The Wonder of Mushrooms

A cluster of small, bright orange mushrooms called Hygrocybe cantharellus, grows from the forest floor: Waxcap.

The largest living thing on earth lies within the floor of a forest in Oregon.  A honey mushroom, Armillaria solidipes, it has spread over thousands of years through the soil and litter to parasitize the roots of trees over a four square mile area.  Tests have showed that the entire mycelial network consists of a single, fungal colony — a single, almost immortal organism.

And it’s edible.

A large cluster of oyster mushrooms sprouts from the trunk of a tree.
Oyster Mushrooms

I sometimes think about bringing brown paper bags with me into the forest.  Unfortunately, that thought usually comes when I’m standing before a feast of oyster mushrooms sprouting from a log or tree, with no way to carry them home.  By the time that I return, the slugs will have found them.  Generally, however, I have little interest in picking mushrooms.  My reluctance comes, in large part, from my lack of confidence in distinguishing edible mushrooms from the many inedible or poisonous species that grow side-by-side with them.  It also comes from my appreciation of the beauty of mushrooms and the fascinating, critical role that they have played in life on Earth.

A beautiful, but deadly Frost's Amanita sprouts from the forest floor.
A beautiful but deadly Amanita frostiana, Frost’s Amanita.

By some estimates, almost 90% of the Earth’s plants form a symbiotic relationship with soil fungi.  These mycorrhizae colonize plant roots, feeding on the sugars produced by the plants.  In return, the fine mycelial threads of the fungi penetrate into soil pores and other spaces where plant roots cannot reach, giving the plants greater access to water and nutrients.  They break down leaf litter and other detritus, improving the efficiency of nutrient cycling.  They may even use organic acids and enzymes to dissolve rock, releasing phosphorous that would otherwise be unavailable to the plants.  Not just individual species or plant families, but entire ecosystems like the northern boreal forest depend upon mycorrhizal fungi for their existence.

Hygrocybe acutoconica, a bright orange mushrooum, with an upturned, gilled margin, grows on the forest floor.
Hydrocybe acutoconica, Waxcap

Genetic studies suggest that the relationship between fungi and plants goes back to the very first colonization of dry land by plants.  DNA analyses show that mycorrhizal fungi diverged from a group of parasitic aquatic fungi called “chytrids” approximately 700 million years ago — just about the time that the first land plants appear in the geological record.  It seems very likely that these mycorrhizae not only accompanied plants on to the land, but that they actually made colonization of land possible through their superior ability to scavenge for water and nutrients in the barren landscape.

A cluster of small, brown cups of Ascocoryne cylichnium grow on a weathered log.
Ascocoryne cylichnium, a Sac or Cup Fungus
A cluster of small, dark, spherical fungi called Lasiosphaerica spermoides fruits on a weathered log.
Lasiosphaeria spermoides, a Sac or Cup Fungus
Scarlet cup, a bright orange fungus, sprouts from dark, expose soil.
Sarcoscypha austriaca, Scarlet Cups

As a photographic subject, mushrooms seem sadly underappreciated.  In the dog days of summer, when the spring chorus of birds has faded and the other forest animals hide from sight with their young, when the trees cast the forest floor in shade and the trilliums have withered and dropped, many of the most colourful mushrooms begin their slow eruption from the humus.  Purest white, brilliant yellow, earthy browns and tans, luminescent orange, pale translucent blue… they turn dried leaves, moss and twigs into minature landscapes.  One appreciates them most from close up, lying carefully amidst the ferns, tree seedlings, and forest litter:  the different varieties and substrates, the forms and textures, the subtle details of cap and stem when viewed from the side or below.  Other features of the forest floor also come into focus.  Slugs enjoying a meal, tendrils of moss, skeletal scaffolds of decaying leaves.  The first coral fungus that I ever examined held a red spotted salamander hidden amidst its spires.  Sadly, on that day, I didn’t have a camera with me.

Leccinum aurantiacum, or Orange Bolete, is a a stout mushroom with an orange cap and thick white stem.
Leccinum aurantiacum, Orange Bolete
Claculinopsis fusiformis, or Spindle-shaped Coral, sprouts from a bed of moss like a cluster of bright yellow fingers.
Claculinopsis fusiformis, Spindle-shaped Coral
A cluster of delicate, yellow-brown mushrooms called Xeromphalina campanella sprouts from a well-decayed log.
Xeromphalina campanella
The large, white orb of a Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantea, grows in the darkness of a forest.
Calvatia gigantea, Giant Puffball
A slug grazes on the cap of an Orange Bolete.
Slug Feeding on an Orange Bolete
Two delicate, blue-tinted mushrooms called Mycena subcaerulea grow from the forest floor.
Mycena subcaerulea

Every woodlot will have its share of mushrooms.  My favourite places to search for them are the Four Seasons Forest Preserve in Deep River, where I spend two weeks each summer with my family, and Gatineau Park, where I often cycle and hike on weekends.  Both areas offer a wide range of habitats, from dry pine and oak forests, through cool coves of maple and beech, to dank cedar swamps and wetlands.  Please refrain from collecting mushrooms on protected lands and conservation areas:  thousands of hectares of crown land lie available for collecting.  And please refrain from collecting altogether unless you can confidently identify the edible varieties.  Most mushroom guide books will list four or five unmistakable, “safe” species, such as oyster mushroom or black and yellow morels.  Outside of those species, the chance of accidental poisoning or adverse effects increases dramatically for non-experts.  Picking mushrooms for their hallucinogenic properties is especially risky, not just because the hallucinogenic species are almost indistinguishable from more poisonous species, but also because the reaction to such mushrooms can vary greatly between individuals.  It simply isn’t worth the risk.

A dense cluster of brown mushrooms, the deadly poisonous Jack O'Lantern, sprouts from a tree stump.
Omphalotus olearius, Jack O’Lantern. Deadly poisonous.

Do, however, get down on your stomach to admire and photograph mushrooms.  And while you are there, in contact with the living forest floor, think about how the life in the forest is linked and interwoven.  How the trees around you are connected by the hidden network below you; how the living and the dead are connected in the circle of life, and how the miracle of evolution has produced the wonder of it all.

A pale, pink coral fungus, Ramaria abietina, grows from the forest floor.
Ramaria abietina, Coral Fungus
An unknown species of little brown mushroom grows from the mossy forest floor.
Unknown Mushroom
A brown, wrinkled False Morel, Gyromitra esculenta, grows on the forest floor.
Gyromitra esculenta, False Morel. Poisonous.
Two small Chanterelle Waxcaps grow from a bed of moss.
Hygrocybe cantharellus, Chanterelle Waxcap

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