Skip to content

4

Did you know that before author and illustrator Beatrix Potter began her career writing the famous children's classics, she was a scientist?

In her new picture book Beatrix Potter, Scientist (illustrated by Junyi Wu), Lindsay H. Metcalf reveals how as a child Beatrix Potter was curious about plants and animals, but devoted her life as a young adult to studying fungi.

Like the illustration of Beatrix on the cover, the book focuses a lens on her lesser-known years as a mycologist (one who studies fungi). Although Potter had no formal schooling in science, Beatrix Potter was introduced to mushrooms  by a talented amateur named Charles McIntosh. He became her mentor and sent her samples to study. Beatrix made beautiful detailed drawings of each specimen. She also figured out a way to prove that new mushrooms grow from spores, something that wasn't well known at the time. However, like other women scientists in the 1800s and early 1900s, Beatrix Potter encountered resistance when she tried to share her findings.

After finishing the book, educators and parents will likely want to discuss with young readers the pros and cons of how Beatrix ultimately dealt with the rejection.

The back matter is extensive, and includes a section that gives more detail about Beatrix Potter's life and studies, a timeline, a bibliography and suggestions for further reading. It is well worth perusing.

Overall Beatrix Potter, Scientist will appeal to both young readers interested in STEM and also those interested in women's history. Investigate a copy today!

Activity: Draw or Paint a Fungus

What better way to celebrate Beatrix Potter's work than to make a detailed drawing of a mushroom.

First, look at some of Beatrix Potter's illustrations online (for example, here).

You will need some art supplies, such as:

  • Paper
  • Colored pencils
  • Crayons
  • Watercolor paints

Find a mushroom to draw.

Safety note:  A few fungi are poisonous, so avoid handling wild ones.

Fungi obtain nutrients by decomposing plants, particularly living or dead woody plants, so you will often discover them in forests.

The mushroom that we see is called a fruiting body. The fruiting body is like the flowers of a plant because it is how how a fungus makes more of itself or reproduces. The rest of the fungus is made up of threadlike strands called hyphae which form a mat called the mycelium. The mycelium is often hidden within the tree or soil and may grow for years unseen.

When conditions are right, a fungus produces its fruiting bodies. They often prefer cool, moist conditions and fall is a great time to find them.

Photograph by Karen Gibson

Some fruiting bodies have a stipe (scientific term for the stalk part). On the underside of the mushroom in the middle of the photograph you can see ridges. Those are called gills.

Photograph by Robert Pratt

Others form shelves. Sometimes the shelves are soft.

Sometimes the shelves are hard. These fruiting bodies may be called brackets or conks. They can be quite colorful.

If you have trouble finding a mushroom in nature, you may want to examine a cultivated mushroom from the grocery store instead.

Observe the mushroom closely and draw what you see.

You can find out more about fungi in these related posts:

Be sure to check out our ever-growing list of biographies of women scientists at Science Books for Kids.

Grade Level : Preschool - 3
Publisher : Albert Whitman & Company (September 1, 2020)
ISBN-10 : 0807551759
ISBN-13 : 978-0807551752

Disclosure: This book was provided electronically by the author. Also, I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

Come visit the STEM Friday blog each week to find more great Science, Technology, Engineering and Math books.

The cool, wet weather we have been having has brought out some mushrooms. Quick, are mushrooms plants or animals? If you say neither, then you know your stuff. Mushrooms were once thought to be plants, but mushrooms don't make their own food. Modern investigations have shown them to be more closely related to animals. For instance, mushrooms have the protein chitin, which is also found in insects. But mushrooms aren't exactly animals either. For example, as far as we know they don't run around like animals do. In fact mushrooms are so distinct, they are now given their own Kingdom, the Fungi.

What are fungi? Most people recognize that mushrooms are fungi. In addition, yeasts and truffles, molds, mildew and also disease-causing parasites of insects are fungi. Lichens, which grow on rocks in a variety of climates, are a mix of fungi and algae growing together.

Fungi range in size from microscopic to quite possibly the largest organism on earth. Scientists are making the case that a giant fungus found growing in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon could be the world's largest individual organism, because it covers some 2200 acres. Information is still being gathered, and because much of the fungus is hidden from view, it also could be made up of clusters of individuals.

The mushroom part of the fungus we see is the reproductive part, or using older analogies, the fruit of the fungus. The body of the fungus is made up of threads called mycelium, and they are often hard to see because they grow underground or in rotting wood. If you have ever broken open a rotting log and seen white hair-like strands, you have seen mycelium.

If the mushrooms are like fruit, then where are the seeds? It turns out that fungi grow from tiny particles called spores. If you have ever found a mature puffball and stepped on it, the smoky clouds that come out are the spores being released into the air. Here is a picture of a puffball, if you have never seen one. The spores produce new strands called hyphae and then mycelia to make new fungi.

Activities:

Fungi as Food

Explore edible mushrooms by visiting grocery stores to see all the different kinds that are available. We found shiitake, oysters, white, brown and portabellas. Discuss how the types are similar and different.

You might want to buy a few, and try the different flavors in your favorite recipes. You could also pick up some yeast and make bread with it. Show the yeast to your children and let them smell it. By the way, there is nothing better than white mushrooms sautéed in butter made into a sandwich between two slices of freshly made bread (made with yeast).

Make Spore Prints
If you don't want to eat the mushrooms, use a few different kinds of mushrooms from the grocery store to make spore prints. Try to find older mushrooms already producing the brown powdery spores. Young mushrooms with pink gills or button mushrooms aren't ready to make spores yet.

Place the mushroom with the frilly gill side against some white paper and then cover it with a glass or bowl. (You'll have to remove the stem first). Leave for a few hours or overnight. If the mushroom is producing spores, it should leave a print when you gently lift it away.

Scientists who study fungi, called mycologists, use spore prints to help figure out what species they have found.

Related:

We have a newer post about yeast with activities.

If you have the time, growing mushrooms from a kit can be an amazing experience for kids. Kits are available with different types of mushrooms, at varying sizes and costs. They usually require certain conditions for optimal growth, so make sure you can provide that. Check the Internet for sources.

A Few Mushroom and Fungi Books:

Mushroom in the Rain by Mirra Ginsburg. Macmillan Publishing Co, New York. 1974.
A fiction picture book with a cute story.

What Rot! Nature's Mighty Recycler by Elizabeth Ring. Millbrook Press, Brookfield Conn. 1996. (Nonfiction)

Fungi by Mary Kay Larson, Newbridge Educational Publishing, New York. 2003. (Nonfiction)

Plants That Never Bloom by Ruth Heller. (nonfiction). Note: This older book still classifies fungi as plants, but the other information and illustrations are still worthwhile.

What is a Fungus? By D.M. Souza. Franklin Watts, New York. 2002. (Nonfiction)