Sunday, July 28, 2013

Stumbling across some Summer 'Shrooms

Fungi make great photographic subjects. They're often colorful and they are always willing to sit still and pose for the camera, the only downside is they often prefer to grow in places where the lighting leaves something to be desired. Above all, they come a an astounding variety of strange and eldritch forms. Given the offbeat shapes assumed by many fungi, their penchant for growing in ill-lit, hidden places and that some bioluminescent species glow in the dark, it's understandable why people in centuries past gave them names like Witch's Butter, Devils Urn, Fairy Ring Fungus and Elfin Saddle.

Fungi are also the foundation upon which other life is built. According to George Barron, in his field guide Mushrooms of Ontario and Eastern Canada (Lone Pine Publishing, 1999), an astonishing 90% of the biomass of a forest floor's soil is fungal. Each tree has thousands of kilometers of symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi associated with its roots that keep the tree supplied with water and nutrients. In fact, I also recall reading somewhere or other that 95% of all plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi for their survival.

The fruitbodies of some 'shroom species are short-lived indeed, and you have to be in the right place at the right time to get a photo. Common and widespread on lawns in the summer, the fruitbodies of Dunce Cap (Conocybe lactea) might last a day.

Gastrocybe lateritia is even more ephemeral ... 9:30 on a July morning and these small mushrooms are already looking rough around the edges.

Many mushrooms change color and form quickly within just a few days, making identification challenging. The photos of this group of Pluteus petasatus were taken two days apart.

Some Xylaria hypoxylon a.k.a Stag's Horn, encountered growing on dead wood in the cedar forest near the Stoco Fen. This is the asexual spore-producing stage of the fungus. Later in the year it will morph to a much different looking sexual phase that produces thick-walled spores and resemble the name it more commonly goes by – Candlesnuff.

Parasola auricoma ... I didn't have to travel far and wide to get these pictures. These small distinctive mushrooms were fruiting the wood chip and bark mulch in the library gardens. The first photo is a younger stage of the mushroom before the caps have fully opened.

A commonly encountered mushroom, Xerula megalospora fruits on lawns, growing from dead wood buried beneath the soil. These two specimens were found in a grassy opening in the forest near the Point.

The stipe often bears a chevron-like pattern, and I was fairly certain I had identified this mushroom correctly based on the other characteristics visible in the photos above. But I has missed a critical identifying feature, something I never thought to look for until I read the species accounts in the Mushrooms of Ontario and Eastern Canada and at MushroomExpert.Com – this species sports a root-like extension up to 8 cm in length.

A few days later whilst out walking at 11:30 PM, I (literally) stumbled across another X. megalospora, so I carefully grabbed the stipe near the ground, pulled firmly upward, and ... wow! The ruler is 40 cm in length and I would guesstimate the length of the "root" to be a good 45 cm.

Last but not least is this crusty, crystalline, cake-like mass about 5 cm in diameter, found growing on a dead stump. Although hard and abrasive to the touch on the outside, the insides were a runny, slimy goo. This is actually a type of slime mold, Mucilago crustacea, and though they are generally included in fungus books and field guides, slime molds also possess the attributes of single-celled animals and scientists aren't sure just how to classify these offbeat organisms.

With the exception of Xylaria hypoxylon and Mucilago crustacea, all of the mushrooms depicted in this post were growing on lawns within a couple of blocks of my place. People often feel that large groups of mushrooms growing amidst the grass on their perfect lawn ruin its appearance and wonder how to get rid of them. Or upon seeing the shelving brackets of a polypore, want to know how to exterminate or remove the fungus from the tree.

The answer is ... forget it. Although the familiar part of a 'shroom that we see – the fruitbody – isn't really a fruit, the analogy still holds. Like an apple or a cherry on a tree, the mushroom we see is only a tiny part of the whole. A fungus mostly consists of a mycelium composed of microscopic threads called hyphae that grow underground in the soil or inside the wood of the tree. Remember that 90% of the forest soil's biomass? At any rate, you can't extricate the mycelium from its substrate any more than you can remove the mold from a piece of bread. So let the mushrooms on the lawn do their thing, and if a tree is at the point where there are brackets growing from it, it's pretty much history ...