The woods are filled with life and change and even decomposition. Asters still bloom, spicebush is fruiting, woolly-bear caterpillars seem to fatten by the day. Fall color emerges as new leaf pigments are unveiled with the breakdown of chlorophyll. Mushrooms and other fungi display their fall flourish, processing nutrients as part of nature's recycling plan.
This past week, our Fleshy Woodland Fungi course hiked Ohio woodlands, towering tulip trees overhead, with blue sky and crisp fall weather at times, clouds and spits of chilled rain at times, stalking the wild fungi.
Here are a few notes on what we saw and what you can see by a trip to the fungal web of life. While you are at it, you will notice that fall foliage color, though not yet at its peak and though probably not destined to be one of the greatest years, still has its charms.
First here is a note of one of the more spectacular fungal cankers you will see namely the canker caused by Nectria galligena on the stems of sassafras. These were not the mushrooms and bracket fungi the foragers were looking for, but the areas of bark and the underlying parts of the tree that were damaged by the fungus.
These cankers are actually great plant identification characteristics for larger sassafras trees in the woods, as you notice them resembling targets as they occur all along the stem with holes in the center where branches were once attached. This fungal canker also occurs on other hardwood trees, including maple, beech and birch, and causes significant losses.
Back to the fleshy fungi.
The Shoestring Fungus was one the most fascinating fungi we
found, Armillaria mellea. The fruiting bodies of this fungus are called honey mushrooms and are edible, though there are many look-alikes, some deadly poisonous, and so we will urge great caution and leave the edibility part, and readers to live, for another day.
What you will see, probably in all Ohio woodlands, is the characteristic black shoe-string-like rhizomorphs of this fungus under the bark of decaying trees or downed logs.
These rhizomorphs (translation: ''root-shapes'') are hardened strands of fungal mycelia, the threadlike growth, usually white, that is the main body of a fungus, for example what you see attached to a mushroom if you dig it out from the soil or decayed wood.
This web is what ultimately gives rise to the fruiting bodies of fungi, which for certain types are mushrooms can be quite extensive. In fact many scientists suggest that Armillaria is the largest organism (and the oldest) on Earth.
How so? There is one colony of a species of this fungus that was, painstakingly, measured at 3.4 square miles. What a web!
Armillaria mellea lives quite well on dead organic matter in the woods and in our landscapes, but also as a parasite, as a significant plant pathogen causing rot of roots and root collar disease problems.
And the story of this fungus gets curiouser and curiouser. Armillaria also infects another fungus, Entoloma, though some fungal scientists (mycologists) think it may be the other way around. As a side-product of this fungus-to-fungus interaction, the Entoloma fungus becomes misshapen, and these ''aborted'' Entoloma mushrooms are then transformed from a mushroom causing gastric distress to one that can be quite palatable.
We found a great deal more on those recent forays. We found boletes with their distinct pores rather than gills on the underside of the cap. We found the demure eyelash fungus, with black lashes on an orange background. Buy a simple hand-lens to check this out.
Last year, before my cataract surgeries, I could hear everyone exclaim at the beauty of this, but I could not quite see what they were seeing. It is magnificent.
We found the tiny little walnut mycena mushrooms, invariably attached to buried walnut or hickory nuts. This is one of the great tricks of the fungus hunter. You will impress children of all ages when you see this tiny little yellow capped mushroom and, after checking that there is a walnut tree overhead or nearby, proclaim to the uninitiated that you predict this mushroom will be attached to a buried walnut and invariably you are proved correct.
We saw my favorite bracket fungus, the violet-toothed polypores with delicate violet-tinged edges to the brackets, succulent-looking white oysters, shaggy-manes turning to ink, and an insect-nibbled orange-red colored russula. At the end of the day for one trip, we cooked up a mess of shiitakes, lion's-mane and oyster mushrooms, both white oysters and blue oysters. We did not fear the reaper, as the ones we cooked were all from the most excellent Killbuck Valley Mushroom Farm here in Northeast Ohio.
To close, to remind ourselves of the infinite variety of nature, from fleas to fungi, here is a little ditty from Jonathan Swift:
So nat'ralists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller fleas that bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum
Jim Chatfield is a horticultural educator with Ohio State University Extension. Send questions to Jim Chatfield, Plant Lovers' Almanac, Ohio State University Extension, 1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691. Send e-mail to email@example.com or call 330-466-0270.