I went to the woods today, but not deliberately. I’m not such a Thoreau thinker – the wind just blew me there. (Actually to be more reflective about my movements, I should be walled-in.) While in the woods I met a bunch of fun guys. They were definitely very interesting and you don’t get to see them every time you go. But with the warm and humid days of August, they seem to pop out all over the place. Some were even coming out of the woodwork. You might know them as the mushrooms.
Actually mushrooms are the fruit of certain fungi. The organisms themselves live mostly underground or in decaying plants. The mushrooms are simply a means for getting the fungal spores out into the world. A fungus can be a very complex organism, so to keep things simple (remember, I am not a deep thinker), I will talk about the mushrooms as if they are plants in the garden.
Many of the mushrooms/fungi I saw today can be divided into two general groups: symbiotic or saprophytic. The symbiotic mushrooms have a relationship, known as mycorrhiza, with the roots of a nearby plant. The fungus absorbs food (mostly carbohydrates) from the plant’s roots but in turn provides the plant with more moisture and mineral nutrients than the plant could get on its own. In fact, some plants are so dependent on their fungal partners, they cannot grow without them in the soil.
The saprophytic mushrooms are the ones that help decompose plant materials. They break down the dying or dead plant, helping render it to soil and returning the nutrients back into the food cycle. These saprobes truly do a “Dirty Job” and don’t get the glory like Mike Rowe.
(Hold on a second, my stamens hurt after using all those big words)
So who are these fun guys? One group you might see are the parasol mushrooms (Lepiota). Rising on thin stems, their caps pop out like an umbrella top. Underneath the cap are gills (from which the spores drop) making the underside even look like the ribs of an umbrella. Generally, these are the ones that break down plants so you will often find them near decaying plants like an old stump or on the forest floor.
Other “composters” include the diminutive Mycenas. They are barely an inch tall, but sprout prolifically after a rain and complete their job due to their sheer numbers. They are so small that most people overlook them altogether. The dye polypore is an unusual mushroom that not only helps break down plants, but can also be somewhat parasitic on living plants. It starts out as an eye-catching bright orange, multi-tiered growth at the base of a tree, with almost a velvety surface. But it does not age well, turning a dark brown and looking like a spreading stain at the base of the tree. Additional “decaying” mushrooms can be found throughout the woods, some sprouting densely along mulched trails while others enjoy munching on a log. They are working so hard, they won’t tell me their names. You’ll just have to key them out yourselves with a good field guide.
Meanwhile, some mushrooms are busy taking and giving to the plants around them. A large group of these symbiotic mushrooms are known as boletes. Generally these are bigger mushrooms, that viewed from above might seem like a flapjack tossed on the forest floor. Some sport buttery-brown caps, large and low to the ground. Other boletes will show off with a bright orange cap. The undersides do not have gills like many other stalked mushrooms, but a spongy layer of tubes from which the spores can escape. Other similar mushrooms include the Old Man of the Woods, with its dark shaggy top and Tylopilus with a purple tinged top. Some of the more traditional looking symbiotic mushrooms are Amanitas with a popped open white top and the Russulas that push up from the forest floor, barely able to lift off the tree litter. As these mushrooms age, their caps become more funnel-shaped, allowing the gills to be more easily spotted. Don’t forget the fun little puff balls that push up from the ground. They too help nearby plants before they erupt.
So the next time you take a walk in the woods, deliberately look around for these amazing fungi. The mushrooms and our curator of natural areas (a real fungophile) will appreciate your efforts.
Editor’s note: Facebook users can see more of the mushrooms mentioned in this blog at Norfolk Botanical Garden’s Facebook page – mushroom photo album