If you find a mushroom hanging in an unlikely spot, such as from tree branches or tucked into the bark of a tree where it didn’t grow, it’s likely that you have happened upon the work of a red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). Red squirrels are known for their habit of snipping mushrooms and hanging them from branches and rough bark in order to dry them before collecting them and caching them for dining on later in the winter. Unlike beavers, which share their stored cache of winter food with family members, red squirrels keep their cached fungi all to themselves.
If you see a bright orange and yellow shelf fungus on a living or dead tree, chances are that it is Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). It can grow in fairly impressive clumps of up to 100 pounds. The pictured shelves of this fungus extend well over 20 feet along the rotting tree trunk, and this was only half of total amount present. Chicken of the Woods doesn’t appear until well after the fungus has attacked the tree, and because it causes heart rot, the center of the living tree on which it grows is often hollow. Young Chicken of the Woods (particularly the growing edge of the fruiting body) is considered a great find by fungi foragers, as its taste resembles chicken – hence, its common name. Although it’s been considered one of the “foolproof four” fungi that can be eaten, similar species have recently been found which are not edible, so some people advise foraging with caution. (Thanks to Hilary Hamilton for photo op.)
There is a group of fungi known as tooth fungi, due to the fact that they produce spores on tooth-like projections, not pores or gills. Bear’s Head Tooth Fungus, Hericium americanum, also known as Lion’s Mane, Monkey Head or Icicle Mushroom, is a tooth fungus that is fruiting now. This delicious (its taste is somewhat reminiscent of lobster) fleshy fungus is among the safest, most unmistakable of all of North America’s species of edible wild mushrooms; it looks like a cluster of white fungal icicles hanging off a decaying log, stump, or dead tree trunk. Bear’s Head Tooth Fungus fruits on a number of different kinds of deciduous trees, particularly beech, maple, birch, oak, walnut, and sycamore. Distinguishing between the species of Hericium can be tricky, but all species are edible and tasty. Even so, I recommend having someone very familiar with edible fungi along to confirm identification the first time you harvest it. (Thanks to Peter Stettenheim for photo op.)
This is the time for Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) to magically appear in fields and meadows overnight. Puffballs are different from most fungi, in that their spores are all contained within them, as opposed to being produced by gills under a cap. Giant Puffballs more than deserve their common and scientific names — they can reach a diameter of five feet and weigh up to 44 pounds! Some foragers do eat immature puffballs, but beware, as they closely resemble a poisonous mushroom at this stage, and once their spores mature, they can cause digestive distress. (Thanks to Knox & Harmony Farm for photo op.)
Yellow lady’s slipper, Cypripedium pubescens, is in flower in central Vermont/New Hampshire, gracing woodlands and bogs with its beauty. This plant has what is called a mycorrhizal association, a relationship with a fungus that colonizes its roots. This mutually beneficial association provides the fungus with carbohydrates from its host plant, the yellow lady’s slipper, and enables the yellow lady’s slipper to have increased mineral absorption due to the fungus’s large surface area. More than 90 percent of plant species are believed to form a symbiotic arrangement with beneficial soil fungi.
4-11-12 Field Horsetail – Equisetum arvense
Look for this perennial non-flowering plant by the side of the road, where its fertile stalks are starting to poke up through the soil. A relative of ferns, horsetail reproduces by means of spores which are located in the cone-like structure at the tip of the fertile stalk. The green, bristly vegetative stalks that give this plant its common name will soon appear. Horsetail’s use as an herbal remedy dates back to ancient Roman and Greek medicine. It was used traditionally to stop bleeding, heal ulcers and wounds, and treat tuberculosis and kidney problems. Because of the silica in this plant, horesetail is used today by organic farmers to rid soil of the effect of excess moisture that promotes the growth of fungi. Relatively recently horsetail has been suggested as a treatment for osteoporosis, also because of the silica it contains, a mineral needed for bone health.
When a white pine has been infected with white pine blister rust (a fungus), cankers appear on the branches and sometimes the trunk of the tree. A large amount of sap-like ooze flows from the cankered areas, sometime drying and resembling a sugary-looking crust or film. These areas are, in fact, high in sugar content, and rodents frequently chew them. It’s likely that a red squirrel visited and sampled the infected white pine in the photograph, leaving a freshly-gnawed patch in the bark.
Anyone familiar with the beautiful, smooth, gray bark of American beech is well aware that the forest landscape is changing, in part due to the disease that is affecting American beeches. Beech bark disease is caused by not one, but two, agents – an insect and a fungus. The bark of an American beech is initially attacked and altered by the soft-bodied scale insect, Cryptococcus fagisuga, after which it is invaded and killed by fungi, usually Nectria coccinea var. faginata or N. gallegina. This scale insect was accidentally introduced to Nova Scotia around 1890 and since then has spread far and wide, affecting large American beech trees (over 8 inches) the most. Pale yellow eggs are laid by the yellow female scale insects (there are no males – they reproduce through parthenogenesis) on the bark of beech trees in mid-summer and hatch in the late summer or fall. Larvae begin to feed on the bark until winter when they transform into a stage that has no legs and is covered with wool-like wax. The white wax secreted by beech scale insects is the first sign of the disease – heavy infestations of beech scale can cover tree trunks with white wax. Serious damage results only after the invasion of the bark by either one of the fungi mentioned, presumably through injuries made by scale feeding activity.
It is not hard to figure out how coral fungus got its name, with its branching fruiting bodies that resemble aquatic coral. These fungi come in a rainbow of colors – white, yellow, orange, red, purple and tan, depending on the species. Typically found growing on the forest floor, coral fungi bear their spores on the sides of their branches (not on or ingills or pores, like many fungi). All fungi that look like coral were originally lumped into one group, but DNA analysis has determined that while these fungi may look alike, there are many differences between them, and taxonomically they belong to many different families. While many species are edible, some species are poisonous, and distinguishing between the two can be extremely challenging.
Fungi can be divided into two groups – basidiomycetes and ascomycetes. Basidiomycetes (gilled mushrooms, coral fungus, hedgehog mushrooms, puffballs, bird’s nest fungus) produce spores on the surface of microscopic cells called basidea. Ascomycetes (morels, cup fungi, stinkhorns) produce their spores within microscopic sacs (asci). The slug in this photograph is dining on an ascomycete — eyelash cup fungus (Scutellinia scutellata), the rim of which bears many stiff, eyelash-like hairs.
Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) is a fungus that can be found growing from the bases of rotting stumps, and gets its common name from the way its fruiting body pokes up through the ground like a dead man’s fingers. “Xylaria” refers to growing on wood and “polymorpha” means many forms. This species has a very variable fruiting body, sometimes with many separate “fingers” and sometimes with the fingers fused into something more like a hand.
If you take a walk in the woods right now, you’ll find that overnight the fruiting bodies of a wide variety of fungi have popped up all over the forest floor, none more obvious than the white Comb Tooth fungus (Hericium coralloides). It is delicately branched and covered with fleshy spines most of which are under half an inch in length. Look for Comb Tooth on fallen hardwood branches, logs and stumps, particularly those of American Beech and maples. If you are with someone whose fungus identification skills you trust, and they confirm that you have found Comb Tooth (the fungus it most resembles, H. americanum, or Bear’s-head Tooth fungus, is also edible), you are in for a treat, for it is one of our tastiest fungi.
It’s a well-known fact that fungi, along with invertebrates and bacteria, are responsible for the majority of plant and animal decomposition that occurs. They are very efficient at breaking down organic material into simpler forms of matter that can then be recycled. Seeing this mushroom, the fruiting body of a fungus, undergoing the same process with which it is associated reminds me of the porcupine with a face full of quills it received from its relative.
The Chanterelle family of fungi includes some of the best known edible wild mushrooms. The chanterelle pictured, Cantharellus cibarius, is considered a delicacy, but there are poisonous mushrooms that look very much like this chanterelle, so you should only consume one if someone you trust has identified it. Most chanterelles are either convex or vase-shaped, and instead of true gills, these mushrooms often produce spores on ridges or folds. Most chanterelles grow on the ground and appear at this time of year.
Mushrooms in the genus Amanita typically have “warts” on their cap, a sturdy ring around their stem, and a distinctive stem base that is quite shaggy. They can grow to be quite large — up to a foot high with caps as big as dinner plates. This genus includes about 600 species, some of which are edible, but some of which are the most toxic mushrooms in the world. Amanitas are responsible for approximately 95% of the fatalities resulting from mushroom poisoning. Amanita muscaria (pictured) is commonly known as the fly Amanita, because in some regions little pieces of the mushroom are placed in milk to attract flies. The flies supposedly become inebriated and crash into the walls and die. This species is poisonous and has hallucinogenic properties. It often has a red cap, but this yellow-capped variety is more common in New England. CAUTION: DO NOT EAT ANY AMANITAS. Edible and poisonous species are too similar!
Mystery Photo: Cedar Apple Rust
David Fontaine, of Ferrisburgh, Vermont, submitted a mystery photo of a cedar-apple
rust gall that overwinters on cedar trees and is caused by a fungus which
requires two hosts, eastern red cedar and apple trees, to complete its life
cycle. When the galls get wet from spring rains, orange, spore-filled fingers or horns, called telia, emerge from pores in the gall. As the horns absorb water, they become jelly-like and swollen. When
the jelly dries, the spores are carried by the wind to apple trees, where they
cause a brownish mottling on apples, referred to as cedar apple rust, which
makes apples difficult for growers to sell, even though it doesn’t affect the
flavor or texture of infected apples. The rust produces spores on the underside of apple leaves in late summer,which, if they land on eastern red cedar trees, cause galls to form, thereby continuing the cycle. Spores produced on apple do not infect apple, only cedar; spores produced on cedar infect only apple.
Shelf Fungus – Welcome to a photographic journey through the woods, fields and marshes of New England
Find more of my photographs and information similar to that which I post in this blog in my book Naturally Curious, which is now available from www.trafalgarbooks.com or your local bookseller.