Backyard Naturalist: Have you seen the fantastical fungi?

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 10/4/2021 3:03:07 PM

Have you noticed them? They are everywhere. Popping up in lawn like tiny beach umbrellas, hanging off of trees like corky shelves, and coloring the edges of forest trails with yellow waxy caps and silvery purple parasols. Some puff smoke when stepped on, others look like deep sea coral growing on dry land, and still some stand with pert red caps while others lay defeated in gooey, black slime. There are even ones that glow in the dark, leaving a magical trail of fairy foxfire. The rain these last few months has brought out a multitude of mushrooms. These fantastical fungi might be the silver lining we’ve all been looking for in the middle of all the downpours. If you ask the Harris Center for Conservation Education’s teacher-naturalist, John Benjamin, this year’s mushroom bloom might be one for the record books.

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 his insatiable curiosity that inspires his forays. 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 these beings.”

When we see a mushroom, we are only seeing a very small part of the story, the above ground expression of a fungus. Mushrooms are merely the fruit of a fungus, the part that enables it to spread its spores. Spores are like fungi seeds. Look under a mushroom’s cap and tucked into the gills or spongy bottoms, are millions of these microscopic spores, waiting to be carried away by the wind, find another compatible spore and grow into a new fungus. One way to think about a mushroom is how you would think about an apple on a tree. It is both the cradle for new life and the conduit for dispersal.

Mushrooms hold a mysterious allure for many. They pop up unexpectedly in strange places, appear in fairytales, folklore, and even video games. Some species are deathly poisonous while others are vividly hallucinogenic and are now being used by medical professionals to treat PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Edible mushrooms grace our pizzas, adorn our pasta, and gourmet truffles can make you rich, retailing at over $200 per ounce. Fungi is a new frontier, moving from our dinner plates to industrial applications including biofuels, construction material, textiles, cleaning products, and packing material. They are neither plant nor animal but are the monarchs of their own kingdom.

All the while, fungi are hard at work carving out a living in the world, most often below the surface of the soil or inside trees, hidden from our view. Some are acknowledged pathogens, causing decay and death in all types of living matter, 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 whose research has shown 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 much more going on there than meets the eye. This fungal fruit represents a complex and completely unique being.

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, to register for our upcoming 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!”

Susie Spikol is the Community Program Director for the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock.

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