By Gil Newton
…Continued from last week.
The boletes (Boletus spp.) are a common group of mushrooms that are identified by examining the caps which can range from one to several inches across. Instead of gills, the underside of the cap is flattened and the spores are produced in small pores. Color varies depending on the species, but many are red, brown, or yellow. For most species, the stalk is swollen at its base. I have found that if you brush aside the leaves at the base of a tree you can sometimes find a bolete mushroom. The trees depend on these decomposers for recycling the nutrients needed to sustain the forest.
One of the most beautiful groups of fungi that grow on the forest floor are the coral fungi (Clavaria spp.). Looking very much like marine coral, these fungi have long, upright branches exhibiting many different colors, particularly yellow or brown forms. The spores are also formed on the tips of these colorful branches. My greatest success in finding these fungi is in the fall after a heavy rain and growing in pine woodlands. I have also observed them growing in very dense populations.
Lichens are special organisms included in the fungi kingdom that exhibit a unique symbiotic association between a fungus and an alga. They are widespread in their distribution, and are even found in the ocean. The relationship appears to be parasitic in that the fungus benefits from the sugar-producing algae, whereas some of the algal cells are killed during the formation of the lichen.
There are three main groups of lichens. Crustose lichens grow tightly against the surface of a rock or the bark of a tree. Foliose lichens are leaf-like in shape, and fruticose lichens appear as clumps or small branches hanging from trees. All lichens can survive long periods without moisture, and can reproduce by fragmentation or the production of spore-producing structures called soredia.
When the surface of the forest floor is exposed, it often gets colonized by small lichens and mosses. Look carefully a in such an area, and you may see some splotches of bright red. These are the spore-producing tips of the British soldier lichen (Cladonia cristatella). Most of the lichen is flat and light green in color. This lichen can spread by fragmentation into smaller pieces. I have found it on bare patches of earth in open fields, and on the sides of hills that have been severely eroded.
Still it’s possible to locate some interesting fungi in the spring. One species that is fun to observe is witches butter (Tremella mesenterica), a kind of jelly fungus related to mushrooms and puffballs. Examine a woodland carefully, looking closely at branches and logs in the forest, particularly dead oak trees. Witches butter is usually bright yellow, but can have an orange tinge to it. When located measure the length and thickness of the fungus. Also examine the surface with a hand lens. Do you see any signs of spores? Are there several specimens on the same tree, or is the only one found? How do you think the fungus obtains its food?
Some scientists refer to this fungus as “yellow brain.” Why is that? If you search for this fungus more than once, are you more likely to find it after it rains, or during a dry period? Finally, are there other fungi growing on the same tree? If so, try to identify them.
Above all, enjoy the diversity of shapes and colors seen in the Fungi kingdom. Ecologically, this is a significant group of living things that are essential to the sustainability of a forest ecosystem. But they are also aesthetically pleasing to the careful observer and explorer.