumer goods that contain “polypropylene” or “polyethylene” (found in products like face wash and toothpaste).

Wolf’s milk slime mold could be the star of a great sci-fi movie.
Wolf’s milk slime mold could be the star of a great sci-fi movie. (Cori Brown photo)
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