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Mysterious Mushrooms (Or, Fungi [fun-guy])

Little Parasols

August is often referred to as the mushroom month when in reality some types can be found during all seasons of the year. The greatest number and diversity of types occur during late summer into early fall. After the hotter, drier months of June and July mushrooms spring up magically with the increased rainfall of August and September.

Lavendar mushroom
Happy in the snow

What is the difference between a mushroom and a toadstool? That distinction was difficult for me to understand as a child when I referred to a certain type as a mushroom and Mother would correct me with, “No that is a toadstool”. My own definition is: a “non-poisonous” fungus having a more or less classical shape of a cap and a stem, I would call a mushroom. Whereas a poisonous one could be called a toadstool. Really, just an arbitrary designation. That is where the difficulty arises since edible mushrooms frequently have similar looking species that are poisonous. For example, the Chanterelle, a delicious yellow, cup shaped mushroom may easily be confused with the cup-like, poisonous Yellow Clitocybe.

So how can we tell if the fungus before us is delicious or deadly? My simple

answer is the average person (I definitely include myself here) cannot. There are

numerous “folk” methods to determine the edibility of fungi, such as poisonous

ones will tarnish a silver spoon, or “watch what the wildlife eats and they are


Squirrel's Feast
Cluster on tree

I have watched squirrels and rabbits eat fungi that I would not trust. Box tortoises

regularly eat poisonous mushrooms with no ill effect but that doesn’t mean in any

way that they are safe, quite the opposite. So take this advice from me and only

consume mushrooms you found in the supermarket. Do as I do and consider all

fungi you find in your ramblings as poisonous and live to ramble another day. Too

many intelligent individuals, from peasants, to politicians have paid the ultimate

price for ingesting what they believed to be safe mushrooms. People from Roman

emperors to ordinary Delaware citizens have died a miserable death by mushroom


death angel- do you know
Adirondak mushroom

You can look up online the story of the Greco family, a prominent local family (Greco is responsible for the Greco Canal that was dug from Mispillion Lighthouse to Big Stone Beach. that died, except for one young daughter who was rescued, from mushroom poisoning. Remember

as you notice that tall, beautiful, pristine white mushroom simply glowing in the shadows of some forest glen, the names given to this group, “death cap, destroying angel, panther amanita”. Approximately 90% of all mushroom poisoning in the United States is caused by this group. The effects of this poison may not be noticed for 10 hours, or more. By then it is too late. There is no cure, ( A Golden Guide to Non-flowering Plants by Floyd S. Shuttleworth and Herbert S. Zim). As a precautionary measure, all of the fungi that appear in this article will not be specifically identified.

Fungi on a Tree
Woody fungus + rain

Fungi come in all shapes and sizes, from the slime molds that can disassemble themselves, move around, then reassemble into a single stationary fruiting structure, to penicillin mold on citrus, one of the most valuable medicines of the modern age saving thousands of lives during and after WWII. The group that I am most interested in because they are easily seen, enjoyed, and photographed fall primarily into a category with the impressive name of Basidiomycetes.

These are the classic mushroom shapes that can be divided further into two groups;

those with gills on the underside of the cap (Gasteromycetes) and

those that are porous on the underside of the cap (Hymenomycetes).

Mushroom with gills
Mushroom with pores

Mushrooms do not produce flowers. What we see that magically springs up after a rain are only the fruiting bodies. Their sole purpose is to mature and release millions of spores that may be carried by wind, water, or animals to a new location thus starting a new generation. The vast majority of the plant, as much as 95%, grows underground in soil, in rotting wood, or other organic materials breaking down and utilizing nutrients. This portion of the fungus below the surface or deep inside the wood or other material being consumed is a cottony looking mass of white threads (hyphae) assembled into a mass called the mycelia. Sometimes these can be seen when we turn over logs or at the end of rotting wood that is covered with fungus. We tend to think of mushrooms as a relatively small portion of the biomass when in actuality a type of fungus is the very largest known organism on the planet. Growing in the Pacific Northwest of Oregon unseen under the forest floor the mycelia of Armillaria ostoyae covers an area of 2385

acres, all interconnected and one genetically identical organism perhaps 2000 to

8000 years old. The second largest of these fungi grows in Washington State.

Mushroom- just for looking (1)
Orange Woody Fungus

Just the simple act of viewing and categorizing into various types, the fungi can be

an interesting pastime. Some simple groups are the coral fungi that look as the name describes, the shelf fungi types that are leathery consisting of colorful concentric bands on the branches and dead limbs, the shaggy types like the hedgehog and the lion’s mane, those that are woody and perennial like the rusty-hoof fomes (woody brown fungus seen on tree trunks shaped like a horse’s hoof that may persist for several decades, the very small and delicate ones that I call fairy caps (Marasmius), earthstars, and of course the stereotypic polyporous (Hymenomycetes) mushrooms and my favorite the gilled mushrooms (Gasteromycetes).

High Above- Fungus
Cauliflower Fungus

In my opinion the best way to preserve the beauty of mushrooms, since they so quickly wither and die, is to photograph them. Most current cell phones are quite capable of taking excellent pictures, if you are not into specialized cameras, per se. I am not a fan of having the image stored in simply a digital format, at least not in the present climate of monthly planned obsolescence. Also, I have known too many people that have inadvertently lost thousands of pictures, sometimes through no fault of their own, so I always have any pictures that I really care about printed at the drugstore or photoshop. With just a few dollars in prints, some decent card stock, sheet protectors, and a binder you can make a great keepsake, or a project for the kids. (M-16)(M-17)(M-18)

Yellow Twins
Early morning wakeup
Earth Stars

The varieties of fungi that appear change on a daily basis, new ones suddenly

appearing, those you saw yesterday fading away. So get outside and enjoy them

at any season.


Next week we will continue our Sussex County mill tour in the Lewes/Rehobeth area, where we'll learn what connection a mill once owned by Benjamin Burton had with

Henry Ford.

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