During late summer and well into autumn of this year it’s been hard to ignore what sprouts up from the ground as other plant life falls back. I like to think of mushrooms as a piece of fruit made by the fungus. Mushroom spores can be compared to plant or fruit seeds, since both act as modes of reproductive transportation and dispersal. To be clear, mushrooms are not plants; in fact they are spore-bearing, fruiting bodies of different types of fungi. Once a mushroom releases it spores and “dies,” it’s important to keep in mind the mycelium, which is a network of fungal threads that lives underground. Typically mycelium colonies persist for years as they continue to feed off of a detrital source. When conditions are right they produce crops of mushrooms to release spores and continue the cycle of decomposition somewhere else.
Fungi belong in their own taxonomic kingdom, separate from plants and animals. This is mainly because of the way that fungi gain nutrients. Plants photosynthesize, animals eat, but fungi secrete enzymes and digest their “food” externally before absorbing the byproducts.
Fungi are an essential part of the ecological life cycle. They are responsible for breaking down dead materials such as fallen trees, animal carcasses, and other decaying matter. By doing this, fungi reintroduce nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil making them available to be reused by other organisms.
I’ve found an abundance of mushrooms at Gilsland Farm this fall. This is most likely due to the unusually wet summer season we had here in Maine. The most ideal conditions for the mycelium to produce a fruiting body come right after rainfall, as this increases the chances of spore dispersal.
Some of the most common (and beautiful) mushrooms found throughout Maine forests are the Amanita and Chicken of the Woods. Yet the two could not be more different. The genus Amanita is infamous for its deadly toxins and hallucinogenic properties. Of all fatalities resulting from mushroom poisoning, Amanita’s are responsible for 95% of them. Common names such as the “Destroying Angel” and “Deathcap” should be reason enough to stay away from these dangerous mushrooms.
On the other hand, Chicken of the Woods is an edible mushroom and an alternative option to real meat. Its name is somewhat self explanatory—the texture and taste of the mushroom is similar to chicken when properly cooked. These types of shelf mushrooms often grow out of dead or fallen trees and stick around for weeks at a time.
Please keep in mind that most mushrooms are poisonous to humans and animals if ingested. It’s best not to forage or consume them.
This fall has been a productive one for witnessing a wide variety of mushroom blooms. As we move into colder months keep in mind the mycelium that lives deep within the ground or fallen tree trunks, come spring time expect these peculiar fruiting bodies to be present again.