Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fun with Fungi

With the seemingly endless snow this winter, I am in desperate need of some color. The monochromatic landscape is getting to me. We did get a brief break the first week of January when it warmed up just enough to bring a very unexpected treat:

Having just been lamenting the fact that my friend Martha had a ton of mushrooms in her California yard after some big rains but we would have to wait for spring to see any here, this gorgeous cluster of bright orange 'shrooms appeared on a log right next to the gate leading into our main pasture.

With some much-needed assistance from the head of our local mushroom club, I've tentatively identified them as Velvet Foot mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes). This would probably be a good time to say a brief word about mushroom identification.

I'm very, very new to mycology and can only identify a few varieties with any degree of certainty. There are thousands and thousands of species and many of them are quite nasty if ingested. Not just nasty-tasting but toxic. As in they can kill you. That's not hyperbole--you can die from eating certain common mushrooms. Unfortunately, you often won't know you ate a bad one until it's too late, so don't think the poisonous ones will advertise the fact to you through taste or immediate side effects. By the time you notice something's wrong, it may be too late. Do not, under any circumstances, eat a mushroom that hasn't been positively identified, preferably by an expert. And even if it has been identified as safe, go slowly and eat just a bit at first--some people have allergic reactions to mushrooms that are harmless to others.

That said, there is also an abundance of tasty mushrooms that are quite good to eat. In the middle of the spectrum are others that are safe but not so tasty. I became interested in mushrooms in 2008 when the very soggy weather brought forth a delightful array of fungi on our farm. Given the wide variety, I figured the odds were good that some of them were edible but I couldn't take the risk of eating any without knowing for sure. Since I hate to waste free food, I joined the Asheville Mushroom Club in hopes of learning enough to begin identifying which ones were worth harvesting.

I'm getting better but I have a long, long way to go. I tell you this because I want to share photos that I've been taking over the past two years. I'll give you my best guess as to the species but in most cases, I need you to remember that these are extremely tentative identifications. And one of the first rules we learned in mushroom identification was that photos are one of the worst ways to try to identify mushrooms (it's ok to start there, but don't try to make a positive ID). There are so many factors to consider (texture and smell included) and very minor differences (some not visible without dissecting the specimen) can mean the difference between safe and toxic. Many of us get in trouble by trying to match a specimen to a picture online or in a book. Be safe and consult an expert. OK, enough dire warnings. Here's the fun part:

I found a bunch of these in the pastures this summer. I think they are Meadow Mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) also called Pink Bottom for the lovely pink gills on the underside of the cap. They are edible but unfortunately can easily be confused with the aptly named Destroying Angel or Death Angel (Amanita virosa). Both are commonly occurring mushrooms (I'm pretty sure I found the Destroying Angel, too, but I didn't bring it home to take pix for fear of spreading the spores across the pasture). When I cut the cap of the Meadow Mushroom open to examine the gill structure, I found a really pretty scalloped pattern to the gills:

You may have to click on that photo to enlarge it so you can get the full effect. Now you get the idea: I'm turning into a total mushroom geek. I can't help but be fascinated by the incredible variety--and so many right here where I live. Most of these I find just in the course of walking around doing my chores.

A dozen or so of these puffballs showed up in a fairy ring (possibly the Purple-Spored Puffball--Calvatia cyathiformis) just outside our fenced-in yard. They are quite edible which I didn't get confirmed until after these had gone away. Fortunately, a couple more popped up late in the season and we cooked them up and enjoyed them. We'll be keeping an eye out for more of these--it's all meat and no stem so you get a lot of mushroom for the money. Here's what it looks like on the inside:

The value of mushrooms is not just measured in edibility, however. Some are too small to bother with but still lend interest to the landscape.

These little puffballs (I haven't examined them closely enough to be sure which of several spiky species they are) were all over the pastures this summer. I'm sure it's no exaggeration to say there were hundreds of them.

And these tiny Pinwheel Marasmius mushrooms (Marasmius rotula)--definitely enlarge the photo to see the detail--appeared on a piece of bark. They are quite delicate and beautiful but will let you know if you need bifocals.

On the other end of the beauty spectrum is this bad boy: Old Man of the Woods (Strobilomyces floccopus). Although it falls into the edible-but-mediocre camp, I still love this one because it is so distinctive (easy idenfitication translates into big points for me at this stage). Plus, I love the shaggy texture. It's a nice contrast to the many smooth mushrooms I find.

Sometimes, I find the fungi too late. One of the reasons that identification is tricky is that appearance changes greatly with age and mushrooms appear and disappear so quickly. I found the remnants of several very large clusters of gilled mushrooms on a large, fallen tree limb. I like to think they may be oyster mushrooms. If they are, they would be an extremely good find for eating, but there are many other possibilities so I'll have to wait to see if they'll reappear next year and get help identifying them. It's so frustrating because they were right next to where I was putting up the electric fence last fall and I just didn't look up. I didn't see them until a few days later and by then the worms had already gotten to them. Even so, they were interesting. On the tree, they looked like papyrus curling under and when I took the cluster down, the gill pattern was intriguing, too.

Anyone who has read this blog since the beginning will probably recall this is not the first time I erred by not looking up soon enough: Chicken of the Woods

And then there are the numerous mushrooms that I haven't even come close to identifying:
I didn't get any farther than deciding that this is some kind of bolete (a group of mushrooms which have a sponge-like series of tightly packed tubes on the underside of the cap instead of gills) and I've been wrong before--even about groups, not just individual species.

We have a lot of boletes here. Some are of a subset that turn color when you touch the underside of the cap. My favorites are the ones that go from yellow to blue:

And some I like because they show up every year in abundance like what may be Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus) or more likely Chicken-fat Suillus (Suillus americanus) below:

Lots of cute little mushrooms can be found if you look closely:

Some like the coral mushrooms look like they belong in the ocean more than on the forest floor:

Then there are the mysteries I really want to solve. There were dozens of these mushrooms in the great rainy season of '08. We had a big fairy ring of them near the garden and some along the fence. They also popped up under the thickets of multiflora rose. I didn't know at the time what identifying characteristics to look for, so I'll have to wait to see them again but I sure hope they're something good since we have a lot of them.

Still, for every dozen I can't identify, I find one that I can. This weirdo mushroom, the slimy, shockingly bright orange, and oddly named Elegant Stinkhorn (Mutinus elegans) appeared next to the pasture gate the day before our first big freeze late last fall.

Speaking of weird, I've hardly touched on the wide array of fungi that appear on  trees. Many of the shelf mushrooms like Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) are so common around here that I rarely bother to take pictures. I'm probably missing out but most of them don't grab my attention. I just call them all Turkey Tails and move on. I'm not sure why I'm so prejudiced against them. The following is almost certainly not a Turkey Tail but I can't tell you what it is. 

Then, I see something strange like this: 

There are many more mushrooms which I've seen but not photographed. Somehow I managed to leave out the Russulas I've found which is a pity because they have interesting colors. And despite searching through all of my photo files, I can't find the pix of the most cartoon-y mushroom that I've found yet: Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria). So, I'll send you to one of the best websites for mushroom information: Mushroom Expert instead.

Whew! I've been meaning to get a fungi post up for a long while but knew it would be a big endeavor. Thanks for reading through. I'll post more pix as I get them. Happy foraging and be safe out there!


  1. What a fantastic overview of the mycology of our little corner of the world. Well done!

  2. Brave mushroom woman, I salute you! Be careful out there...

  3. This is a great post! Valuable info on mushrooms.

  4. A couple of clarifications on the photos: the shelf mushroom below the discussion of turkey tails is almost certainly not a turkey tail, so we'll leave that in the mystery category. Also, what I said was possibly Slippery Jack is more likely Chicken-fat Suillis (but just to confuse things more, it's also called American Slippery Jack). Much more to learn, much more work to do.