Twenty nineteen was a really wet year for us in the Midwest. As a result, we experienced a bit of mushroom mania that began in spring and lasted clear through the fall. To pay tribute to both the magnificent mushroom and the fantastic fungus, today I've asked former wildlife biologist and author Ellen King Rice to collaborate with me on a special guest post. Here I've compiled images from Dragon Flower Farm as well as from walks in the woods. The plan was to have Ellen ID the fungus among us, but that proved a little bit tougher than either of us anticipated. So if you've got some IDs for us, please share in the comments below!
With this project I was asking Ellen to stretch outside the Pacific Northwest territory she knows best and explore the mycology of the Missouri river bluffs around St. Louis, where I frequently hike, and the suburban 1/4-acre that is our little farmstead. Because the process for identifying fungus must be quite thorough, as there's the risk that they can be poisonous, and here I was asking Ellen to ID them on the basis of a photo or two, we decided to turn this piece into a how-to instead. So along with some successful IDs and fun facts, Ellen will share some ID-ing tips.
LB: Let's start with the photo above. I believe that marshmallow fluff-meets-wart stuff on top, paired with the bright orange cap, signal the poisonous amanita. Am I right?
EKR: Some mushrooms begin growing inside an egg-shaped "leathery" sack. As the mushroom pushes up, the sack breaks apart and becomes blotches or spots on the new mushroom’s cap. The "warty" cap and the "egg cup" base are indeed hallmarks of the amanita group of mushrooms. Some of the amanitas are terribly poisonous. Some are psychoactive. A few are edible. Which leads us to the number one rule of mushrooming: Don't eat fungi until you are an absolute first-class champion at identifying the genus and species you are hunting.
But mushrooms are not nuclear waste or some spy-novel deadly dynamite. You won’t be poisoned by a mushroom if you photograph it or handle it!
LB: Ah, so that's where the "wart" comes from; fascinating! And thanks for the balanced approach to identification. I assumed all amanitas were poisonous, so it's interesting to hear that some are actually edible. Still, the risk is pretty great, so I for one wouldn't eat anything that looks like this. Better to admire its remarkable orange hue.
Speaking of orange, regular readers of this blog know how much I love that color, and the next fungus is in keeping with that bold preference. What's going on with this beauty?
EKR: This fungus as well as the next three lead us to the challenges of identification. Like Sherlock Holmes, we need to pay attention to a lot of details to know the entire story of "what’s going on." While I can't with confidence identify these three, I'll instead list some ways to start Sherlocking, with pros and cons for each.
Here's my first suggestion: Use a field guide. Every region of North America has a mycological field guide. The biggest "con" for field guides is that these books are often organized by spore print color. The fungal finder is supposed to take a sample of the fungus home, lay a cap section on colored paper overnight, check the color of the dropped spores the next day, and then go to the correct section of the field guide to begin the identification process. Whew! Not always easy or possible, especially if there are pets or small children in the home. Pro: Sometimes one can page through the photos of the field guide and "bingo," quickly land on a photo that looks just like our find (Keep looking! Sometimes many things are nearly identical!).
LB: That's great. I have a laminated, map-style field guide for North American birds on a stand next to my back windows, which look out onto the bird feeders. It's been instrumental in our identification of about 20 different birds so far. I've used more elaborate field guides both in the Pacific Northwest and Florida, and I need one for the Midwest now that I'm back here. I don't own a guide to fungus, but I'll put that on my wish list, too.
Next up is this incredible 'tree condo' my brother and I happened upon one day in the woods. The first photo shows the whole 'condo,' and the second gives a zoom in. By the way, check out all that velvety moss we've got here in Missouri. To me it rivals the Pacific Northwest - at least in early spring, when these were taken. By summer, it dries up pretty well, even when it's wet like this past summer was. I think that might be due to the heat.
LB: The rest of the photos were all taken at Dragon Flower Farm. I should preface the first crop by letting you know we had a ton of bark mulch on our land, making use of the sheet-mulch method. So I think this curious flora was born of rotting wood chips. The first to arrive in spring were these, which I've dubbed 'fungus cups,' but that's probably wrong.
EKR: It's definitely a cup fungus. I suspect it might be Peziza repanda, the Palomino cup or a close relative - but I’d have to look at Peziza literature and see if does grow in your area... That could take some time.
LB: Oh, you've done so much already, Ellen! Why don't you give us another tip for how to manage this ourselves.
EKR: Go on a mushroom club outing. The pros are you’ll meet some nice people, and you may quickly learn half a dozen of the most common fungi in your area. The cons, however, are that the dogs need to stay at home, and not every outing may be kid-friendly. You’ll also be working with a group, so it may be slower or faster than you like.
LB: That's a great idea and something I've personally never done. I've seen quite a few opportunities to go on birding walks with experts who can share tips, but I've never seen anything like that for fungus. I'll have to investigate!
From our cup fungus, we move to what I've been calling 'spore pads,' paired with what I think is slightly different, so I've named them 'spore pops.' What are these strange, alien things, Ellen?
EKR: I feel completely confident about identifying these. They are bird’s nest fungi, a distinctive group. Browse the photos here to see several species that have this wonderful nest-with-eggs look.
LB: The pictures you linked to over at iNaturalist are amazing. I'll look for these again this year. They are pretty special.
The last series is more traditionally mushroom-shaped, and wow, did they grow to huge sizes. I asked my husband, whose hands are way bigger than mine, to pose his mitt next to them for comparison.
EKR: I'll take this opportunity to offer my last bit of ID-ing advice: Use iNaturalist. This is a website/smart phone app that uses photo recognition software to suggest names for what you’ve just photographed. This site also has tons of information about species' ranges, seasonality, and other details. However, you should take it with a big grain of salt. It may tell you that blurry picture of a brown mushroom is a bunny or a deer. The "suggestion" is exactly that - a starting place to learn more.
LB: I've been using PlantNet, with very mixed results for exactly the reason you cited. It hasn't helped at all in trying to identify any of the above, not even the amanita, which you'd think would be clear cut. That's partly why I reached out to you. I'll try iNaturalist to see if it's any better. The most useful resource I've found is the Plant Finder index on the Missouri Botanical Garden website. You can't ID from a photo alone, but I think I've learned more about plants from this digital resource than any other. Unfortunately, though, it doesn't seem to be as robust in coverage of fungi as it is flora.
I'll share a few more photos; perhaps readers will recognize them. I believe the two photos below depict the same type of 'shroom, top and bottom.
LB: The last image is of one I've never seen before. The cap was slightly transparent; you can see the green of the leaves through it.
LB: Perhaps you lovely readers can help out with some IDs in the comments section below. I do enjoy how this piece morphed into a how-to, though. Thanks for the tips, Ellen!
A wildlife biologist by training, Ellen King Rice is author of a three-book, fungus-themed mystery series: The EvoAngel, Underworld, and Lichenwald. In her fiction and non-fiction both, she is particularly fascinated by sub-cellular level responses to ecosystem changes and believes that we don't know near enough about the thousands of fungal species that exist all around us. She lives near Olympia, Washington. Find out more at www.ellenkingrice.com.