Fungus: A Fairy Tale

I am as tired and headachy as you are about trying to put together a holiday season inside and out, so I thought I might write about a different topic.  What about the garden?  I have a dead willow in the back of the property being colonized by bracket fungus.  Fungus?  Any gardener’s relationship with fungus is a potentially stressful one.  The black spot fungus on my roses is unwelcome, and uncalled for.  I feel bad for Buck, the day the fungus appears on the roses.  It makes me very grumpy.  Black tar fungus plagued all of my maples  all summer long.  I had leaves dropping all summer long. The mildew on the dahlias and verbena bonariensis is especially annoying.  Trouble to come from fungus is in the air, and in the soil-unseen. unanticipated. And definitely unwelcome. 

I am not particularly knowledgeable about fungal bodies, but the topic interests me.  This is my fairy tale version.  The kingdom known as Funghi is separate from the animal, the plant, and the bacterial kingdoms.  Scientists believe they are closer in genetic makeup to animals, than plants.  It is easy to not know much about them.  Their spores live and thrive on decaying matter, wood and bark.  They only make themselves known via their fruiting bodies. 


Mushrooms are among the most recognizable forms of funghi.  Mushrooms have beautiful and instantly recognizable shapes.  I see garden sculptures of them all the time-and am drawn to them.  We have felt and fabric mushroom garden ornaments in the shop now.  What is the allure of the mushroom?  They populate the forest floor-in those moist and mossy spots that have that primeval atmosphere.  They arise overnight under mysterious circumstances; one can take spore prints from the tops.  This picture of a pair of the deadly poisonous Amanita mushroom came from are beautiful.

  This photograph of a pair of giant mushrooms came from Wikipedia Commons.  They have a ghostly and ancient appearance.  Rubbery, yet fragile.  Their stalks glisten; for all the world, it looks like the undersides of the caps have gills that are breathing?  Could they be breathing?   They smell like dirt, and decaying organic matter.  Earthy.  Earthy-anything coming from or smelling like the earth-sign me up. This is my most favorite scent-the combination of shade, moisture, compost and soil, with a dash of the spa of an ancient forest-sublime. 

I eat mushrooms; I love their musty taste as much as I love a port that tastes like the inside of an old trunk, or a cheese of similar age. I am neither a hunter nor a forager of these funghi, but my parents were.  I have memories of visiting relatives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during Morel season.  I cleaned many a morel-for breakfast with eggs.  The morel lunches-I cannot remember what they were, exactly.  I was probably 10 years old.  The morel endowed dinners-my family lived for this yearly event.  This photograph is from was taken in Michigan.

 Why fungus?  Why now?  Thanksgiving Day I came to the shop to write a quote for a design I had done that was long overdue. I took plenty of breaks, outdoors,  with Howard and Milo.  We walked out to the willows, to see what was going on.  The second trip, I took my camera. 

I planted these willows 15 years ago; I bought them from Bordines nursery in late fall.  How they have grown.  Their bark is amazingly textural.  They grow so fast-everywhere I see what seems like growing pains in the pattern of the bark.

One of these willows blew over in a bad storm 2 years ago.  Though we uprighted the tree,  and cut the top back severely, it is close to dead.  What is living?  The bracket fungus that have taken up residence, and are thriving.  A colony of fungus.  Should I be happy, or should I be horrified? 

This is my take.  Nothing about nature is necessarily happy, or horrifying.  There is a process going on, given a  grand plan.  Peeling away a piece of bark on the dead willow reveals this “structure”; what is it?  Another piece of the process to learn about-that’s what it is. The funghi, they have their place.  I am part of that place-this feels fine.       


Special Thanks


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Thanksgiving Day


I got an email today from a reader who lives in Williamsburg about their special way of decorating for and celebrating the holiday season.  She had no idea that pictures I saw 10 years ago of the wreaths, swags, garlands, and lighting at Williamsburg transformed my ideas about how to decorate for the holidays.  I do so love the Williamsburg holiday style; I find it a great source of inspiration. To follow is her letter.

 I happened upon your blog this morning while researching a bit for my holiday decorating.  I found your submission about Magnolias, and I agree they are beautiful and are a part of our holiday decorating every year.  I wanted you to know about the town where I live, because maybe one day I think you would truly appreciate a visit at the holidays, specifically at our Grand Illumination.  I live in Williamsburg, Virginia and the first weekend in December is always a big event as the Colonial part of town (restored area and living history site) decorates in colonial fashion for the holidays.  The fife and drum corps play and folks in costume walk around story telling, interacting, selling cider and ginger cakes etc.  Here is a link.  I hope you don’t find this too off the wall, but it is rare I find others who love to decorate naturally at the holidays, and therefore it is rare that I find folks who truly appreciate Williamsburg at Christmas.  Either way, I hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful and good luck with the holidays!   Julie E.   Williamsburg, Va

She sent me several pictures of her home in Williamsburg, decorated for the holidays.  Has she not done a beautiful job? I especially like the grass spikes that criss cross behind her wreath.  The geometric arrangement of fruit I associate with the Williamsburg holiday-this is a beautiful interpretation of that idea. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Julie.  Many thanks for taking the time and effort to write.  Many more thanks to all of you who have taken the time to write-I truly appreciate it.

Holiday Decorating

 Yesterday was my first indoor holiday installation.  A client with an event coming up the first week of December wanted the bones of her holiday decor in place before Thanksgiving. This pair of topiaries began with moss mat glued over foam cones.  The spiral garlands of reindeer moss, accompanied by a delicate silver wire garland took some time and patience to glue up, but the result is festive and elegant.  The formal dining room sideboard fresh decor can be added just before the event.  Fresh materials at the holiday look and smell great, but I like adding them at the last minute.  Holiday ornament like this-tall, thin, and taking up little space-can be used in lots of different places.  Perhaps next year’s decor will call for them on a mantel.         

The breakfast room has an entirely different feeling than the formal dining room.  A garland studded with faux fruit is draped over the Welsh cupboard.    We filled her wood trough with lots of the same fruit.   This room is ready for the last minute addition of fresh greens, and candles. 

This pair of mossed cubes were topped with coulter pine cones, and variegated English boxwood.  Pinus coulteri is native to southern California and northern Mexico.  It produces the largest cones of any pine.  They can grow to a length of 16 inches, and weigh 10 pounds a piece.  I thought this pair of sculptures would look appropriate in the library.

The moss mat was applied over dry floral foam, making it easy to glue the heavy cones in an upright position, and insert the springs of boxwood.  They have a comfortably masculine look that is appropriate for the room.   

We paid lots of  holiday oriented attention to the foyer.  The moment a guest arrives, what they see first creates a lasting impression.  This is why I devote so much attention to the landscape of the driveway. The end of my drive is the foyer of my garden.  I come home every day, and I want what I see first when I get there to be beautiful and inviting. Decorating the foyer mirror and sconces means there is plenty of room on the table for family pictures, a holiday hostess gift, or a tray of champagne.  The oval magnolia wreath we made by gluing individual leaves over a foam form; the size and shape is friendly to the mirror.  A small suction cup provides a hook; the wreath weighs very little.  The sconces have glass ornament, silvery picks, silver fabric leaves, and magnolia wired to them.       

We dressed the staircase in a long needled faux pine garland.  We added glass holiday ornaments, glittered wire flower ornaments, and silvery pine picks for a soft and dressy look.  The result is beautiful and elegant.  The garland is affixed to the outside of the railing with black zip ties-this is friendly to the wood finish on the railing.  In between each length of garland-a pine pick of the same style.  This helps make a graceful transition from one garland swag to the next.  Most faux garlands are 6 feet long-which may or may not work with the length of your staircase.  The added picks helps to make the garland fit the space.

The living room fireplace mantel is short, with little depth. We attached overlapping bunches of preserved and whitewashed eucalyptus to a bamboo pole, cut to a length just shy of the width of this mantle.  We dressed that eucalyptus with silver fir greens, sparkly picks, and just a pair of bleached cones. Those cones address in a subtle way the color of the brass fireplace fender.  

The result is mindful of the elaborate carving on the mantel, and formal presentation of the fireplace.  Not every mantel asks for holiday garland that goes to the floor.  We will add a fresh and decorated wreath to the space above the fireplace, just before the event.  That wreath will be concolor and noble fir; both of these greens keep indoors over the course of the holiday. 

The fresh fir garland over the front door will stay fresh, given that the air temperature is cold.  The glass ornaments have had their caps glued on, to keep moisture out.  Not seen in this picture, a massive second story overhang supported by columns that will protect the glass from too much exposure to the weather.  The pots at the front door-this we will do next week.  This holiday project is well underway.