Fall Fungus

By Kate Crowley

If there is a silver lining to be found in this very wet autumn, it is found in the forests.  I’m not talking about the leaves, which are very slowly turning color; I’m referring to the vast assortment of mushrooms on the forest floor and on the sides of some trees.  We just returned from a week’s hiking in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and I have to say, we have never seen such abundance and variety in the Fungi Kingdom.  The people we were with, I’m happy to report, were just as excited as Mike and I and demonstrated a sense of wonder that adults normally lose. 
Overall, I prefer to just observe the variations in shape, size, texture and color of mushrooms.  I do like to eat the types sold in grocery stores and Morels are a favorite in the spring, but I have only eaten a few ‘wild’ mushrooms and that only happened when I absolutely trusted the knowledge of the person I was with.  In Europe people have been hunting, picking and eating wild mushrooms for centuries and they have continued to pass down their knowledge to new generations.  Here in the U.S. it is far less common and all of the books I have checked vehemently recommend that you only collect with experienced mushroom hunters.  Field guides can give you some assurances, but there are still so many slight variations between species, that it can be a game of Russian roulette.
There are somewhere in the range of 10,000 species of mushrooms in North America, but in recent DNA research, scientists are discovering that many species have been misidentified.  That is how subtle the differences can be. 
I did say at the beginning that the mushrooms were in the forests, but that isn’t really their only habitat.  They can be found in fields, lawns, uplands and lowlands.  We were just out by Mike’s garden, where marigolds abound and growing in several places beneath the flowers were Destroying Angels – a highly poisonous type of Amanita mushroom. In our backyard under the clothesline, a single Fly Agaric (poisonous Amanita) stood in all its orange-capped glory.  A walk through our forest presented a wide range of mushrooms, though not as many as we saw in Michigan.
In fact, what we call mushrooms are just the fruiting body (like a nut or berry produced by a tree or shrub) of the fungi. This is the part of the fungi that will disperse the spores necessary for sexual reproduction. Most of the fungi actually exist below ground in the form known as mycelium which produce and secrete enzymes that digest organic matter. The cells that make up the mycelium are described as hyphae and it is these cells that absorb nutrients from the soil or wood.
Most everyone knows that fungi/mushrooms help compost the detritus on the forest floor, especially dead wood.  Many fungi are specially adapted to breakdown lignin, which is the cellulose found in trees.  What is less well known is the critical relationship between plants (that produce chlorophyll) and the mycorrhizal (which means "fungus-root") fungi. This relationship exists in at least 90% of all land plants, including all trees.
This is a symbiotic relationship between these two very different lifeforms.  While the plants and trees can provide the fungi with carbohydrates, produced through photosynthesis, the fungi helps by dramatically increasing the absorption of water and certain essential minerals through the tree’s roots.  The tree (or green plant) can access minerals such as phosphorus and magnesium, which would otherwise be very hard to obtain.  Many species of mushrooms are highly specific to certain species of trees. 
In reality our world would quickly fall apart without the presence of fungi. Such power encapsulated in organisms that we barely notice under our feet.  On your next walk through a woods or field, see how many different kinds you can count.  And just enjoy their ephemeral splendor.  For a view of their growth through time lapse photography go to this link: http://www.dailyliked.net/fantastic-fungi/


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