Saturday, August 28, 2021

A Summer Fungi Blast

“Fungi are everywhere and will outlive us by an eternity.”

~ Mycologist Nicholas P. Money

This short post has no connection to fossils, offers no twist or hook, and basically serves as a salute to the fungi that have enhanced my summer.

In a very short video, mycologist Nicholas P. Money, author of the Oxford University Press volume Fungi:  A Very Short Introduction (2016), summarized the “Top Ten Things You Should Know” about fungi.  These ranged from the amazing diversity of fungi to the unimaginable quantity of spores released by mushrooms and other fungi (accounting annually for up to 50 million tons of particulates in the atmosphere) to the Jekyll and Hyde relationship of fungi to other living organisms (crucial for trees in the woods, necessary for other life, including ours, but oft times quite fatal).  He closes his book and this video with the line quoted in the epigraph for this post.  (All quotations in this post attributed to Money are from the Kindle edition of Fungi:  A Very Short Introduction.)

Given that there are over a estimated million species of fungi on this planet and that some 90 percent of the biomass in forest soils (excluding tree roots) consists of fungi, it’s striking how few fungi have been described scientifically, though not surprising given that most are microscopic.  (George Barron, Mushrooms of Northeast North America, 1999.)  Money notes that “[t]he inconspicuous nature of most fungi is one of the reasons that we know so little about them compared with animals and plants.”  He observes that only some 70,000 fungi species have been scientifically described.  Further, it’s probably also not unexpected that he reports that over 90 percent of those belong to two phyla in the Fungi Kingdom:  Phylum Basidiomycota (mushrooms and relatives) and Phylum Ascomycota (sac fungi).  Many of these are the quite conspicuous members of the Fungi Kingdom, producing the frequently wonderfully colored structures that break through the soil in a quest to release spores, those fruiting bodies that we are likely to encounter in our walks in the woods after a rainfall.

Money identifies three characteristics uniting fungi:

they are eukaryotes [organisms with cells housing genetic material in nuclei], which feed by absorption, and reproduce by forming spores.

For me, a key attribute of many fungi is the creation of hyphae or filaments that, as they elongate in the search for food, create a hyphal web or mycelium.  Money describes this as “the fungal colony.”  Yes, we sometimes see that web structure above ground (he suggests looking under a flower pot), but more often than not it’s all spreading below ground, beneath our feet, waiting for the right set of circumstances to launch fruitbodies above ground.  The vastness of some of the mycelia is truly astounding.  Money reports that the subsurface mycelia of one honey fungus in Oregon covers 10 square kilometers, may weigh in at 35,000 tons, and have been alive for 2,400 years.   I find it fascinating that, rather than relying on something like chemical detection in the quest for food, the mycelia use brute strength, "spread[ing] outwards in all directions until they strike digestible objects.  When this happens the colony reacts by redirecting growth towards these locations."  (Money, Fungi.)

Sarah Gibson, reporter with New Hampshire Public Radio, has proven to be quite interested in mushrooms this year.  In a piece titled Summer Rains Bring Mushroom Frenzy to New England (WBUR News, August 9, 2021), she describes a walk with mushroom expert Christine Gagnon in woods along the Piscataqua River (which separates New Hampshire from Maine).  A very wet summer in New England has created ideal conditions for the appearance of myriad mushrooms springing forth from the underground mycelia.  “Everywhere you go, you can’t not see mushrooms,” says Gagnon.  The downside of this is the propensity of the uninformed or misinformed mushroom collector to ingest specimens from toxic species.

Casting the net broader than Gibson, I have found this to be a banner summer for fungi in the Northeastern portion of the U.S.  I was surrounded by mushrooms for much of late July through mid-August in the Jamesport area of Long Island and these riches have been present near my home in Silver Spring, Maryland, bordering Washington, D.C.  Wet conditions have, for the most part, prevailed in these two areas.

So what fungi have I encountered?  Here is a montage featuring a few of the mushroom specimens spotted during my sojourns at Jamesport and Silver Spring this summer.

I’ve numbered the images and present below my early attempts to identify what I photographed, usually only to the genus level and, even then, with lots of doubt.  I chose not to disturb these fungi and so forsook some of the best, though also destructive, ways of identifying fungi.  I’ve used what has come up at iNaturalist and what I learned from Barron’s guide.  In all cases, I most certainly stand to be corrected.

  1. Strobilomyces strobilaceus, Old-Man-of-the-Woods
  2. Sebacina schweinitzii, jellied false coral fungus
  3. Amanita sp.
  4. Boletaceae family
  5. Trametes versicolor ?, Turkey Tail
  6. Chlorophyllum molybdites, green-spored parasol – if my identification is right, this is a monstrously large example of this poisonous mushroom having a diameter of over 11.5 inches
  7. Amanita sp.
  8. Amanita sp.
  9. Russula sp., brittlegill
  10. Lepiota sp.

I close by stressing the sobering import of Money’s epigraph that opened this post.  Despite the many fundamentally constructive and restorative ways in which fungi interact with humans, other life, and the planet in general, and the good uses to which they may be put in the future, they will not save us from ourselves.

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