Friday, September 11, 2015

Mushrooms, the Hidden Gems of the Forest

By Andrew Harmon

This summer I worked with the Natural Areas team at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum. Over the course of four months we scoured hundreds of acres on four properties, finding and removing invasive plants and conserving precious habitats. Aided by an unusually wet spring and summer we also found a plethora of fascinating fungi, gems of color peeking out from the leaf litter. With fall just around the corner it seems appropriate to introduce just a few of the many fungi that can be found around the Matthaei-Nichols properties.

Every fall mycophiles take to the woods, poring over dead stumps and downed logs in their search for mushrooms. These mushrooms are the ephemeral reproductive structures of organisms that are almost invisible throughout the majority of the year. They are valued for their culinary uses, medicinal properties, strange and unique forms, and beautiful colors.

Although many mushrooms are cosmopolitan species that fit into very broad ecological niches, many also rely on very specific environmental conditions. For example the oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) can be grown on straw soaked with diesel fuel. In contrast the American matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare) is only found in jack pine forests, and even then not often. Some research has even indicated that the abundance of certain mushroom species can be used as a proxy indicator for forest health. Most of the mushrooms described here were found in some of the best areas of habitat that we manage. Their presence tells us that these are areas with a rich diversity of living things, many of which are not easily observed, and that our conservation work is helping to sustain these increasingly uncommon habitats.

Caution: Fungi constitute an important and delicious part of the cuisines of many cultures. However, fungi in general are poorly understood relative to other organisms, and even highly trained professionals cannot always agree on what to call certain species. In fact many mushroom species, including some of the popular edibles, have recently been found to actually be groups of several different visually identical species that may or may not be equally edible. Added to this confusion is the fact that certain fungi---which look, smell, and taste delicious by the way---contain some of the most potent toxins found in nature. If you are interested in learning more about fungi for fun or feasting I highly recommend that you seek the expert guidance of an experienced forager, take a class in field mycology, or look for guided forays with local mushroom hunting clubs (often called "guilds").

Author's note: While preparing this post I turned to two sources for invaluable information and guidance. One is mushroom expert Michael Kuo's website mushroomexpert.com; the other is George Barron's book Mushrooms of Northeast North America (Lone Pine, 1999).

One of the first of the season was the coral fungus (Artomyces pyxidata). It can be found exploding out of
the well-rotted logs that it feeds on discreetly the rest of the year.

This iridescent little mushroom
was found along Fleming Creek,
peeking out from the moss and leaf
litter. Its name is 
Entoloma incanum
and it survives by breaking up and
digesting organic matter in the soil.

Another mushroom that has been abundant since
early in the summer is this fleshy "jelly fungus"
Auricularia auricula). It is commonly known as
the “wood ear” fungus and is actually a common
edible. In fact, if you have ever been treated to a
truly traditional Chinese hot-and-sour soup then
you have probably already enjoyed it!

While we are on the subject of
jelly fungi here is an unusual
Tremella reticulata
can be found fruiting on the
ground throughout the summer
and fall, presumably feeding on
rotting wood buried just below the soil’s surface.

This is Schizophyllum commune, one of the most
widely distributed fungi on the planet. It has even
been found growing inside the human mouth. . . .
So remember kids, brush your teeth!


Mycena leaiana is a smaller mushroom
that grows in large clusters. Its neon orange
caps and stems can be seen from a long way off,
all but glowing in the shade of the forest

Speaking of glowing mushrooms,
this is the season for 
Omphalotus illudens,
the jack-o'-lantern mushroom. The underside
of the cap and gills actually glow in the dark!
It is one of a number of bioluminescent fungi
that can be found gently lighting the trails at
night if conditions are just right.

While we are on the topic of orange mushrooms
here is a particularly special one, 
Cantharellus cinnabarinus,
the cinnabar chanterelle. Chanterelles are a popular
edible mushroom with a history of use in fine cuisine.
However, their mysterious lifecycle has managed to
frustrate any attempts at commercial production.
As of right now any chanterelle being sold in farmers
markets or grocery stores has been harvested out of the wild.

Another orange edible! Chicken of the woods,Laetiporus sulpherus, is one of the most easily
recognized mushrooms in the woods. The outer
parts of this mushroom can be eaten and are
really quite good, however be prepared for the
real wild foods experience as you cut out the
grub-infested sections before cooking.

Here is another easily recognized edible,
and one of my personal favorites. The hen
of the woods or miatake (
Grifola frondosa)
erupts from the base of oaks and maples in
such massive clusters that just one can provide
a meal for weeks. This one was just one of
several bunches and weighed in at over six
pounds! (Full disclosure: I actually harvested
this particular mushroom behind my parents’
house while I was visiting this summer.)

A cousin of the miatake is this
massive mushroom, 
Bondarzewia berkeleyi.
We found this mushroom near the base of
a massive oak in a savanna near the northern
boundary of Matthaei. 
B. berkeleyi is a
parasite that causes butt rot in trees and its
presence indicates that that old oak will
someday in the near future be making room
in the canopy for one of the waiting saplings below.

While searching for a particular patch of
invasive plants at the Nichols Arboretum
we stumbled upon a bunch of old hemlock
trees that had been cut into logs and left
to decompose. Enter 
Ganoderma tsugae,
the hemlock varnish shelf. This mushroom
is closely related to the famed reishi
mushroom (
Ganoderma lucidum) and
is nearly indistinguishable in the field
except for its choice of tree to decay

Recently there have been a number of these
mushrooms peeking through the leaf litter. 
Gyroporus purpurinus is symbiotic with the
roots of hardwood trees in what is known as
a mycorrhizal relationship. The tree and the
fungi grow together and exchange nutrients,
each providing something that the other needs.

Sometimes, when you are really looking closely
at nature a surprise pops out at you. This mushroom, 
Marasmius siccus, is only a couple of centimeters
tall and stunningly delicate.

No collection of mushroom photos would be complete
without a slime mold thrown in for good measure.
Here is one of my favorites, 
Stemonitis fusca.
Its little huts look to me like fantastical dwellings
rising above a strange landscape.

Andy Harmon, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, is working on a Master’s of Science in Natural Resources and Environment with a concentration in Conservation Ecology and Environmental Informatics. His interests include Midwest agricultural landscapes that support biodiversity through agroforestry practices. Andy’s internship is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Fund.