August 18, 2011

Marvelous Mushrooms

Yesterday, on my walk through the woods, I saw this group of mushrooms popping up from a rotting tree stump. I'm sure they weren't there on Sunday. The two intervening days were wet with rain, so after a very dry July, mushrooms are now popping up everywhere...

even in the lawn beside my driveway. In his introduction to the Audubon Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, Gary H. Lincoff writes about the strangeness of mushrooms:
Mushrooms are among the most mysterious life forms. The ancient Greeks believed they came from Zeus's lightning because they appeared after rains and reproduced and grew inexplicably. In the Middle Ages, the circular patterns formed by some mushrooms were dubbed "fairy rings" and wer thought to be the work of the "little people"....In the New World, some hallucinogenic mushrooms have been called "the food of the gods" and invested with supernatural powers.

The mushrooms we see above ground are the fruiting bodies, producing reproductive spores, of a fungus that lives out of sight. One thing that fascinates us about mushrooms is that some are deliciously edible, these little brown ones by slugs, not humans.

This chantarelle, though, is a delicacy that many of us love to collect in the woods. They are delicious sauteed lightly in butter for an omelette or a pizza.

But then there is the dread that mushrooms also evoke since some of them are deadly and can be confused with more benign toadstools. This amanita is poisonous. I would only collect mushrooms to eat that I'm very sure of - chantarelles and puffballs – unless I'm with a mushroom expert.

Another wonderful thing about mushrooms is their huge variety of color and shape. I noticed this tiny 1 inch stalk topped by what looked like a little waving glove. When I looked it up, I found one called "Velvety Fairy Fan" which seemed very similar. What a wonderful name...a fairy fan!

There are many kinds of shelf mushrooms, which generally grow on dead or dying wood, forming semi-circles of white or brown, or multi-striped. One type has a smooth white bottom that can be etched into when fresh or painted when dry, and is called an Artist's Conk.

These small mushrooms are Carbon Balls, well named since they look burnt. It's hard to believe that these are mushrooms as well as the more familiar and charming toadstools.

One of my favorites of the oddly shaped mushrooms are the jellies, that look as though they are oozing from the wood in gorgeous color. This jelly is one of the stranger forms, but there are also cup shaped mushrooms, scaly mushrooms, coral-shaped mushrooms, funnel shaped mushrooms and round puffballs.

And the strangest of all are the slime molds, which Lincoff calls "the Dr. Jekylls and Mr. Hydes of the plant world". They appear and disappear so quickly that they are hard to identify and can change shape and color as they do so. They can actually move, using a gelatinous substance called "plasmodium". How's that for a science fiction plot, with this small blob imagined much, much larger; can a slime mold have been the inspiration for The Blob? This, and all other mushrooms, are to me surprisingly and mysteriously beautiful.


  1. I always feel lucky when I find a mushroom I haven't ever seen before. They are mysterious. I love to try to id them. Your first picture here looks other worldly. I fully expected to see a fairy pop around the corner.

  2. Lisa, those mushrooms in the first photo really surprised me, and the light on them was so beautiful that it does look as though "the little people" might be living nearby.

  3. I, too, was struck by the first photo - were the undersides really that pink? The forest here has many of the same mushrooms and fungi. I'm a bit down south in Western Mass, not far from the Berkshires. I have a friend who is a very good mushroom hunter, but I won't eat what he picks. One of my relatives almost died from a mushroom and I must have some strong DNA against it, though I get them in the store a lot.
    I had one of those amanitas this spring, they do LOOK poisonous.

  4. Valerianna, there was a beautiful warm reflected light on the mushrooms, bounced up from the forest floor. I think it was actually yellower, but had a hard time adjusting the color correctly; my minor color corrections also rely on my memory, which isn't always accurate.
    I can certainly understand your caution about eating wild mushrooms, which are much more flavorful than the cultivated ones. But you should stick with those.

  5. Beatrix Potter did some beautiful watercolors of mushrooms and was the first to sprout spores of agarics..she was a mycologist as well as all her other attributes.. one of my sheros... thanks for your beautiful photos.

  6. I love your pictures, what kind of camera are you using? Last year I went crazy with mushrooms, we have such a wide variety of them, different shapes, colors and sizes. They pop-up out of nowhere, within a day or two, especially after heavy rain. I found them to be inspiring and did a series of small paintings of them. Again, your pictures are beautiful.

  7. SRH, I had known about Potter; she did some delightful paintings of mushrooms.
    Carole, sounds like you're a real mushroom fan. I use a one-piece camera, an older Nikon Coolpix 8700.