By Paula Urtecho
All it takes is a little precipitation and they magically begin to appear. Fantastical forms and colors, sometimes delicious and sometimes deadly, yes, I’m talking about mushrooms. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi and if you think that all fungi are mushrooms, you’d be mistaken. Mushrooms are the exception not the rule in the wide fungal world, so when you come across one, stop to admire it. This time of year, you should run into at least a few whether on a lawn or a woodland edge.
The majority of fungi go unnoticed as they may spend their entire lives hidden within a substrate (e.g. underground or in wood), or perhaps in the form of mundane powdery mildew on a rose bush in your garden. But don’t be dismissive – the largest known organism in the world has been determined to be a vast colony of Armilleria solidipes, or Honey Mushroom, in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon. Colloquially known as the “Humongous Fungus”, this impressive organism was detected because it has killed off a vast swath of conifers over an area of 3.7 miles and may be up to 8650 years old! Indeed, mushrooms are borne from vast branching networks of mycelium that allow the fungi to take up water and nutrients and to deliver digestive enzymes. Fungi are neither plant nor animal. They can neither photosynthesize nor hunt for food, so instead they produce powerful enzymes that break down organic matter around them. They can be parasitic, like honey mushrooms, and they can also form symbiotic relationships with plants, especially trees, wherein the fungal network comes in contact with a tree’s root tips as mycorrhizae and the fungus provides the tree with water and nutrients that it unlocks from the soil using its digestive enzymes. The tree in turn provides the fungus with sugars, a byproduct of its photosynthesis. We could learn a thing or two from such mutualistic cooperation!
Back above ground, we find mushrooms in a wide range of places – in the leaf litter on the forest floor, in rows of shelves on decaying wood, or conspicuously growing out of animal dung. Mushrooms are specialists at exploiting their surroundings and display such an incredible diversity of forms, colors and textures. Here in the bay area, we are lucky to have a great variety of mushrooms to gawk at, from bright orange (and delicious) Chanterelles, to lavender Blewits, and slimy Slippery Jacks. Among the more bizarre you may run across are Dead Man’s Foot, Earthstars, Morels and the otherworldly Red Basket Stinkhorn, an introduced species from the Mediterranean that has stopped me in my tracks on the Bay Trail and in assorted garden settings.
I’d be remiss if I did not emphasize the annual public service announcement – do not consume wild-collected mushrooms unless you are 150% sure that they are an edible species! Even then, it’s better to err on the side of caution and just leave them in place for others to come across and admire.
Keep your eyes out for mushrooms during your outdoor ramblings. At first they may be hard to notice, but train your eyes and soon you’ll learn where to look and when to investigate telltale bumps in the conifer and oak leaf litter. Happy mushroom watching! 🍄
Schwarz, Christian and Siegel, Noel. Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, Ten Speed Press, 2016Schmitt, Craig L. and Tatum Michael L. “The Malheur National Forest, Location of the World’s Largest Living Organism, [The Humongous Fungus]”, USDA, 2008