Looking for the Fungi – Part 1

By Gil Newton


The cool, wet months in the fall may be unpleasant to some, but there are benefits to the backyard botanist. Such weather conditions, if coupled with fallen leaves, are ideal for a special group of organisms called the fungi. The fungi are in their own kingdom and are not considered plants, but they are an important part of the forest ecosystem. They do not have any true leaves, stems, roots, flowers, fruits, or seeds. They also lack chlorophyll, so are unable to photosynthesize. Instead, they obtain their nutrients from outside sources. Explore the many properties owned and managed by Barnstable Land Trust, or go on one of the mycological walks sponsored by the BLT to learn about this fascinating group of organisms.

A mushroom grows from a log on the forest floor at Eagle Pond. Photo by Lillie Peterson-Wirtanen

The group that most people are familiar with is the club fungi (Basidiomycetes) which include the mushrooms, puffballs, and toadstools. The mushrooms come in all sizes, shapes, and even color.

Their appearance in the woods breaks up the monotony of a forest floor covered with pine needles. There are thousands of species of club fungi and many of them, such as the rusts, are quite complicated in their structure and life history.

The mushrooms that you see above the forest floor are only part of the organism which also exists underground in the form of an extensive network of filaments called mycelia. The mycelium is the vegetative part of the fungus, and it absorbs nutrients from organic matter in the soil. The visible mushroom above ground is the reproductive part and will produce large numbers of spores. This spore-bearing structure is called the basidium and consists of the characteristic cap and stalk. The spores are called basidiospores and are wind-dispersed. Most of the mushrooms which grow close together, sometimes in a ring, are all part of the same fungus.

There are many types of mushrooms which grow on Cape Cod. One should be extremely cautious when handling them, and avoid eating any wild mushrooms that have not been properly identified by an expert as safe to eat. It will take an expert to distinguish the safe ones from the poisonous ones. Some mushrooms which grow wild are extremely toxic. The best rule of thumb is to limit one’s consumption of mushrooms to those found in a supermarket.

Russula mushrooms among the pine needles. Photo by Gil Newton.

The Russulas, also called brittle caps, are very common in this area, and appear in late summer to early fall. They are one of the first groups of mushrooms to appear after a rainstorm. Though there are several species, some edible and some poisonous, most of them are characterized by a red cap, about three inches wide, and a white stalk. The gills are also white. This is a very fragile mushroom, and breaks apart when handled. Like many other species, it has a symbiotic relationship with the trees and is an important decomposer.

Small clumps of bell-shaped mushrooms appear in the fall on tree stumps and the edge of woodlands. These are the inky caps (Coprinus spp.), and they get their name because the gills darken and dissolve with age. The cap is a little over an inch long, and the stalk is very thin, growing only a couple of inches high. Though common, these small mushrooms don’t live long, and they can be overlooked quite easily.

Turkey Tail growing on a log. Photo by Gil Newton.

The earthstar (Geastrum spp.) is a kind of mushroom identified as a small, round brown puffball growing in the center of several arms or rays. The star-shaped pattern is very conspicuous because the fungus is slightly elevated above the ground so that its numerous spores could be more easily distributed when struck by rain or blown by the wind. The spores resemble a fine dust or powder. Many species will open during a rainfall, but close during dry weather. Though this fungus grows in woodlands in this area, I have found it mainly in sandy habitats, including sand dunes from early spring to late fall.

Some fungi stand out because of their shape, location, or color. The turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) is a good example. Exhibiting many different colors, this fungus grows in circular overlapping layers on decaying wood. The colors range from brown to green to blue and white. It can grow up to four inches across with somewhat smooth edges. Like many woodland fungi, it is important environmentally as a decomposer, breaking down the wood, and recycling the nutrients into the forest ecosystem.

To Be Continued Next Week…..