The hidden world of fungi

There in the dirt, a legion of unique fungi are acting as cleanup crew, decomposing all the waste nature throws their way.

The winter woods are starkly etched in monochrome, with bare branches, naked trees, and rocks. But when a day is clear and fine, decorative details emerge in sharp relief against a bright blue sky. And so I saw the shelflike shapes lined up along an old birch trunk. They looked like halves of curvy saucers upside down, brown and leathery to the touch.

"Aha," I said. "Shelf fungus ... a type of polypore."

My pronouncement sounded erudite, but that impressive bit of knowledge was brand new. It had all begun just a few short months before.

There was a small scattering of people wandering in the woods, fanning out around large tree roots and fallen logs. Noses to the ground, they looked serious and intent. Each carried a basket or bag. Every now and then one would bend down, pick something up, and examine it carefully. Sometimes the "something" was gently deposited into one of the baskets or bags. Every so often, the entire group became quite excited over what had been found.

"Who are those people?" I asked Maggie, the naturalist in our neck of the woods.

"They're from the Mycological Society," she said.

Mycologists are fungi specialists, I learned, and they were conducting a survey.

I knew that mushrooms needed moisture, and the previous weeks had been dry. Pickings would be slim, Maggie and I agreed. But when the mycologists meandered back up the hill, they were smiling.

"We found turkey tails and blewits, satyr's beard and puffballs," they said, rattling off names I hadn't heard before. Their fungal finds were impressive.

But I was puzzled. I had been on the same trails only an hour or two before and had seen nothing more than an occasional lonely mushroom or two.

"How did you find all these?" I asked.

"You have to know where to look," they said, and invited me along when they returned the following week.

A quick self-education was in order to combat complete ignorance. I looked in books, awed at the staggering number of fungi, many with provocative names: woolly milk cap, brown elf cup, candle snuff fungus, common ink cap, and collared earthstar. Then there were the identification details: appearance of caps and stalks, gills and pores, colors and textures. Although all mushrooms are fungi, I read, not all fungi are mushrooms.

When the mycologists returned, equipped with hand lenses and jeweler's loupes, we headed straight for rot and decay, where fungi thrive.

"Seems sort of gruesome," I said.

"Not at all," they replied. "Decay means decomposition. Fungi are nature's cleanup crew."

Were it not for fungi, I learned, planet Earth might be buried in dead organic matter – fallen trees and leaves, animal remains and waste material. Nothing new could grow. Forests would disappear. I had never thought of it quite like that before.

We stopped beside a large, old log. At first, all I saw was blue-green discoloration of the rotting wood.

"That's Chlor-ociboria," they said, delighted. I looked through my magnifying lens and saw tiny turquoise frills along the bark.

The pretty "frills" were the fruiting bodies. They're outward evidence of industry underneath – where the major business of fungi is actually taking place. Below the parts we see, and sometimes eat, minute threads called mycelia permeate earthy material to perform their work. And via these fancy filaments, the fungus grows and spreads.

I had passed the same log countless times and never would have guessed that so much life was happening here.

Then our group gathered around a dead tree limb on the ground, pockmarked by woodpecker holes. Small squirts of luminescent yellow decorated the flaking bark.

"Slime molds," said the mycologists.

And so it continued: countless fungal forms – curly, scalloped, or round; grainy, hairy, or smooth; in muted or eye-catching colors – hidden in crevices of decomposing logs, on the roots of giant trees, within piles of dead leaves. A whole new world of wonder once you've learned how to look.

Although still far from mastering mycology, I know now that fungi contain much more than meets the eye. And like that proverbial iceberg's tip, the tiny top of a minute mushroom is a reminder of all the activity going on underneath.

Sometimes the most important things in life occur away from sight – quietly, unobtrusively, without fanfare or fuss. They're detectable only by those who search, like the mycologists, with patience and passion.

Stuffed Mushrooms

15 large white mushrooms

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup minced onion

1 clove minced garlic

1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts

1/2 cup cornflake crumbs

1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon

2 teaspoons chopped dried parsley

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

1 egg, beaten

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Gently clean mushrooms (store bought). Remove and finely chop stems. Sauté stems, onion, garlic, and walnuts in olive oil until onion is tender. Mix in cornflake crumbs, tarragon, parley, cheese, and egg. Season with salt and pepper. Stuff mushroom caps firmly with mixture and place in a shallow baking pan. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until mushrooms are tender.

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