Northland Nature...Honey mushrooms thrive in the woods
The landscape of mid-October is an amazing scene in the Northland. Leaf colors have been a bit later than normal and the foliage show of September has lingered well into October.
Though recent rains and winds have brought down many of the leaves, there are many still aglow. During the last two weeks, the woods has been resonating with reds from red maple, red oak, dogwood, sumac and Virginia creeper. Persistent yellows are seen in sugar maple, mountain maple, hazel, birch, aspen and ironwood.
A walk among the trees is very inviting and highly rewarding at this time; and I do so every day.
With all this arboreal glamour, it is easy to not see the rest of the story. The woods wanderer in mid-October could get lost in the trees and not see the forest. But there is much more going on here.
The songbird migration continues with a movement of thrushes, especially hermit and Swainson's; sparrows, most in the open, but I've been watching fox sparrows in the woods; and the tiny kinglets that mix with the last of the warbler, mostly yellow-rumped warblers.
Here too, I have observed late-season red meadowhawk dragonflies and mourning cloak butterflies as they bask in the autumn sunlight. Wood frogs and garter snakes move about searching for a wintering site. A few spider webs of varying kinds are in the trees and also here, I see the threads telling of where young spiders have traveled, a movement known as ballooning.
And the forest floor is responding to the moist conditions and the proliferation of decay with a good variety of mushrooms. I find some on the ground among the fallen leaves: red Russula and waxy-cap Hygrophorus, as well as white and brown Marasmius.
But the bulk of the mushrooms now are at the base of trees, logs and stumps. A recent walk revealed this to me.
As I wandered the trail, I saw lots of the brown-gray ball-shaped growths known as puffballs. The name refers to the dispersal method of the tiny spores when ripe. A thick eruption can look like smoke. Most of the puffballs that I saw grew at the base of trees or on logs and were not yet ripe.
Scaly-cap Pholiotas stuck out as yellow-brown cluster on trees. Sometimes these rough-looking caps are very slippery.
Also on trees were the white or gray oyster mushrooms, consumed by some searchers, but I just like to find them.
But the mushroom species that caught my attention the most were the Honey mushrooms.
Honey mushrooms (Armillaria) are a very interesting and varying group of fungi. Some years they abound, others they are absent. As I walked by the various trees growing along the path, I noted that many, especially the dead birch stumps, had clusters of these light brown mushrooms.
The groups varied from being very small young growths (often called buttons) to those being fully grown. Though I lost count, I estimated about forty such clusters along this walk.
Typically, Honey mushrooms grow in such groups, though I have found them alone on the ground as well. They have a light brown cap with a lighter stem that holds a ring around it. Cap colors can vary from light to dark and rings are not always present. The name of honey mushroom has two explanations. Some say that they taste like honey; others describe the cap color as looking like honey.
Since there is this diversity, some say the best way to check the identity of a mushroom is by noting the color of the spores that grow between the gills on the underside of the cap. This spore print can be attained by placing a cap with the gills down on a piece of paper. The spores will drop onto the paper and we can note the color.
Knowing the color of the spores, we can then proceed to confirm its identity. Honey mushrooms have a white spore print and in clustered growths, the spores of one frequently drop on the cap of one below.
Knowledgeable fungal foragers may choose this mushroom to dine upon. While I'm not here to collect them, I see that many of the honey mushroom clusters have been sampled as food by others. It appears that those doing the feeding are deer and squirrels.
But many are left intact and when I look at the untouched clusters of honey mushrooms that remain in the woods, I find that they are another grand sight of the October woods and I'm glad that they are in the woods this year.
Retired teacher Larry Weber of Carlton is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods" and "Webwood." You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.