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Wet spring and summer may spell good news for autumn mushroom growth
By JERRY DAVIS / Freelance outdoors writer
Fungi are one of the most noticed organisms in forests during August and September. Plentiful polypores, abundant amanitas, bounteous boletes and copious coprinuses appear where no sign of mushrooms existed the previous week.
Not every autumn is a good season for mushroom growth, however, according to Tom Volk, mycologist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse biology department.
"Different fungi species develop after different stimuli," Volk said. "Some mushrooms need a cool spell to trigger them. Others need lots and lots of water. Still others need a cold shock, even frost."
As any fungal lover or hyphal hater would guess, with all the rain this spring and summer, August and September have the makings of being great months to find, photograph and maybe eat a few fall mushrooms.
But things don't always work out that way.
"If it dries out as it did last August, fall mushrooms are done," Volk said. "Those that grow from rotting logs and are really large, like chicken of the woods, need lots of water to soak the logs." Fall mushrooms come in several types. Many produce gills, which in turn produce spores under mushroom caps. Others, however, have tiny pores instead of gills. Still others have teeth. All these structures are used by fungi to increase surface areas, so additional spores can form.
Mushroom spores are "seeds" that grow into new mushrooms in following years.
There are fall fungi that look like shelves, others that look like coral and still others that resemble soccer balls without the patterns.
With so many sizes, forms and colors, there are several ways to enjoy these mysterious growths.
"There is much more variety in late summer and fall than in spring," Volk said. "It's more interesting to observe them now, but it's more challenging to identify them because there are so many kinds."
Some mushrooms that are abundant and easy to identify include giant puffballs, sulphur shelves (also called chicken of the woods), oyster fungi, hen of the woods and chanterelles.
"When it starts getting cooler, the hen of the woods begins to appear," Volk said. "I think it should be a good year for this mushroom. We haven't had a good year for this one in at least three years."
Some collectors are fooled into thinking the jack-o-lantern fungus that is about the same color as a sulphur shelf fungus is edible. The jack-o-lantern mushroom is poisonous, however, while the sulphur shelf is edible and choice. Check in a mushroom field guide for identifying marks that separate these two fall fungi.
The jack-o-lantern mushroom, when fresh, can be taken into a dark room and the gills will be luminescent, hence the common name.
While giant puffballs are edible, smaller puffball-like structures can fool a causal observer.
"The puffballs are edible when they are fresh and pure white inside, but make sure the thing you think is a puffball isn't a button stage of an amanita," Volk said.
Volk has already seen mature specimens of what he calls the death angel, a deadly poisonous amanita species that grows in the Midwest. A little bit of this mushroom will kill someone who eats it.
The stinkhorn fungus is a fall fungus that gets a good deal of attention, in part because some species resemble, albeit only slightly, a spring morel. Even though the stinkhorn is listed as edible, most would never think of eating it. The smell should be enough to convince even an amateur mycologist that this fall mushroom, which looks like morels, isn't the most sought after morel.
Be careful when looking to find a few fungi to eat. Concentrate on a single species or two that is easy to key out in a book or can be positively identified by a photograph. Better yet, ask a mycologist or check Volk's Web site at www.TomVolkFungi.net .