THINK LIKE A MUSHROOM

by David Ansley, Autumn 2019

Photos by John F. Williams, except where noted
Photo by John F. Williams

THINK LIKE A MUSHROOM

By David Ansley, Autumn 2019

Photos &  video by John F. Williams except where noted

Mushrooms? I don’t know how I missed them. I grew up deep in a second-growth forest in the Cascade foothills, and have long prided myself on my familiarity with the native flora and fauna. Fungi should have been second nature to me. Once, Fritz the local logger showed us where he found morels (hint: near cottonwoods, around Easter), but I don’t recall noticing any other mushrooms underfoot. My ignorance lasted for decades.

Then, a few years ago, a neighbor plunked down on our kitchen table an immense clump of what looked like pasta noodles. It was a cauliflower mushroom, she said, prized for its taste and texture, and just one of the local mushrooms she sought in the woods every fall.

A bit chagrined, I started asking questions. Clearly, I had some catching up to do.

As I have since learned, the Northwest, with its usually moist and mild climate, is one of the world’s most bountiful mushroom habitats, home to hundreds of species. Step off a trail and hike among the trees and shrubs—autumn is ideal for this—and you’ll be surrounded by fungi and their fruits.   

Photo by Steve (Lokness) from mushroomobserver.org is used under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Members of the fungus kingdom live everywhere—credit fungi for Gorgonzola cheese, blame fungi for athlete’s foot—but their web-like threads and microscopic spores are usually too small to be recognized. In the woods, however, where many fungi produce relatively immense fruiting bodies, their presence stands out.

Spend some time immersed there, look around thoughtfully, and you’ll be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the several roles fungi play in the forest life cycle.

Fungi inhabit their own separate biological kingdom; they are neither plants nor animals. What sets them apart from the plants is the way they obtain nourishment. They can’t use sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates the way plants do. Instead they absorb food from their surroundings, typically the plants and animals they cozy up to.

Different fungi have evolved different strategies for getting that food. It’s the choice of food source that largely determines what role a fungus plays in the forest ecosystem. Three types of fungi are vigorously at work here.

For another look at how these strategies work, see Survival of Our Woods Depends on Mushrooms in this issue.

growth promoters

Fungal mycelium
The original uploader was Lex vB at Dutch Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

Surrounding most trees, just underground, are networks of fungal mycelium, threadlike strands woven into skirts that extend outward from the trees’ roots. This type of fungus, called mycorrhizal, has a lifelong deal with a tree. It captures minerals and water, directs them into the roots, and in return gets a ration of the tree’s carbohydrates for sustenance.

The connection is sustained year-round, but only occasionally will some of these fungi put up a telltale patch of mushrooms. You’ll see them most often around fir, hemlock, spruce, and pine, but not usually around cedars or hardwood trees.

You might be familiar with a couple of these symbiotic species—chanterelles and morels—from the grocery produce aisle. Every one of those mushrooms was gathered by hand from a forest; no one has developed a commercial way to domesticate those species outside of their natural habitat.

Chanterelle mushroom 
Morel mushroom (Morchella esculenta) photo by David Ansley.

But there are more, many more. In the duff (partly decayed organic matter on the forest floor) between trees you may see the fruits of other mycorrhizal species, each contributing its share to the trees.

For some other views of the lives of mushrooms, see Mushrooms: a Photo Essay in this issue.

Other examples are the large but fragile russula, or fly agaric, whose red cap dotted with white flecks is an iconic cartoon stand-in for all mushrooms. 

Russula
Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria)

 Another mycorrhizal example is the puffball. Other mycorrhizal species, such as truffles, wrap around Douglas fir roots and fruit underground.

Common puffball or gem-studded puffball (Lycoperdon-perlatum), photo by David Ansley.
Truffles, photo by David Ansley.
Honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea)
Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) photo by David Ansley

the parasites

Another strategy for obtaining food is to tap into a live tree in search of sustenance.

Look around at eye level—and you may well see this in action, since some of these fungi also produce large mushrooms. For instance, clumps of soft, fibrous honey mushrooms can often be found emerging from the trunks of both conifers and broad-leaf trees, the signs of a fungus that has taken hold and is rotting the tree from the inside out.

Honey mushrooms photo by David Ansley.

It might seem like a short-sighted, short-lived strategy to kill one’s host. But possibly the oldest known organism on the planet is a honey mushroom fungus that has persisted for thousands of years in the Blue Mountains of Northeast Oregon.

See more about that ancient organism and mushrooms in general in the article Survival of Our Woods Depends on Mushrooms in this issue.

A more flamboyant parasite fungus, for some reason called “chicken of the woods,” presents as a burst of wavy fluorescent red, orange, and yellow plates, stacked on the side of a standing tree. I’ve spotted their brilliant glow from the road a couple of times. As with the honey mushroom, by the time the mushroom is obvious, the fungus inside has doomed the tree.

the decomposers

A Manhattan-raised colleague, on a rare visit to a deep forest, once expressed surprise at how tidy it all looked. I guess he had expected to be wading through piles of old leaves and fallen trees. Where had they gone? I realized that I took the process for granted, that many fungi (and bacteria and insects) have evolved to take turns feasting on all that dead organic matter and recycling the components back into the soil. The term for this is saprophytic, from the Greek sapros (putrid) + phyton (plant).

Among the earliest fungi to move into a dead standing tree is the veiled polypore fungus. Its presence is made obvious by its fruits: small oval and tan adhesions whose smooth shape reminds me of clown noses. They especially stand out from the burnt trunks of trees that have died in a fire.

Veiled polypore (Cryptoporus volvatus) photo by David Ansley.

Larger, hoof-shaped shelf mushrooms—commonly called conks—are further evidence of fungi slowly consuming trees or logs. Conks grow a new layer or two every year, and can carry on for decades if left alone. Like many of the fungi that degrade wood, these are called polypores, for the layer of tightly-packed pores that holds their spores.   

The dead roots around a tree or stump are another habitat for wood-degrading fungi. You may see the brown, fuzzy, spiraling plates of the dyer’s polypore (commonly known as velvet-top fungus) stacked just a few inches off the ground. Or, clumped near a stump, you may see the noodles of a cauliflower mushroom. (But they’re rare. In the years since my friend introduced me to them, I have found just three.)

Dyer’s polypore (Phaeolus schweinitzii) photo by David Ansley.

Not all these fungi send up mushrooms. A closer look at the decaying logs slumping further back into the ground reveals more fungi at work. Dead wood consists of two kinds of cells—cellulose, which is pale and soft, and lignin, which is reddish-brown and more rigid. It’s perhaps counter-intuitive, but “brown rot” fungi release enzymes that digest the cellulose and leave blocks of crumbling dark lignin. “White rot” fungi, in contrast, digest the lignin and leave limp, stringy cellulose on the ground.

Unlike with the mycorrhizal mushrooms, it is possible to domesticate this kind of mushroom habitat. The mushrooms you may purchase at a farmer’s market—oyster, lion’s mane, shiitake, trumpet, turkey tail, and maitake—have been cultivated to grow in marketable quantities on wood, sawdust, straw, and other organic materials.

Decomposers can occupy the narrowest of niches. Some digest dung. Others, wood chips. There’s one whose tiny mushrooms appear only on fir cones.

If you spot a fairy ring of mushrooms, that’s also evidence for a saprophytic fungus just underground. The fungus grows outward as it exhausts its food source, and the mushrooms mark its current perimeter.

reproduction

What if you step deep into the woods and see almost none of the above? As any mushroom enthusiast will tell you, that happens all the time. Fungi wait for the conditions that natural selection has determined are optimal for their reproduction. To the extent that you can ascribe thought to a fungus, it wants to give its spores a good shot at spawning the next generation, so it waits until it senses conditions are ripe before sending up a mushroom. For each species, some combination of temperature, moisture, and timing feels ideal. Every week, somewhere in the woods, you can find a fungus that has reached that conclusion.

Here, today, maybe the ideal conditions are found uphill a ways, where it’s cooler. Or around more to the south, where it’s warmer. Or closer to the creek, where it’s moister. Or in that patch of telltale green moss.

Or maybe you’re just too late. This year, after a spell of wet weather in mid-July, one of my favorite chanterelle patches immediately fruited, three months earlier than usual.

When they do fruit, most mushrooms distribute their spores through the air. The standard gilled mushrooms, for instance, simply kick their spores down into the breeze, which can loft them for miles. But other fungi have evolved much more creative strategies.   

  • The veiled polypore relies on beetles crawling inside through a little porthole to feast on spores and carry them when they fly to, and drill into, other nearby trees.
  • The spores of some dung-digesting fungi land on nearby leaves, which are eaten by passing animals. The spores hitch a ride into the animals’ guts, then emerge in new dung, getting a head start on the next generation.
  • The fungus known as Hypomyces lactifluorum takes over the white russula mushroom, transforming it into the glowing orange lobster mushroom, with a new shape, texture, and taste. It looks to me like rodents find them irresistible and help to spread the spores.
  • Truffles release an odor when mature, which invites flying squirrels to dig for them and spread their spores.
  • Puffballs pop when struck by raindrops, or by your foot. Billions of dark spores go flying—made visible in their profusion.

However the fungus distributes its spores, they land somewhere nearby, kicking off the next generation of fungi—and helping to drive another circle of forest life.

Editor and writer David Ansley is a Northwest native who now lives on Bainbridge Island.  An avid forager and gleaner, he is especially enthusiastic about exploring the woods for wild mushrooms. He manages the website KitsapMushrooms.org for the Kitsap Peninsula Mycological Society.

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