Late summer and fall are good times to look for mushrooms, especially since we have had lots of rain conducive to mushroom growth.
A mushroom is an umbrella-shaped growth or fruiting body that is the reproductive part of a much larger fungal organism that we do not see under the soil or wood surface. The mushroom cap has gills that hold spores that act like seeds to form new mushrooms when they are dropped, dispersed, and germinate. The spores can go dormant for a long time until favorable conditions, like we have had the past few weeks, allow them to germinate.
Mushrooms are neither plant nor animal. They appear like plants because they have roots, stems, and branches and they are non-mobile. However, they do not make their own food through the process known as photosynthesis like green plants do. So, they must act like animals seeking out required nutrition from other food sources. Mushrooms use one, or a combination of the following three methods to acquire nutrients needed to carry out their life cycles.
One, most mushrooms are saprophytic fungi feeding on dead plant material. Two, a large number have a mycorrhizal or symbiotic relationship with plants including trees. That means the mushroom’s fungal hyphae act like roots by increasing its water uptake and carbohydrates from tree roots. In exchange, mushrooms provide soil nutrients to trees that they can’t get by themselves. Three, a few mushrooms, like the honey mushroom, are parasitic obtaining nutrients from other living organisms causing diseases like root and butt decay capable of killing trees.
It is fun to hunt mushrooms with a camera because of their interesting diversity and ever-changing fast growth in different habitats and substrates. It is especially fun to take children on mushroom discovery walks in field and forest looking for and photographing mushrooms. Taking along a good mushroom field guide for identifying them is fun and useful. A particularly good field guide for kids to use in the Northwoods is, Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods, by Cora Mollen and Larry Webber, 2nd edition, 2012. For those with a forestry bent, try the USDA Forest Service Field Guide to Common Macrofungi of Eastern Forests and their Ecosystem Functions by Michael E Ostry, Neil, A. Anderson, and Joseph G. O’Brien, 2010. It is available free online at: http://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/38089
Have a great mushroom discovery walk!