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Fungus among us

Cramp balls, puffballs, and more friends in the woods

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Pear-shaped puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme) - NANCE KLEHM
  • Nance Klehm
  • Pear-shaped puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme)

Moving past the concrete barrier marked "CLOSED," Patrick Leacock and I slipped and slided our way into the woods, quiet except for the hissing cars and occasional woodpecker. Species of maple, oak, poplar, elm, and wild cherry were present, as well as last year's leaves in the duff below our feet. There were plenty of tree snags and fallen logs decomposing. It's important to know species, as fungi have woody associates, meaning they identify and grow on or with particular trees, or "mothers" as I am wont to say. Some species prefer dying or dead wood, others are parasitic on the living ones. One can't get away from tree identification when one is interested in looking for fungi. And that is what Patrick and I were doing on this dank cold day at the beginning of spring.

Patrick is a professional mycologist who works as a researcher, consultant, and teacher. As the president of the Illinois Mycological Association, he organizes lectures and leads fungal forays and field trips. He is also a field botanist who works with the herbarium collections at the Field Museum. He told me that his interest in birds as a young boy introduced him to the woods, and that led to an interest in plants, study and field work as a botanist, and then specializing in mycology.

Chicago was a swampy region with oak savannas, woodlands, and tall grass prairies, but we have done much to alter the microbial and terrestrial communities that were once here. Beyond concerns of real estate and agricultural development, the relationship between soil fungi and woodlands is an important one. Soils support what can live with them, and, when compromised in certain ways, what cannot.

Ecologically this woodland is considered degraded, nonprime, as are most of the landscapes that we live with, and containing an understory of wild currant, honeysuckle, and barberry—plants usually "managed" (sought and destroyed) by restorationists. We traced a narrow section of the Des Plaines River, the longest stream in the Chicago region, which was the western route used by native peoples to canoe from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi. We were 100 miles or so from where it begins, maybe 15 miles before it joins the industrial waters in the human-dug Sanitary and Ship Canal.

There were no footsteps of other humans, though plenty from deer. The sky was filled with naked branches, with only the maples flowering red. It was also not warm enough for fruiting mushrooms, just "the rotters," as Patrick called them. Mushrooms are deeply relational and emerge from a complex living (or dying) context. They don't "just happen." As Michael Kuo, professional amateur mycologist, author of Mushrooms of the Midwest, and creator of mushroomexpert.com, writes: "It should be obvious that understanding mushrooms, therefore, depends on understanding the whole picture."

When you are on a walk and discover a fungus, note the date and where it is found. Note the color, shape, and size. Does it have gills, pores, spines, or teeth? Is it in assemblage with others and how so? Or is it alone, identifying what it seems to be growing on or near (species of tree or terrestrial). Keys exist for mushrooms just like they do for plants and to learn how to use a key to identify a species is a useful skill. Fungi have their seasons like everything else.

In his backpack, Patrick carried a tackle box and large knife, a soft brush, a loupe, and a clipboard with a checklist he had printed from his own website. This month's local checklist contained 94 species commonly found in the Chicago area.

Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) - NANCE KLEHM
  • Nance Klehm
  • Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)

During our walk we saw and checked off 16 species: the corky polypore fungus artist's conk (Ganoderma applanatum), the medicinal bracket fungus turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), a few groupings of the fleshy and edible jelly fungus wood ears (Auricularia angiospermanun) and the black bubbly jelly fungus known as witches butter (Exidia recisa), some black and lustrous cramp balls (Daldinia childeae), and a tight chubby family of pear-shaped puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme) that formed last fall, still full of pea-green spores that I quickly poked to release their clouds into the air.

I spotted a jelly fungus that looked like a turmeric-colored paint spill and Patrick collected it, as he couldn't identify it. I watched him cut a long and wide strip of the specimen, including wings of the tree bark it was growing on, place it gently into his tackle box, and scribble down some notes. I casually asked him to let me know what he found out about the species. "I won't have time to look at that specimen for a few years!" he quickly admonished me. Apparently, I had forgotten that I was walking with a very busy researcher and the discoverer of the Chicago chanterelle (Cantharellus chicagoensis).

There aren't a lot of jobs for mycologists. Fungi have a pivotal role in soil and plant health, including moisture regulation, carbon storage, and nutrient cycling in grasslands, forests, parklands, and backyards. And let us not forget their role as deathmongers. They are the only decomposers who can break down lignin (the woody structure of the tree), and they play a large role in fermentation and wellness, and as foods themselves. This makes one think that perhaps mycology would be greatly valued. But most of us weren't taught about fungi (or lichens or mosses) in our biology or earth science classes. Or we were taught to be phobic of them.

As you can imagine, for over 35 years Patrick has kept meticulous data and has compiled detailed sheets of many of the 1,200 species found in the Chicago region. If you want to discover the role of fungi in the world and learn the characteristics of species commonly and not so commonly found in this area, join the Illinois Mycological Association on fungal forays, or attend the monthly meetings, which always feature fabulous presenters from the far-flung myco world. Appreciation of all things fungal is what this club is about.

On the drive home we talked about leading newbies on a mushroom foray or a plant forage and getting the same, sometimes annoying, question time and again: Is it edible? When I asked him his least favorite question, Patrick snorted and shook his head. When someone points at a fungus and asks "What's it good for?" he said he bites his tongue and doesn't utter his retort: "What are you good for?"

And that is the question we, as organisms in this ecosystem, could all be asking ourselves.   v

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