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Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Friday - February 03, 2012

From: Moody, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Plant Identification, Edible Plants
Title: Identification of strange dark green blobs
Answered by: Nan Hampton

QUESTION:

In my back yard I have a type of plant with no roots only around in the summer and when it rains. It looks like a person took a piece lettuce and put way too much water into it and wadded it up. It is a little darker green than that. I am wondering if it could be harmful for kids or wild animals. It seems to come and go but if the water stands in the summer it will come back.

ANSWER:

This sounds like the organism, Nostoc, that isn't a plant at all.  It is a cyanobacteria—sometimes call blue-green algae.  This genus is found worldwide—even growing in such severe climates as the Arctic and Antarctic.  The fact that they fix atmospheric nitrogen makes them important nutrients for plant as a fertilizer.  Some of them (e.g., Nostoc flagelliforme, fat choy in China) are edible and considered a delicacy.

Nostoc commune is probably the one you have seen.  Amazingly, it can lie on the ground as a bit of blackened debris; but, as soon as it rains and absorbs water, it turns into the gelatinous blobs you saw.  Not only is Nostoc commune able to survive and thrive in extreme climatic conditions, but it has a UV-A/B absorbing pigment that protects it from extreme UV radiation.  Nostoc commune has also been consumed by the Chinese as well as indigenous people in the Andes.  A recent study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology (Vol. 118, no. 1, pp. 159-65.  June 19, 2008) reports the presence in Nostoc commune of an unusual neurotoxic amino acid (BMMA) that has been linked to neurogenerative diseases such as ALS, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease.  So, in answer to your question, it is probably not a good idea to eat huge amounts of it because of the presence of BMMA; but, in general, it isn't likely to harm children or wild animals if tasted in small amounts.

Here is more information and more photos of Nostoc species.

 

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