• Birch Polypore

  • Gilled Mushroom

  • Mushrooms cluster on a rotting stump. Ruth Smith photos / For the Monitor

  • Birch Polypore on a tree. Ruth Smith—For the Monitor

  • Emerging mushroom Ruth Smith—For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 10/16/2021 1:00:14 PM

The wet weather of the past few months put a damper on some outdoor activities, but it provided great conditions for a bumper crop of wild mushrooms. If you have been out in the woods recently, you’ve likely seen plenty of ‘shrooms emerging from the forest floor, attached to dying trees or engulfing old stumps.

A mushroom is the fruiting body of a much larger organism and is the place where spores are produced. Millions of tiny spores, like seeds, enable the fungi to reproduce and disperse. Using terms like fruit and seeds leads us to think that mushrooms are plants. For a long time they were classified in the plant kingdom, but no more. Fungi now have a kingdom of their own which also includes yeast and molds.

The majority of a fungal organism, called the mycelium, is hidden beneath the soil or in a rotting log. The mycelium is made of tiny filaments, or hyphae, which spread into the medium and absorb nutrients from the decaying material around it. Depending on the type of fungi, the hyphae can cover a tiny area or spread over hundreds of acres.

Fungi rely on nutrients from other organisms because, unlike plants, they cannot photosynthesize and make their own food. Thus they are either saprophytes – living on dead organic matter; parasites – attacking living organisms; or mycorrhizal – having a symbiotic relationship with plants.

The role of breaking down and absorbing nutrients from organic material is an essential ecosystem service, it’s what causes decomposition. Without fungi to break down leaves, woody debris and even dead animal parts, the forest would be buried in natural litter. Fungi help recycle those materials into useful components, rebuilding soil and enabling plants to grow.

A majority of trees and other plants rely on the mycelium of fungi to survive, through a symbiotic relationship. Some of these relationships are species-specific, which is why transplanting things like lady slippers are so difficult. Moving the plant may separate it from the associated mycorrhizal fungi which are essential for its survival.

Local mycologist, Dr. Rick Van de Poll has identified more than 1,600 species of mushrooms in New Hampshire, but unless you are with an expert, don’t expect to identify everything you see. Large fungi can be categorized into groups based on where their spores are produced and how they are dispersed. Many, such as iconic “toad stools,” produce spores in the underside of a cap so they drop down or are dispersed by the wind. Others such as puffballs, morels and truffles eject spores from sacs. A third dispersal method is exhibited by stinkhorn fungi, which relies on insects that are attracted to the putrid smell of the maturing fungus.

The caps of the first group could be flat, conical, bell-shaped, convex, or even vase-shaped. They come in various colors including shades of yellow, brown or orange, even bright red and purple. Beneath the cap there may be rows of delicate gills. How the gills are attached to the stalk or are spaced apart can be identifying features. Placing a cap with the gill side down on a piece of white paper may produce a beautiful spore print, which can also be used to help distinguish different species.

Polypore mushrooms which typically grow on dead trees and are sometimes species-specific, don’t have gills and appear solid on their underside. Yet, on close inspection, tiny tubes can be seen packed tightly together. Spores are produced on the inside wall of those tubes and released when mature. These structures may remain on a dead tree long after the spores have been released in contrast to some of the more ephemeral species that melt back into the ground after they have spread their spores.

The rise and fall of mushrooms are dependent on just the right combination of humidity, temperature and light. Most species require a fair amount of moisture to form the visible mushroom because they “grow” by absorbing water, just like a sponge. They also develop more quickly when it is warm. The wet and mild conditions explain why we generally see more mushrooms in the fall than in the summer. So, before the autumn advances toward colder days, check out the fungus among us and enjoy their diversity while you can.

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