Eggs in the neighborhood

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Autumn is one of the best seasons to go outside–top four even! (Just try to argue against that one!). After the heat of summer, the cool fall weather is incredibly refreshing, migratory birds are passing through on their way to wintering worlds, and leaves are changing colors in styley ways. To make things even better, ferns and other ground covers die back and allow light (and human eyeballs) to reach the forest floor and light up an incredible diversity of mushroom and slime mold treasures. Yes, the hills (and flatlands!) are alive with the sight of mushrooms! Fall is where it’s at, and it’s literally where we are at right now. Happy fall everyone!

“Never know what you might find” is the way it goes when poking around for ‘shrooms with a couple of awesome mushroom hunters like my wife Amy and son Leif. And you don’t have to go far in St. George to see all kinds of mushrooms—Boletes, Amanitas, Russulas, Milkies, Corts, Corals, Inkies, Polypores, Puffballs and Horse Mushrooms to name a few. They seem to be everywhere—along every trail, in every patch of woods and in big numbers in seemingly every front yard. This is truly the most wonderful time of the year.

A good mushroom “hunt,” one with fresh mushrooms (pre-insect egg-laying),takes some discipline. This often means returning to the same areas multiple times over the course of days, or maybe weeks or more. On these “hunts” we (the family “we”) usually leave the vast majority of mushrooms we come across, not only because we are not going to eat those particular species, but we also don’t have room to spare in our Bolete basket! That said, as these repeated visits are made, one can become familiar with the “other” mushrooms in an area and get a chance to watch them change over time (welcome to mushroom watching).

Some species don’t change much once they get to the surface—Russulas, for example, look like mini-Russulas when they arrive on the scene (they are very cute when they are new). Other species may change a little, like a King Bolete that stretches out its baby bulbous stalk over a few days as it grows taller and attains a sleeker appearance. Their pores also change from white to yellow. Meanwhile, Cort mushrooms (Genus Cortinarus) have a thin, cobwebby membrane, called a “cortina” that extends from the edge of their cap to the stalk/stipe. The Cortina covers the gills until the cap grows so large that this protective layer is torn. The remnants of this covering may stay attached to the mushroom’s stipe/stalk, resulting in a “veil” around the stalk. These kinds of changes are fun to note and photograph.

There are some mushrooms species that rise from the ground completely covered in a protective layer, like a capsule. These “eggs” look nothing like the mature, spore- releasing mushroom it will be when mature. These are super fun to find, and fortunately “eggs” of a few species popped up along our mushrooms routes. Watching these go from egg to adult has been extremely rewarding to observe.

Members of the Amanita family (Amanitaceae) rise from the earth in such a protective layer, a stage usually referred to as “amanita buttons.” Maybe they look like clown buttons but for me “eggs” seems more descriptive and appropriate. Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is an Amanita species commonly seen at this time of the year and their yellowish eggs have been popping up all over. As the Fly Agaric mushroom grows within the egg, the “egg shell” breaks into pieces, many of which stick to the cap of the mushroom. This results in the striking “Alice-in-Wonderland effect”—a mushroom cap covered with remnant scales. The red mushrooms in the classic Lewis Carroll story are actually a red “variation” of the Fly Agaric. While being a mushroom that should not be eaten, the scales on yellowish/orange cap are cool to see, especially when the mushrooms are in little gangs.

When Ravenel’s Stinkhorn “eggs” (Phallus ravenelii) first appear they are whitish, wettish and soft—somewhat reptilian egg-like. As the mushroom grows within, the protective layer covering the Stinkhorn is stretched and becomes more and more transparent and the Stinkhorns’ greyish cap (with its distinctive white, donut-like hole in the middle) can be seen. Eventually the “egg shell” splits, leaving behind a cup-like sac at the base of a hollow stipe holding up the slimy grey cap. The slime is filled with spores and has a rather pungent odor. As the stipe grows and the cap rises, insects attracted to the smell eat or simply get the slimy goo on them. The insects then act as a spore-dispersal agent as they move on from the mushroom. The process from egg to full-grown mushroom can happen within a day (or quicker) and the disappearance of the slime can be even quicker, depending on the level of insects attracted! Kinda gross in some regards, but still a very cool way to disperse your spores, which is the name of the game!

The changes some mushrooms go through after they first reach the surface makes mushroom watching (and photographing) fun and different. These changes, however, can also make identification tricky. Recognizing the various growth stages of a species can require little more than a repeat visit or two. It’s another great step in “getting to know your neighborhood”—recognizing members of the Fungus kingdom that remain out of sight for most of the year (and, thank goodness, out of smell!). The learning about mushrooms in the fall can be intense, especially when multiple senses are involved! See you out there!


PHOTOS: KIrk Gentalen

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