Sign(s) o’ the times

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Berkeley’s Polypore

Fall is a wonderful time of the year. Temps are cooling down, brisk breezes roll and flow, and the fungi on the peninsula are announcing their presence with authority. There’s no a better time than the fall to “increase your acquaintancy” with your neighborhood fungi. Significant late summer rains have inspired a mushroom scene that is rich and diverse. Things are looking good.

Even with incredible diversity before your eyes, it can be easy to lose concentration and start to focus on the most lucrative of fungal species—both monetarily and salivatory speaking that is. We are talking about King Boletes (Boletus edulis) of course, and it is only logical to be attracted when in the presence of greatness. In the same vein though, there are connections between other species in the woods based on timing, niches and habitat. With this in mind, “unwritten” (and at times unsubstantiated) rules develop to help make a mushroom seeker’s effort more efficient. The “look two weeks after a significant rain” is an example of such a rule. But one of my favorite fungal rules is the “look for King Boletes when the Amanita muscaria are up.”

Amanita muscaria

Amanita muscaria, aka “Fly agaric,” are easy to identify (tall, yellow and scaly even by mushroom standards) and often can be seen from distances. Driving on Route 131 gets a little more dangerous this time of the year as one is scanning yards and forest edges for A. muscaria while cruising at 45 mph. “Giddypation” levels rise with every muscaria sighting, and some yards are so loaded they inspire “extreme giddypation.” Happy for the Amanitas, but also happy for the Bolete clues they provide. Thanks Fly Agaric!

At the same time, there are opportunities to develop our own folklore guidelines based on local observations. Guidelines to add to the historic fungi knowledge. And once school starts I keep tabs on the “big oak at the end of the road.” This is because the tree has some serious “butt rot” issues caused by a pair of mushroom species that fruit below it. They also happen to fruit when the Boletes are up!

The first is Berkeley’s Polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi), the largest polypore mushroom to be found on the peninsula. Polypores are a group of mushrooms whose undersides are full of holes. A Berkeley’s polypore fruiting body is comprised of many overlaying, pale-buff shelves that can measure three feet across! The fungus itself causes “butt rot” in standing trees such as the oak and thus the mushrooms are generally found at the base of hardwoods they are rotting.

Jack O’Lantern mushroom

Not too long after the Berk’s emerge, bright orange Jack O’ Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius) join the scene. The fungi that makes the Berk’s and the Jack O’Lanterns mushrooms aren’t killing the oak per se, but instead are turning the heartwood at the base, or butt of the tree, back into soil. The heartwood gives a tree strength and stability and is where you can count the rings to age a tree. Seeing the Berkeley’s and Jack O’ Lanterns fruiting so boldly does not bode well for the future of the tree, however. Its heartwood is at the very least compromised, and at the worst the heartwood is mush. That said, “when the Jacks start to glow, a-bolete-looking we must go!” Still working on the wording.

And, of course, there is more going on with the Jack O’ Lantern than just being a reminder to look for Boletes. Jack O’Lanterns earn their common name by being orange in color, and by glowing an “eerie green” at night. This bioluminescent “foxfire” is likely used to attract insects and other dispersers in an effort to “get the spores out!” Foxfire is also very entertaining for human observers, but probably not a reason behind its fungal presence.

And as if that weren’t enough, Jack O’ Lantern mushrooms are poisonous to humans. They aren’t toxic enough to kill you (good news!) , but if eaten, Jack’s will leave you digestively unstable for some time (bad news!). Somehow they are often mistaken for Chanterelles even though Jack’s have gills and Chanterelles have ridges. And the two species don’t really look or act like each other. Getting sick off wild mushrooms is a humbling experience that I would never wish on anyone. Hearing tales of illness and then crossing paths with the culprit can be a reminder to show respect and do your due diligence before pickin’ and mackin’.

And so yes, it is a great time to be out in the woods, seeing the signs and connecting the reminders. Creating some new extremely local (local as in my own head) folklore is fun even knowing these rules are only temporary. Someday the big oak will be gone and we’ll be left to find new “signs o’ the times.”

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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