Of coral, tongues, and jellies

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Spindle-shaped Coral mushroom

The rains came early this fall. So early, in fact, that it was technically still summer—August even—when the rains fell that inspire our traditional fall mushroom bloom and that is fine. These early showers, however, were not followed by the September rains we’ve had the last two years. The result was a fall where many “regular” mushroom species were present in the woods, but in significantly lower numbers than the last couple of years. This inconsistency is often referred to in the business as “nature.”

The mycorrhizal fungi that produce many of the ”traditional” mushrooms are surely doing well, still living in the ground and enjoying the sugars of their symbiotic relationships with neighboring trees. For whatever reasons, this fall did not provide the right conditions for these fungi to pump out their spore-dispersing apparati (that is, mushrooms). And yes, King Boletes was one of the many affected species. Makes you appreciate those big years even a little more, as if that was even possible.

To be clear, though, we are not saying that the fall 2019 mid-coast Maine mushroom scene was a dud at all. Just a little different, as the early rains inspired different species to bloom that maybe were under-represented the last few years. On one two-mile hike my family counted over 30 Destroying Angels (Amanita virosa), way more than we’ve come to expect on a simple stroll. Did you see a lot of Destroying Angels this year? And where these angels are pure white, many of the fungal species that took advantage of the earlyish rains added an array of colors to the woods.

“I thought Coral was only found in the ocean” is an actual quote and it is a good one. There is, however, a group of mushrooms (the Coral Mushrooms–family Clavariaceae) whose fruiting bodies over the eons have adapted and developed mushrooms whose structure closely resembles that of some oceanic corals. They are a group of many colors, but their fruiting bodies remain coral-ish, and they had a bomber fall for sure!

Violet-branched Coral

White and tans are common within the Coral family, and the bright whites of Clustered Coral (Ramaria botrytis) and White Coral (Ramariopsis kunzei) seemed to line every trail and path, clumping along roots and debris. Violet-branched Coral (Clavulina amethystine), has added some nice shades of purple in the woods as well. I can go years without seeing the C. amethystine. It’s a “treat year” to see multiples in my experience. And this year certainly has been a treat!

My favorite coral (I will play favorites until the end!) this fall has been the many sightings of Spindle-shaped Yellow Coral—Clavulinopsis fusiformis. Stretching from August into early October, clumps of the Spindle-shaped Coral lit up the forest with yellow like no other mushroom. It was a pleasant arrangement. So wonderful to find!

Towards the end of October things changed and Irregular Earth Tongues (Neolecta irregularis) had taken over the “provide bright yellow along trailside” color niche. Earth Tongues (family Helotiales)—are sometimes thought of as “coral mushroom wannabes,” but these tongues are cool, oddly clubbed-shaped, and tend to be less clumpy than coral mushroom species.

Green-headed Jelly Baby

Earth tongues also happen to be representatives of the large mushroom group Ascomycetes. The kingdom of Fungi is divided in two groups–the Ascomycetes (subdivision Ascomycotina) and Basidiomycetes (subdivision Basidomycotina)—and the difference is in the development of spores. Ascomycetes’ spores develop in round, saclike microscopic structures called “asci.” Basidiomycetes’ spores develop, one source says, “on appendages protruding from variously designed (usually club-shaped) microscopic structures known as basidia.” Neat, huh? Anyway, the mushroom photos and discussion often focus on Basidiomycetes, nice to get some Ascomycetes in the mix!

Another group of Ascomycetes mushrooms representing and adding color in the woods have been the Jelly Clubs, also known as Jelly Babies. Both local flavors—Yellow-headed (Leotia lubrica) and Green-headed (Leotia viscosa)—have been doing their things and adding more fall colors. What a nice alternative to looking at leaves!

My favorite fall color is probably orange, though, and there is no better orange than the Orange Jelly (Dacrymyces palmatus). These jellies are actually Basidiomycete mushrooms and the Orange Jelly variety holds a special place in my mushroom history. There are no poisonous jelly mushrooms, and the Orange Jelly mushroom itself is tasteless and made up of something like 95% water, so they are safe to eat. They also happen to grow everywhere and with that in mind I have had the pleasure of eating this mushroom with thousands of kids all over the country. Since that impressive nor’easter a couple weeks back, the Orange Jelly seems to be lighting up the woods and, needless to say have been poppin’ in our mouths as well!

Oranges, yellows, greens, and purple—just a few of the colors that make each fall in New England so special. Only time will tell if “shroom peepin’” takes the place of “leaf peepin’,” but my guess is when the leaf-heads realize its easier to look down at the shrooms than up at the leaves (what a hassle!) shroom peepin’ will become the tradition. It’s just a guess.

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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