Finally, Mushrooms!

Following a few very dry seasons, parts of Door County have finally received sufficient and welcome rain, and if mushrooms could talk, there would be shouts of joy coming from throughout the woods.

The real excitement occurred during this past Sept. 8 – 13 while Charlotte was teaching her class of 12 adult students at Björklunden. The subject, “Mushrooms: The Third Kingdom,” was preceded and accompanied during the week by some very nice rainfall, enough to result in good finds and challenging laboratory work. Our all-day class at Newport State Park and the Mink River Preserve proved to be especially fruitful, including the discovery of one brand new species for Door County. It helped considerably to have 14 pairs of eyes searching.

Charlotte has been working very diligently and meticulously in our county for the past 41 years, collecting, studying and continually strengthening her understanding of this amazing “Third Kingdom” while gradually adding to her total lists for a dozen or more specific areas. She deserves the title of “mycologist,” one who seriously studies mushrooms.

This group of developing Pholiota squarrosa mushrooms have the scaliest stalks and caps of any local species.

The following are up-to-date totals for 10 of the areas she has been studying: Whitefish Dunes State Park – 244 species; Toft Point State Natural Area – 148 species; Newport State Park – 144 species; Mink River Preserve – 120 species; Lukes 23 acres – 114 species; Ridges Sanctuary – 113 species; Washington Island – 74 species; Rock Island State Park – 70 species; Logan Creek Preserve – 64 species; and Peninsula State Park – 44 species.

Currently Charlotte’s Door County mushroom list stands at 596 species.

We follow the weather conditions closely and with almost daily e-mail rain reports from our friend Melody Walsh on Washington Island, we decided to search for mushrooms on Rock Island with friends Don and Beth on Sept. 20 and 21. The islands had received about one inch of rain the day before we arrived, plus it rained on and off during our ferry rides to both Washington and Rock Islands. Perhaps never in our lives have we experienced better mushrooming weather nor more species waiting to be found.

Twenty-five new species were added to the Rock Island list and 14 to the Washington Island list during the two days. Included with the new species for the islands were five new species for Door County.

It was in September 2010 that Charlotte, our friends Beth and Don and I spent two days on Rock and Washington Islands. Our general plan was to search for mushrooms on Washington Island on one day and to measure big trees on Rock Island the next. No sooner had we arrived on Rock Island when we began seeing mushrooms. Total trees measured, zero; total different species of mushrooms found and photographed, 43. Really, that was the hike that inspired the four of us to return recently to that pristine island wilderness to continue our mushrooming.

Hygrocybe cuspidata is one of the colorful waxy caps that always grow on the ground, never on trees.

Of the hundreds of questions that have been fired at us during late summer and fall pertaining to fleshy fungi, the most frequent one has proven to be, “Is that a mushroom or a toadstool?”

Literature, with tongue in cheek, indicates that a toadstool can mean any fungi with a cap large enough for a toad to sit upon. Toads were thought to be poisonous so toadstools carried the same reputation. Safe edible species were called mushrooms. The Scots refer to fleshy fungi as paddock stools, paddock meaning frog.

The English tend to call the gilled mushrooms, or agarics, toadstools. Other species, such as the boletes having spore tubes instead of gills, are referred to as mushrooms. Personally, we like the sound of the word mushroom and use it exclusively.

Perhaps the most mysterious and misunderstood parts of mushrooms are the true plants themselves. Picking a mushroom is much the same as plucking an apple off a tree. You have only removed a fruiting body whereas the remainder of the plant continues to survive and grow.

Every mushroom observed above the ground is the end result of many weeks, months or even years of growth of a delicate (and practically invisible in many cases) network of cobwebby, threadlike strands called mycelia (my-SEE-lee-a). By the way, the word mycelia is plural while the word mycelium is singular. The mycelia correspond to the roots, stems and leaves of a green plant. They absorb nourishment instead of making it through the use of a substance it completely lacks, chlorophyll.

The mycelia of some fungi can actually penetrate brick and mortar, and will easily climb from one floor of a building to the next. Dry rot is one of many destructive fungi, which, like all the others, need a considerable amount of moisture in order to live and grow. We think of other very bad fungi when we hear words such as rust, smut, mold and blight. However, bread, cheese, vinegar, wine and penicillin could not exist without fungi.

The Little Wheel mushroom, Marasmius rotula, is a dainty species that dries up and can revive after a big rainfall.

One of the most interesting plant discoveries during the last century involved the important “give and take” relationships between various mushrooms and trees as well as other seed plants. This amazing symbiotic relationship, called mycorrhizal (my-cor-RYE-zal) allows for a vital interchange of nutrients between the two plants. The mycelia receive nourishment from the tree roots but also allow the roots to obtain various food elements from the soil that they could not procure by themselves.

The wide variety of shapes, sizes, textures and colors of mushrooms is as fascinating to observe in fall as are the flowering plants that are so prolific in the spring and early summer woods. One of my favorites is an inch-tall species called the Black-stemmed Marasmius or Little Wheel mushroom, Marasmius rotula. They frequently grow by the dozens or hundreds on decaying sticks and roots in damp, rich soil. Their whitish caps are intricately grooved and the gills, when seen from below, are joined to a neat little collar around the slender shiny black stem.

We rejoice now as the mushrooms respond to the gentle signals of September rains. Hopefully soon the woods will be brimming with houby (HOE-bee, Bohemian for mushrooms).

Fungi will again become a very important part of many lives. Actually the word fungi even sounds like fun! As Charlotte maintains, “Mycologists have more fun-gi!”