The brightest floral color along a popular stretch of rail-trail that follows the Farmington River near my Collinsville, Connecticut home has nothing to do with flowers. It’s a phenomenon I’ve never before witnessed. And though it is a natural event, it was brought about serendipitously by human activity. For the last few weeks the path has been lit by iridescent, gelatinous orange slime molds growing on a series of freshly cut tree stumps.
Following last October’s heavy wet snow, branches were down and trees had fallen across the trail. It was a jackstraw tangle, impassable by bicycle and tedious to walk. By late autumn the way had been cleared, and after the first-of-the-year healthy standing trees were cut within about a yard of the pavement, presumably as a preventative against future storms that might cause branches to fall and trunks to splinter. Although there was an occasional oak or maple, most of the felled timber was locust and yellow birch. For about ten days after the chainsaws left, the air was redolent with the bracing smell of wintergreen, a telltale sign of fresh cut yellow birch.
It’s been a dry spring and the locust and other stumps have been parched, but the yellow birch have been weeping copious volumes of sap, a sugary liquid that in some places is boiled to make syrup. On this sweet medium the vivid orange slime molds have grown quickly. Named for their shiny glutinous appearance, there are hundreds of species worldwide, many of them in vibrant colors. Once classified as fungi, they are now considered protists, organisms that are neither plant, animal, nor fungus. Feeding on microorganisms in dead vegetation, they are among nature’s decomposers, serving an indispensible function in life’s cycle.
Colonizing the stumps in irregular configurations, the slime molds growing along the trail are jelly-like, pimpled, nubbly and textured glossy growths. Among the fresh shoots of greenery nearby, the butts of once tall trees are glowing. There are so many in succession that at some points the trail seems like a road lined with orange traffic cones.
Though they appear strange, have an off-putting name, and look like science fiction movie blobs in miniature, these slime molds bloom with a color that would be prized in any garden. Their sudden emergence and curious aspect is delightfully startling. That they represent a synergy of man and nature, having arrived as an accidental consequence of people cutting trees for their own unrelated purpose, only makes them more wonderful.