After the last weeks of rain and high humidity, we are all feeling a little damp and mildewed. And mildew indeed is thriving along with all of its fungal relatives! This is now prime mushroom season.
Fungi are in a Kingdom of their own. They are not plants at all, and surely they are not animals, but you would be surprised at some of their characteristics. They do not have true roots, or a vascular system, or flowers and seeds. They contain no chlorophyll so are unable to make their own “food” utilizing nutrients and sunlight. Have you noticed there are no real GREEN mushrooms? They rely on obtaining their nutrients from the decay process that they are part of on the forest floor, within all the dead plant material that is present there. They absorb their food through this process, rather than eating it or making it. Some are very specific, growing only near certain trees, by certain species of other plants, and in very narrow ranges of pH (soil acidity). But here’s a fun fact: the outer tough skin of many mushrooms is made of Chitin, which is the same material as the shells of lobsters and crabs! Strange organisms.
Along with a wide variation in color, they also take many forms: the familiar umbrella, ruffles, shelves, “turkey tails” and puffballs. If you have ever come upon a solid white ball on your lawn and think “Golf ball”, experiment a little. A firm young puffball will be white all the way through and have a pleasing earthy smell. But wait a few weeks and find a puffball that has become browner with age. A touch with your toe or a flick of the finger will make if “puff”, explode with fine black dust, which is all the spores contained within. All mushrooms reproduce by releasing dusty spores.
Mushrooms are actually the visible, spore producing bodies of a largely underground network of rhizome threads that comprise a fungus. The spread of the rhizomes extends great distances but only one or two mushrooms may emerge. In other cases, many will pop up in the same area. Many are quite specific about where they grow and the conditions they need for survival, but one thing is generally universal: they need moisture to thrive. They can dry down to a dusty mass, but add water and some will reconstitute as good as new! There are fungi in every ecosystem from the Antarctic, to deserts and jungles and cities, and even on our very own skin.
Take a hike in any shady cool woodland. The Hoffman Preserve is probably the best spot around because of the presence of evergreens and the deeper shade and moist ground. Look on the ground, in the leaves, on rotting tree trunks, branches and stumps. Notice the colors and textures and shapes. They may have the appearance of being nibbled. They are frequently eaten by small mammals, woodland turtles and insects and slugs. But don’t be tempted to pick and sample! Fungi are of great value for medicinal purposes, food processes, as in making cheese, and as prized edibles themselves. But be warned: there are also many mushrooms that are poisonous, or fatal, if eaten even in small quantities, so never mess with mushrooms unless you are with an expert! Bring a camera or sketch pad instead.
Written by Beth Sullivan.
Photography by Beth Sullivan and Rick Newton.