The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 30, 2009



Black Earth Tongue

The boundary between the living and the dead is a mysterious thing. Halloween has its origins in the belief that this usually impenetrable boundary could be breached by the ghosts of the dead on one day each year at the end of the harvest season and before the onset of the cold dark winter. That day is tomorrow, October 31. The Black Earth Tongue fungus is just one piece of evidence in support of this boundary- breaking business.

This Black Earth Tongue fungus was found near a trail on the Greenough Land. (Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Name: This particular Black Earth Tongue is Trichoglossum farlowii. The genus name is from the Latin trich- meaning hair and gloss- meaning tongue. It is so-named because it is black, covered with tiny hairs, and protrudes up through the ground like the tongue of a dirt-dwelling creature trying to contact those of us living above ground. There are several species of Black Earth Tongues; some are in the genus Trichoglossum and others in the genus Geoglossum. There are yet other genera of more colorful Earth Tongues which can be green, yellow, orange, brown and even purplish.

Namesake: Today’s Black Earth Tongue is named in honor of William Gilson Farlow who was born near Boston 165 years ago. He graduated from Harvard with “no definite plans for life” but went on to get an M.D. from Harvard Medical School. This didn’t take him into the medical profession. Instead, he developed an abiding interest in botany at a time when it was not recognized as an academic discipline. By 1879, he was appointed Professor of Cryptogamic Botany at Harvard, a position he held for the rest of his life. His legacy lives on in the names of two genera, several species, and the Farlow Herbarium at Harvard which he founded and which is now home to nearly 1,400,000 cryptogamic specimens from around the world.

Word for the day: Cryptogamic is an adjective for organisms that produce spores. It covers ferns, mosses, liverworts, algae and fungi.

Tales from the Crypt: I found Farlow’s Black Earth Tongue poking up through the moss trailside on the Greenough Land at the beginning of October. It is a species of eastern North America and can be found as early as July and up through October. Tomorrow night, on Halloween, it will no doubt be wagging and telling Farlowian tales from the cryptogams.

Distinguishing characteristics: In life, Farlow’s tongue was not known to be either black or hairy. In death, who knows. His namesake tongue is about three inches long and uniformly black. The hairs are very short and fine and you wouldn’t notice them without a hand lens. The stalk is narrow and the head is flattened and somewhat tongue-like. It has the same appearance as other species of Black Earth Tongue but the spores distinguish it. Each spore of Farlow’s is 57 to 75 microns long and has up to five divisions or walls, with three walls being the most common. (Most mushrooms have much smaller spores and magnification of 1,000x is usually needed. Black Earth Tongue spores can easily be seen with a microscope at only 250x.)

Sources: Mushrooms Demystified, David Arora; Mushrooms of North America, Roger Phillips. ∆

What are you finding?

If you find something living or growing in your yard or on one of your walks in the woods and you think it might be interesting or you are just curious about it, drop me a note at

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito