We’ve certainly had more than enough rain these past few months. It is hard to find the silver lining in torrential downpours, flooded roads and homes, washed away gardens and wet weekends. But if you ask the Harris Center for Conservation Education’s teacher-naturalist, John Benjamin, all this rain has been a boon for mushroom lovers.
A dedicated fungi fan, John, roams the forest and fields of the Monadnock region in search of wild mushrooms. He’s skilled enough at mushroom identification to forage for such choice edibles as black trumpets and chanterelles and he makes his own chaga tincture for medicinal purposes. But ultimately, it is an insatiable curiosity that inspires his forays. John’s passion is evident as he shares, “I’m fascinated by many aspects of the world of fungi: the extravagant diversity of the forms and colors of mushrooms, the potential to sustainably harvest food and medicine from the local environment, and the untold mysteries that we are only just beginning to comprehend about the world of fungi.”
Mushrooms hold a mysterious allure. They pop up unexpectedly in strange places, appear in fairytales, folklore and even video games, and some species are deathly poisonous or vividly hallucinogenic. They are neither plant nor animal but are the monarchs of their own kingdom.
But what exactly is a mushroom? The cap and stalk that we see pushing up through the soil or appearing like a corky shelf on a tree is the fruiting body of fungi. Like an apple on a tree, it is the vehicle for broadcasting its spores, which are like fungi’s seeds. Look under a mushroom’s cap and tucked into the gills or spongy bottoms, are millions of these tiny often microscopic spores, waiting to be carried away by the wind, find another spore and grow into a new fungus.
All the while, fungi are hard at work carving out a living in the world, many times below the surface of the soil or inside trees, hidden from our view. Some are acknowledged forest pathogens, causing decay in trees, like root and but-rot fungus, while others provide essential ecosystem services, like the recycling of nutrients from organic matter. Long recognized as nature’s decomposers, it is now becoming evident that they are much more than one of nature’s recyclers.
Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology and author of Finding the Mother Tree, is just one of the scientists suggesting that subterranean fungal networks play a pivotal role in how trees interact and even communicate with one another. This interplay between fungi and tree roots has been described at the “wood wide web,” a sort of brain that connects and unites different species of trees and plants that make up a forest. As John explains, “Fungi illustrate how cooperative symbiotic relationships are fundamental properties of life and evolution. I believe our ability to better understand and align with these fascinating, ancient and ecologically-crucial lifeforms offers a great hope for the future survival of our own species.”
Next time you go for a walk and see a mushroom poking its cap up out of the ground, stop and really look at it. There is so much more going on there than meets the eye. This fungal fruit represents a complex and completely unique being, different than both an animal and a plant.
And if you want to know more than you ever thought possible about mushrooms, then join John Benjamin and me for one of our fall mushroom forays. Visit the Harris Center’s calendar of events at https://harriscenter.org/events, to register for our upcoming September and October Morel Quandary meanders. Take it from John when he says, “Having a decent field guide is helpful, but you really can’t beat trekking into the woods and learning with other mushroom enthusiasts!”