September 4, 2009



by Margaret


This mushroom story still makes me smile even years later. While at Cornell University, I lived with two other graduate students

in an apartment downhill from campus. Each day on our walk home we passed a fraternity that I barely noticed. My roommate Cathy, however, spotted shaggy mane mushrooms on the broad lawn and during the fall she picked a crop daily, turning them into mushroom delicacies in our kitchen. One afternoon a fraternity brother sauntered out while she was harvesting and asked a simple question. With a sweep of his hand across the lawn he queried, “Are all these mushrooms edible?” Cathy replied slowly, “Some of them are,” thus securing our mushroom supply for the remainder of our stay in Ithaca! Shaggy mane mushrooms resemble the widespread perception of a typical mushroom - one with a cap and stem. In reality, mushrooms are

fungi that grow in a variety of shapes including round, club-shaped or bracket-like to those resembling coral or even tiny cups containing what looks like eggs. These are all the fruitbodies of fungi, literally the tip of the iceberg. Beneath is a labyrinth of threads or hyphae which absorbs nutrients. It can extend for miles! If you turn over a rotting log, you will get a glimpse of

this expanding network in action. With the correct moisture and environment, hyphae generate into the familiar mushroom fruitbodies whose function it is to form spores that disperse on the wind. Spores germinate into new hyphae and renew

the cycle. Let’s take a closer look at three mushrooms you are likely to encounter. See if you can recognize them from the descriptions.On many walks in the woods, I am intrigued by the brilliant yellow to orange color of a classic-looking cap and stem mushroom. Its cap flattens as it ages and is covered with light-colored flakes. A large ring, which originally covered

the gills, now encircles the stem below the cap. Immediately I am reminded of the stories of toadstools – a term sometimes referring to poisonous mushrooms. Any guesses? If Amanita muscaria (Fly Agaric) jumps to your mind, you are right and yes, it is fine-looking but deadly for humans to eat. On a morning after wet summer or autumn weather, these mushrooms seem to have inflated into giant white balls on a lawn. If they are still young, the inside whensliced is white and solid. When you come back a few days later, the outside is deteriorating and the inside is yellowing as the spores mature. A smaller relative, the

size of a golf ball, has a pore in the top from which thespores emerge like smoke when disturbedDid you solve the mystery? These arepuffballs – round mushrooms with no stems– the Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea) and the Tumbling Puffball (Bovista plumbea). Exploring by an abandoned beaver pond, you see that remnants of chewed stumps are now festooned with layers of small fan-shaped bracket fungi that havesemi-circular patterns of light and dark brown. Do they remind you of part of a

turkey’s anatomy? Yes, these are turkey-tail polypores (Trametes versicolor)! Turkey tails grow on stumps that are at least three years old. If the conditions are right for mushrooms, you can find a multitude of different shapes, sizes and even smells! Mushroom odors range from pleasant fragrances like cinnamon, almond, or apricot to downright nasty ones akin to decaying carrion, rotten cabbage, or bad ham. Another intriguing aspect of mushrooms is the diverse way spores are arranged – they are produced by a structure called a hymenium, which may be located along gills or in pores on the underside of the cap. The hymenium may also be on the surface of the fungi – coral-like fungi for example – or in the case of the cups with egg-like structures, the hymenium is enclosed within “eggs” that splash out when hit by rain water. A fun project with children (and also an important identification technique) is to collect some spore prints from cap and stem mushrooms. Using just the cap of a fresh mushroom, place the gill or pore surface down on paper. Cover it with a bowl andovernight the spores will be deposited on the paper making an intriguing spore print! Spores can come in several colors from white to brown to black so you may need to experiment with light and dark paper. It is tempting, as we walk through the forest, across a field, or even in our backyard, to focus solely on the visible part of mushrooms. Take time to contemplate the teaming mushroom network beneath our

feet. Some mushrooms form associations

with trees which are beneficial to both.

Called mycorrhizal relationships, the fungus

assists the tree in getting water and nutrients

and in turn receives sugars from the tree.

Other mushrooms break down organic

material like fallen trees, thus recycling

nutrients for other living things. Still

others can be parasitic. All are part of the

fascinating diversity and complexity of

mushroom lives. So, remember to stop and

smell the roses but also stoop to sniff the

mushrooms growing underneath!

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