Polypores are a group of fungi that bear their spores in tubes, or pores, rather than gills. One of the largest mushrooms to fruit on living trees is Berkeley’s Polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi), often found on hardwoods, especially on oak trees. Its growth is unusual in both size and form. When the fruiting body starts to emerge, it resembles a giant hand with short, fat fingers. The tips of the “fingers” expand into huge, flat, fan-like shapes up to ten inches wide that together form an irregular rosette. The rosette can be more than three feet across and can weigh up to 30 pounds.
You usually find this fungus at the base of trees, but it can fruit from the ground far from any tree if there are roots or the remnants of an old stump beneath the ground, for it is saprophytic (lives on dead or decaying trees) as well as parasitic.
Berkeley’s Polypore is edible when it is young. With age, the fruiting body becomes increasingly tough and has been compared to eating cardboard. It goes without saying that one should be sure of the identity of any fungus before consuming it. (Photo of Berkeley’s Polypore & Leo Clifford by Lawrence Clifford.)
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Shaggy Mane, Coprinus comatus, is one of a group of mushrooms known as Inky Caps. Both of these common names reflect the appearance of the mushroom at different stages of its development – the cap has white, shaggy scales, and as the mushroom matures its gills liquefy into a black substance that was once used as ink.
Most Inky Caps have gills that are very thin and very close to one another, which does not allow for easy release of the spores. In addition, the elongated shape of this mushroom does not allow for the spores to get caught in air currents as in most other mushrooms. The liquefication/self-digestion process is actually a strategy to disperse spores more efficiently. The gills liquefy from the bottom up as the spores mature. Thus the cap peels up and away, and the maturing spores are always kept in the best position for catching wind currents. This continues until the entire fruiting body has turned into black ink.
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This slimy, purple mushroom belongs to the genus Cortinarius, the largest genus of mushrooms in the world. Mushrooms in this genus have partial veils, or cortinas – tissue that covers and protects the spore-producing gills, and they also have a rusty brown spore print and mature gills.
While it is relatively simple to determine that a mushroom is in this genus, identifying one down to species can be difficult. Two identical-looking species, C. iodes and C. iodeoides, can be found in the Northeast – both are purple and have slimy caps. Mycologists distinguish them by the size of their spores. For those more daring than I, there is a licking/taste test — the slime on C. iodeoides is said to be more bitter tasting than that of C. iodes.
Both species are mycorrhizal with oaks, in that both benefit from an association with each other. The mushroom helps the tree absorb water and nutrients while the tree provides sugars and amino acids to the mushroom. It is estimated that about 85% of plants depend on mycorrhizal relationships with fungi.
The perfectly round, inch-wide, ½-inch-deep holes in the ground that Striped Skunks leave when they’ve been digging for grubs are a fairly common sight. There are other edibles besides grubs, however, that they dig for: insects, earthworms, rodents, salamanders, frogs, snakes and moles, among others. The list isn’t limited to living creatures, however, as skunks are omnivores. Their diet, which changes with the seasons, also includes fruit, grasses, nuts and fungi. Pictured is a hole excavated by a Striped Skunk and the remains of the fungus that was fruiting there. At this time of year, it is not unusual to find that a meal of mushrooms is the object of their digging desire.
Velvety Fairy Fan (Spathulariopsis velutipes) lives up to its name. Its brown stalk is fuzzy, it is tiny and it is shaped like a fan. (It is also called Spatula Mushroom, for equally obvious reasons.) This fungus belongs to the order Helotiales, which also includes earth tongues, jelly drops and other small fungi that grow on plant stems, wood and wet leaves. Because of its diminutive size (3/8” high), Velvety Fairy Fan is often overlooked. The fruiting bodies are often found in clusters that appear in August and September.
There are several species of poisonous mushrooms in the genus Amanita in the Northeast that are referred to as “destroying angels” but the most widely distributed and commonly encountered is Amanita bisporigera. It has a smooth white cap, gills, a skirt-like ring underneath the cap surrounding the stem (annulus) and a swollen stem base enclosed in a cup-like structure (volva). As it ages, this mushroom often acquires an odor reminiscent of rotting meat. Destroying angles are mycorrhizal with oaks – the underground portion of this fungus surrounds a tree’s rootlets with a sheath, and help the tree absorb water and nutrients while the tree provides sugars and amino acids to the mushroom. Destroying angels are among the most toxic known mushrooms, and closely resemble other white mushrooms that are edible. Consult an expert mycologist before consuming any mushroom that even remotely looks like this!
A group of fungi called the Ascomycetes, or sac fungi, all produce their spores in sac-like structures. This group includes, among others, morels, false morels, cup fungi and saddle fungi. Sac fungi in the genus Helvella are known as “Elfin Saddles” — the caps of their fruiting bodies come in a variety of shapes, including ears and cups as well as saddles. Most are not brightly colored and are usually white, cream, buff, brown, gray or black. Helvella species grow on the ground or, in a few cases, on rotting wood. Species are defined by the shape of their caps and the texture of their outer surface and stem. (Thanks to Susan and Dean Greenberg for photo op.)
The Yellow-orange Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria var. formosa) is common in New England, especially where conifers grow. Out West this mushroom is often a bright red color, but in the East it’s typically orange/yellow. When certain gilled mushrooms, including many Amanita species, first form, they are encased in a membrane called a “universal veil.” As the mushroom enlarges and matures, the veil ruptures, with remnants of it remaining on the mushroom’s cap. Fly Agaric fungi got their name from the custom of placing little pieces of the mushroom in milk to attract flies. The flies supposedly become inebriated and crash into walls and die. This mushroom is somewhat poisonous (as are many Amanita species) and hallucinogenic when consumed by humans. The toxins affect the part of the brain that is responsible for fear, turning off the fear emotion. Vikings, who had a reputation for fierceness, are said to have ingested this mushroom prior to invading a village.
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.