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Northland Nature: Shady, wet conditions enable fungi to thrive in the woods

A growth of chanterelles is found in the woods in August. Larry Weber/Special to the Pine Journal1 / 2
The underside of a chanterelle features folds of skin in a branching pattern. Larry Weber/Special to the Pine Journal2 / 2

Mid-August sunrises, now happening after 6 a.m., often begin the day with cool temperatures and dew or fog conditions. Roadside plants — the grasses, wild flowers and bushes, such as raspberry or blackberry — get quite soaked. Spider webs hang with these droplets as well and for a couple of hours, until this moisture dissipates, we see views of intricacies and abundance of their snares. The August days, however, often warm to summer in the afternoons and unlike the previous morning, they can be a bit dry. I was glad to see the ample amount of rainfall we received during the first week of August that followed about 10 days at the end of July where we got little or no rain.

2017 is appearing to be a wet year. During the months up to and including July, the Duluth weather service recorded above normal precipitation for each month except March, giving a total of more than four inches beyond the usual. Since June 1, the Northland has been nearly 2 inches above as well. These rains have made for lush growths and anyone looking at the gardens and roadside plants as well as the thriving ferns of the woods, sees this response to the wet conditions. And raspberries, blackberries and choke cherries are thick, too. But now in late summer, I look for the growths of another woodland member that does well in damp conditions: the fungi.

Following the rains of early August, I went on several woods walks to discover the conditions of the mushrooms and other fungi that live here. I did not even need to leave the yard to find plenty of them, but it is in the woods that I found most diversity. With no chlorophyll or need to use sunlight to manufacture food, fungi thrive in the shade. They are of many shapes and sizes. And though colors can vary and also be quite pronounced in fungi, they are not usually green. We tend to think of mushrooms when thinking of fungi, but the familiar mushrooms as seen on our lawn are only some of what we can now find in the woods.

On logs at a couple of sites, I located the ones that look like tiny shrubs, bushes or trees, but are called coral fungi. Some of the ones I find are tan, but I also see a growth that is bright gold. More white and growing on soil, I come across a look-alike known as false coral. Also on logs are the well-named cup fungi and a new growth of puffballs. Jelly-like ones that are called jelly fungi are on branches while jelly babies, looking like tiny mushrooms, are on the ground. But most of what I find are mushrooms and as expected now, in August, they are quite varied.

A typical mushroom stands up from the substrate in an umbrella shape, but there is much variety to this. The top is called the cap and may be of different colors. While walking here, I find some with red caps, others yellow, brown, gray, white and even purple. Below the cap is the stalk which holds up the cap. This part of the mushroom which is above the ground is the reproductive part of the fungus only. When we pick these, step on or mow them, we are not hurting the main part of the fungus which is underground. Under the cap are where the seed-like spores are formed. When learning about mushrooms, it is best to look under the cap as well as just seeing it from above. Mushrooms vary on how they grow the spores under the cap. And I note four kinds.

Many have page-like structures called gills. These gilled mushrooms are by far the most common that we see. They include ones in yards and woods such as russula, amanita, agaricus, marasmius, hygrocybe and lactarius. (Unfortunately, mushrooms are often known only by their Latin names. But fortunately, many of these same labels are also now becoming common names.) Other mushrooms have pores — tiny holes, under the cap. Collectively, they are known as boletes and are fairly common. A few kinds have spikes or spines reaching down from the cap and are called toothed mushrooms. And finally, some mimic the gills, but have a fold of the outer skin layer beneath the cap. Best known of this last group is the chanterelles, a yellow-gold mushroom that delights the forest floor in large clumps of growths. The chanterelles that I found were a delight to look at and see in the August woods, but chanterelles are also a delicacy for those who enjoy collecting and eating fungi. A growth of a good chanterelle patch is usually not disclosed to others. Though prized by many, it does get confused with a few others and should not be consumed without being sure. But eating or not, finding a group of golden chanterelles in the August forest floor is a terrific find even if all we do is stop and look at them.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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