my growing fascination with (yup!) fungus

october mushroomA WEIRD COMMON THREAD—OR SHOULD I SAY FILAMENT?—ran through my web surfing this week. I seem to be hanging out among the fungi, those all-important neither-plants-nor-animals that have the power to make the world go round, but also to bring some plants (think Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight), animals (currently, it seems, bats) and even us humans to their knees. Lurk along and learn with me:

FIRST, A LITTLE SCIENCE LESSON: Fungi don’t have chlorophyll, so they cannot make their own food (like plants do), nor can they ingest it (like animals), except through absorption from their surrounding environment. Most fungi are saprophytes, meaning they feed on dead or decaying material, like the leaf litter of the forest floor—or the debris in your compost heap. Their second critical role: Most of the plant kingdom depends on symbiotic fungi called mycorrhizae, which inhabit the plants’ roots, to live. (Thank you for patiently listening to that.)

I MADE PIZZA THE OTHER DAY (no, not a mushroom pizza), something I do a lot from scratch, and when the yeast acted oddly I did what any 21st century human does: I looked for an explanation online. I still don’t know what caused my yeast to misbehave, but here’s what I learned: The kind of yeast you bake with (or make beer or champagne with) are unicellular fungi, technically speaking. The Yeast Genome (no, I didn’t make it up) told me so. And if you’re still saying “yeast genome?” remember that we share a majority of our DNA with chimpanzees, yes, but also a healthy percent with yeast, making yeast a great (cheap, fast, easy) study subject for microbiologists trying to unlock mysteries of human cells.

AT LEAST MY HOMEMADE TOMATO SAUCE (if not the dough) behaved on that pizza pie, despite the various fungal diseases of this challenging tomato-growing year in the Northeast. I’ve bemoaned the issues this season before, and then a second time, and many large- and small-scale crops were lost completely; mine performed at about half-mast. It was a hard year for tomatoes, but remember my bumper crop of bright orange telial horns, one phase of the tenacious cedar apple rust cycle? Another fungal disease.

september mushroomMY HERO: MAD(CAP) SCIENTIST TOM VOLK of Wisconsin-La Crosse, a mycologist and longtime Professor of Biology whom I know only from many visits to his website, calls people like me “myco-curious,” and his wild site is a must (if chaotic) adventure, with many fungus-lined rabbit holes to explore. (He’s on a sabbatical now to write a field guide and revamp the site, and I can’t wait for both.) You’ll learn that of the 70,000 species of fungus, 250 are edible, 250 can kill you—and the rest, well, funky business or just plain blecch. Click through his lecture slides from Intro to Fungi, or read the wacky Fungi FAQ (which will tell you what that disgusting stuff growing on your mulch is). Or just meet this funny, inspiring mushroom man whose candor and gratitude about everything from his heart transplant to his obvious delight in what he does keep me coming back. Recently Volk’s homepage featured the fungus found on bats in caves where heavy death rates have been reported, which bring us to this…

BATS HAVE BEEN DISAPPEARING in terrifying numbers, in a pattern first noted in 2006 near Albany, New York, that has spread from Vermont to Virginia. The losses are probably because of a fungus that is known as White Nose Syndrome, previously unknown to science but now named Geomyces destructans (that’s some spot-on specific epithet, the second word or species name in a Latin binomial). I say probably because the fungus may be a side effect of some other issue, as this very thorough article in Scientific American explains. Without bats, it reminds us, we’d face not just a booming mosquito population (among other pests), but if it spread to warmer zones farmers would be without one pollinator for avocado and plantain, and the only creature that pollinates agave (the stuff of tequila and my favorite sweetener, agave nectar). A must-read.

september mushrooms 2ORDER IN THE KINGDOM: When the topic’s fungi, I have a soft spot for Tom Volk’s site, but others are more, well, streamlined, with a different quality altogether: Mykoweb by Michael Wood (which like Volk’s has been online for many years) just underwent a redesign and is quite the orderly world of mushrooms (with the occasional laugh still remaining, like Wood’s chosen portrait of himself). It concentrates in, but isn’t limited to, California species, and also has a list of amateur mycology societies and recipes and more.

Roger Phillips, co-author (with Martyn Rix) of a beloved series of photographically rich, large-format plant guides, has an online three-page visual key to the principal genera of mushrooms at RogersMushrooms.com; each individual genus in the composite images can be clicked and then leads you to species-by-species photos.

And I could go on—and will, searching for mushrooms, and other helpful and not-so-helpful fungi, and telling them hello, and sometimes thank you. Just don’t ask me their names–yet. The photos here are just the mushrooms that join me here each fall in the garden, anonymous for now but probably not long. You know how curious I can be.

october mushrooms 2

  1. Charlotte Cantrell says:

    I LOVE mushrooms, but having said that, I get mine from the store. I have always heard not to pick your own if you have no clue what they are, or aren’t (which I DON’T), but what is so funny is to see our dog eating them. We have tried stopping her, but she goes right back to them. I have to wonder if she sees “pretty” colors afterwards, man!!! LOL

  2. Chris in So Calif says:

    Thanks again Margaret for such an inspiring and educational blog! I haven’t had much time to relax with the blog due to a hectic week, but ahhhh, the weekend. It is hot and humid in So Cal and I don’t have my usual motivation to get up and move. I can move around your garden though, so thanks again. I love mushrooms and remember forming them in clay in the past. Have a wonderful day!

  3. Chris in So Calif says:

    Margaret, I forgot to tell you, your pictures are BEAUTIFUL! I want to share a photo blog my daughter shared with me. It is:
    If you haven’t seen this one I know you and other nature lovers will add it to their list of favorites….Enjoy

  4. Todd says:

    This is GREAT Margaret! Last year walking through our woodland I noticed mushrooms growing, as I know there are chanterelles in these parts I became excited.
    Bought a book on mushroom hunting, picked them, and took spore prints.
    After all this in the end we were to scared to eat them.
    We would love to take a workshop with a real mushroom hunter! Do you know of someone in the area? Thanks.

  5. Bobster says:

    Absolutely fascinating stuff! I’ve had Mykoweb bookmarked for years. My fascination started with eating and picking morels as a kid, but just grew from there. I’m intrigued by how quickly they emerge from the forest floor seemingly overnight…almost alien in colors and textures! The discovery of a honey mushroom fungus underground in Oregon the size of 2,200 acres and up to 7,000 years old is mind boggling. What we see as mushrooms are often just the “fruiting” bodies of a much larger underground organism. Really cool stuff!

  6. Fred from Loudonville, NY says:

    HI THERE EVERYONE!!!!!!!! Last night I went to the movies and saw *Julie and Julia*. It was the story of a modern day Julie, (the blogger), and had wonderful flashbacks to the life of Julia Childs, her muse. Both Julie and Julia’s story were OH SO relatable to me, and any man or woman who is trying to find the purpose, or NEXT direction in their lives. Julie (the blogger) took Julia Childs book, about the Art of French Cooking, and in one year tried to cook, AND master the recipes. She also watched old Julia re-runs on TV with her husband. She then, with the help of her husband, got the blog up and running, where she typed comments about all the TRIUMPHS, and FAILURES she had while cooking each recipe. The blog became an open Diary that she sent out into the universe. It was her own personal way of venting (be it positive, or negative) her experiences on her cooking adventure.

    In a way Margaret Roach is OUR Julie. She is on a new chapter in her life, gardening, and living full time in Copake Falls. I feel like the husband of Julie (the blogger), in the movie. She was blogging all of her comments out into the universe, and was HOPING someone, out there was reading them. He made comment about.. “is anyone out there even reading any of you comments”.

    If you have followed MY comments, I am ALWAYS trying to get YOU, (and I am talking to YOU)… to make us, who comment feel YOU are reading our comments. SO give US a thumbs up, or down comment about our comments. AS for the mushroom pictures, that Margaret has posted, Julia Child would KNOW if they were edible, and in the movie she talks about mushrooms. I think the line is …to nicely brown the mushrooms, Don’t crowd the mushrooms in the pan. If you are out there, and saw the movie, post a comment after this comment. Five comments, and MINE are too few for a forum like this.

  7. Margaret says:

    Welcome, Lisa, and thanks for the link. I have never gone foraging for mushrooms, but when I first came to this land 23 or so years ago, morels grew where the vegetable garden now stands (there were several fallen old apples and the fungi sprouted by their bases).

    @Charlotte: I wonder if animals have some sense of what’s poisonous in many cases (i.e., why nobody, even pigs like rabbits, deer and woodchucks, eat Narcissus). Or as you say, maybe she’s just a stoner. :)

    @Chris: Thanks for the link to Diane Varner. How beautiful. Great tip.

    @Todd: There is definitelt an active group in the New Paltz area, and also the mid-Hudson group in Accord, NY. The links above (one in story, one in comment) might yield more.

    @Bobster: I remember the humongous fungus, yes, and you are right…so much is beneath the surface. So much in nature to delight and intrigue us.

    @Fred: Correct, don’t crowd the mushrooms (or the stew meat) in the pan if you want it to brown. My Julia was of course Martha (who was in turn a great admirer and friend of Child’s), and she always reminded of that in her recipe, too.

    You may not know that Martha’s story is quite reminiscent of the one Julie created w/her blog…as this old PBS link will reveal. They did a show together called “Baking With Julia.” Martha also trained at Le Cordon Bleu, and so on. So when I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago, it was a little disconcerting to see such similarities.

    As for comments and responsiveness by everybody, no worry…nearly 8,000 comments in under a year and half, so it keeps me busy. :)

  8. Karen in DE says:

    Thanks, Margaret, for this post! It was a reminder to me to once again, as I do every fall, attempt to find the wild mushroom we grew up on in NEPA called “papinki / papinky.” The deer hunters would pick them and my mom would freeze ours and it was a special treat at every Christmas Eve dinner. I remember that last year, I didn’t have much luck finding them – and you would think that with all the mushroom experts in this area (Kennett Square, PA) AND Ukranians (Wilmington, DE) they would be easy to locate. But now, I have somewhere to start, thanks to your blog! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honey_fungus

  9. MiSchelle says:

    Fred, many times your comments are longer than Margaret’s posts! LOL! Maybe YOU should start a blog, as you seem to have a lot to say.

    I’m guilty of not commenting enough, but when I do it doesn’t bother me if no one comments on my comment.

  10. What a great post…I had no idea about the bats, I love agave for a sweetener also. Our world is going to be in trouble if we loose our pollinators…we are bee keepers and have lost many hives to colony collapse disorder.

    Thanks for informative post1 kIm

  11. leslie says:

    Hi Margaret

    And – if a total duffer like me may say so! – welcome to the ranks; once mycology gets hold of you it doesn’t let go…Ditto Tom Volk. Be sure to go hear him speak if you get the chance.

    After about 30 years of it I completely agree that learning about mushrooms is a lot of fun. But eating the wrong ones is majorly not, so when I read the comments above I thought you might like a link to my expert-mycologist husband’s post on safe consumption: http://leslieland.com/blog/2009/07/the-long-lived-wild-mushroom-eaters-golden-rules-2/

    Some of the deadly ones are very common in the Northeast, so it pays to get to know them. I was just out mushrooming yesterday and saw quite a few Amanita virosa, well named The Destroying Angel.

    But not to end on a down note, then I came home and cooked up a nice collection of chanterelles. About 45 dollars worth and all they cost was a walk in the woods.

    PS. Always hard to be sure from photographs, but the yellow mushrooms in your photo look a lot like the yellow form of Amanita muscaria.

  12. Robin says:

    Re: Scientific American article on the bat crisis- Do you think it would be useful for homeowners / gardeners to put up bat houses? It would not provide areas for hibernation, but could provide more summer living & reproduction sites.

  13. Johnnie Lee Huebsch says:

    After seeing this… I want to have a fungi garden next year!! Is it possible? We just recently relocated to Bavaria, Germany.. and the gardening here is endless!! If I wanted to start one..where would I start?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Johnnie. I agree. Beautiful, fascinating. I’d start with the website of Fungi Perfecti. I don’t think you can garden with them, exactly, but you can learn a lot and grow some to eat as a start.

  14. Judi says:

    I love mushroom, just dehydrated and entire bag full and they fit into a quart jar. I will add them to everything this winter,

    I have a puff ball in my back yard the size of a basketball, amazing fungus among us. I understand they are edible but I just look at them. and Enjoy.

  15. Dahlink says:

    The stinkhorn is always arresting. It looked like something that should be arrested for indecent exposure!

    After an inch plus of rain last week we suddenly have something I think of as “golden thread”–I think it’s a fungus. It drapes itself oh-so-gracefully over my herb bed by the kitchen door. Graceful, but it seems to kill the plants I want to keep. Does anyone have any suggestions for this problem?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.