|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
IN THE WOODS
HE history of mushrooms reduced to a rule for cooking which
will save us from grave dangers was enough for Simon,
Mathieu, Jean, and the others, who lacked time to hear more;
but Emile, Jules, and Claire were not satisfied: they wished
to extend their knowledge on these strange vegetables. So
their uncle took them one day to a beech wood near the
The trees, several hundred years old and with their branches
meeting at a great height, formed an arch of foliage through
which, here and there, shone a ray of sunlight. Their smooth
trunks, with white bark, gave the effect of enormous columns
sustaining the weight of an immense building full of shade
and silence. On the lofty summits crows cawed while
smoothing their feathers. Occasionally a red-headed green
woodpecker, surprised at its work, which consists of pecking
the wormy wood with its beak to make the insects come out
that it feeds on, gave a cry of alarm and flew off like a
dart. In the midst of the moss with which the ground was
carpeted were here and there numbers of mushrooms. Some were
round, smooth, and white. Jules could not admire them
enough; he likened them in his imagination to eggs laid in a
mossy hollow by some
 wandering hen. Others were glossy red,
others bright fawn-color, and still others brilliant yellow.
Some, just coming out of the ground, were enveloped in a
kind of bag that tears open as the mushroom grows; some,
more advanced, spread out like an open umbrella. Finally,
there were many that had already begun to decay. In their
fetid rottenness swarmed innumerable grubs, which later
would become insects. After picking a number of the
principal kinds, the party sat down at the foot of a beech,
on the soft moss-carpet, and Uncle Paul spoke thus:
"A mushroom is the blossom of a plant that lives under
ground and is called by learned men mycelium. This
subterranean plant is composed of white, slender, fragile
threads, resembling in their entirety a large cobweb. If you
pull up a mushroom carefully you will see at the base of its
stalk, in the earth that clings to it, numerous white
threads of the mycelium. Let us imagine a rose-bush planted
so as to leave nothing but the roses above ground. The
buried bush will represent the subterranean mycelium; the
roses, open to the air, will represent the blossoms of the
mycelium, that is to say the mushrooms."
"A rosebush," objected Jules, "has stout branches covered
with leaves; the mushroom-plant, according to what I see,
has nothing of the sort. It is a kind of moldiness that
branches out in the ground in white veins."
"Those white veins, so delicate that one can hardly touch
them without breaking them, form the subterranean plant,
without leaves or roots. They lengthen little by little in
the ground to a pretty good
 distance from the point of
departure. Then, at a favorable moment, they produce little
swellings which grow under ground, become mushrooms, and
burst open their bed of earth to expand in the air. This
structure explains to us why mushrooms grow in groups. Each
group, with the mycelium that produces it, constitutes one
and the same plant."
"I have seen groups of mushrooms in a perfect circle,"
"If the ground is of uniform character and nowhere hinders
the propagation of the subterranean vegetable in one
direction rather than in another, the mycelium spreads
equally on all sides, and so produces circular groups of
mushrooms, which the country people sometimes call witches'
"Why witches' circles?" asked Jules.
"The ignorant and superstitious think they see an effect of
witchcraft in this curious circular arrangement, whereas it
is but the natural result of the uniformly equal development
of the subterranean plant."
"Then there are no witches?" said Emile.
"No, my dear. There are rogues who abuse the credulity of
others; there are simpletons disposed to listen to them; but
no one has preternatural powers."
"Since a mushroom is the blossom of a subterranean plant, of
the mycelium, as you call it, must it not have stamens,
pistils, ovaries?" Jules inquired.
"A mushroom is in its way the blossom of a kind of
vegetable, but its structure has nothing in common with that
of ordinary flowers. It is a
struc-  ture of a special sort,
very complicated, very curious, which I shall pass by in
silence so as not to overcharge your memory.
"The chief function of a flower, you know, is to produce
seeds. Well, the mushroom too produces seeds, but so small,
so different from others, that they have a special
Spores are the seed of the mushroom, just as acorns
are the seed of the oak. That is worthy of some further
"The mushrooms most familiar to us are composed of a sort of
dome supported by a stalk. This dome is called the cap. The
under side of the cap takes various shapes, of which the
principal are these: Sometimes it is composed of gills which
radiate from the center to the border; sometimes it is
pierced by an infinity of little holes, which are the
orifices of as many tubes joined together in a common mass;
sometimes it is covered with fine points like those of a
"Mushrooms that have the under side of the cap formed of
radiating gills are called agarics; those pierced with
little holes, boleti; those covered with little points,
hydnei. Agarics and boleti are the most common."
Here Uncle Paul took, one by one, the mushrooms they had
gathered and showed his nephews the gills of the agarics,
the holes of the boleti, and the points of the hydnei.
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