Wild Wonders: Mushrooms

By Summer Swallow

The Fungi Kingdom is a fascinating and somewhat mysterious category of organisms, home to yeasts, molds, lichen, and of course mushrooms. While fungi may generally have a less than glamorous reputation as “decomposers,” this incredibly diverse grouping of organisms has given humankind food like bread, wine, and cheese – as well as medicine like the antibiotic penicillin.

I first became fascinated by fungi in a lab biology course at the Santa Rosa Junior College, in which we learned about the evolution and ecology of fungi while also examining specimens under microscopes. I invite you to explore outside and see what fungi friends share your neighborhood during the different times of the year. Look closely around the base of trees, and along the trunks of older and dying trees to see who has emerged after the rains. You may be surprised by all the shapes, sizes and colors you find; and perhaps you too will be inspired to learn more about these mysterious friends that follow our winter rains.

As your curiosity grows and you want to learn more, hop on iNaturalist.org to share your photographs. Most likely, a mighty mycologist (someone who studies fungus) will post a suggested identification of your find. I highly recommend the downloadable phone app, and am myself an avid user of iNaturalist. This free community-based science platform is an excellent resource to learn about all kinds of creatures near you. There is also a friendly annual iNaturalist competition known as the City Nature Challenge coming up on April 28-30. Make a long weekend of posting nature observations wherever you happen to be, or consider joining us at Pepperwood for an in-person bioblitz!

Fun Fungal Facts

  • The fungi body is made up of a network of tiny filaments called hyphae. Mycelium is an interwoven mass of fungal hyphae. Next time you dig up a mushroom or turn over a rotting log, look for loose white threads, this is mycelium! 
  • The cell walls are made out of chitin which provides strength and flexibility. Chitin also makes up the exoskeletons of insects and arthropods. 
  • Mushrooms are like the apple you pick off of an apple tree – the fruiting body. The “tree” of the mushroom is the mycelium that is underground.
  • About 95% of flowering plants have a mutually beneficial relationship with fungi! These fungi are called mycorrhizae and they attach to plant roots helping to more efficiently acquire minerals from the soil in exchange for carbohydrates from the plant roots.
  • What’s in a name? Mycorrhizae is Greek for fungus root: “myco” means fungus and “rhizas” means root
  • Yeast are very important economically especially here is agriculture focused Sonoma County. Without our yeast friends we would not be able to make beer and wine.
  • Fungi are essential decomposers. They play a key role in our world because they break down organic matter into bits and pieces that are then useable by other organisms. 
  • Globally over 100,000 fungi species have been identified and named; but there are likely closer to 1.5 million fungi species in our world!

Can you identify any of the mushrooms pictured below, based on their description?

Bird’s nest fungi (genus Nidulariaceae). The family name comes from Nidulus which means “small nest” in Latin, and indeed these small fungi resemble a small bird’s nest filled with eggs! The “nest” is actually the reproductive structure for this saprotrophic fungi (meaning “feeding on organic matter”) so they are typically found on decomposing wood or in this case on an old Douglas-fir cone. The “eggs” are actually spore packets. When a raindrop lands in the cup at just the right angle, those spore packets are splashed out and dispersed out into the world to continue their lifecycle.

Shaggy mane (genus Coprinus). These mushrooms can change their appearance quite quickly. In a matter of hours they can go from looking pristine and solid to a black gooey mess. Why? Because they liquify their gills in order to more effectively disperse the spores on the underside of their caps. This process is what gives this mushroom another name, “Inky Cap.” Like the bird’s nest, this fungus is a saprobe, meaning it feeds on dead organic matter like wood chips, decomposing logs, or piles of forest litter.

Turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor). This mushroom is ubiquitous throughout North American forests, and you’ve probably run into it before. Like the previous two mushrooms, it is saprotrophic and is found on dead logs and stumps. It grows in overlapping clusters, and its upper surface can be a variety of colors. In fact, its name “versicolor” means “of several colors.” Do you notice the concentric lines of color?

Western black elfin saddle (Helvella vespertina). Look for these friends underneath conifers like Douglas-fir trees throughout the Pacific Northwest. The cap is black to dark gray with an irregular shape; the stem has ribs and pockets and is whitish, darkening with age.

Orange peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia). A cup shaped fungus that is initially round, but as it develops the margin (edge of the cup) will get wavy and eventually split. It’s commonly found growing along disturbed paths or even rocky soils. Look for these friends growing in clusters on the ground both locally here in California, but also Asia, Europe and throughout North America!
Its name says it all.

Golden waxy cap (Hygrocybe flavescens). This smallish fungal friend ranges in color from lemon-yellow to orangish and can be found in conifer forests, as seen here amongst coast redwood needles. Notice how shiny the cap is? It looks almost watery, hence the genus “Hygrocybe” meaning “watery head”.

See who you can find in the gallery of Pacific Northwest mushrooms below

These photographs are brought to you by Summer Swallow, Environmental Educator and avid photographer. Click on any photo to enlarge.

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