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Currents

Fungus among us

 

October 2010 should be remembered as the month of the mushrooms. Tiny and translucent as infants’ fingernails, fragile forms pushed up overnight during the unusually balmy month. Tough and leathery boletus shouldered aside forest litter. Gold and orange and red circles shining under the canopy were not fall leaves. Yellow stalks of jelly waved gently, purple caps rose above pure white stalks. Ruffled fungus climbed a dead grand fir. Shingled fairy houses and elf umbrellas surged upward.

The October forest was a bazaar of color, shape, and texture of nature’s most bizarre form of life. Funguses are plants that don’t need chlorophyll. They are life forms that don’t require sex. They are even more foreign than jellyfish. They are queer and they are here.  

Mushroom connoisseur/collectors have been busy as kids hunting Easter Eggs. “Batter ‘em, fry ‘em in butter and enjoy,” is their mantra. To be a collector, however, demands good skills and experience in identifying mushrooms; good enough knowledge not to accidently ingest a tasty morsel that results in extreme pain for six days while your liver is being destroyed, usually culminating in death.

There are five known toxins present in individual species within all the thirteen groups of mushrooms. The toxins run from the aforementioned, death-dealing liver-eater through Psilocybin, which will produce hallucinations or religious visions, to the least terrible Gastrointestinal which act as purgatives leading to nausea and lots of trips to the toilet. Some mushrooms have a combination of toxins; some are okay unless wine is added.

This toxic power adds to the mystery of mushrooms. One has to admire our ancestors who survived the experimentation that took place. “Laverne, what do you think this one would taste like?” “Jeez, Shirley, anything that looks like that part of a dog won’t taste very good. How about this red one with the cute white polka dots?”

The forest floor is speckled with the fruiting bodies—think of them like apples—from a huge variety of fungus that lives hidden beneath the soil. Some of these odd life forms can damage their host plants; others promote the health of their host and still others help in the essential job of decomposition.

Years may pass before there is a repeat of this October’s lush production of mushroom ‘fruit.’ Fungi live long lives (some have been estimated to be 8,000 years old) underground waiting for the perfect combination of slanting sun and warm rain to send forth their unique fruit. 

The strangest—could be the creepiest—thing about mushrooms is that some of them grow incredible large. Biologists figured out how to measure the extent of an individual honey mushroom. They were surprised to find one whose underground parts spread as large as a football field. This first one proved to be small. Biologists have discovered ever-larger fungi. The biggest one so far is a honey mushroom which has been measured to cover nearly four square miles of Oregon forest subsoil. 

Of all the oddities about mushrooms—no chlorophyll, no sex, some toxins, humongous size—it is their beauty that astonishes. We have been taught that flowers are composed in beautiful ways to attract pollinators. To look across a field of wildflowers is to see a field of buzzing, busy bugs. But why, when attracting pollinators is not necessary, are some mushrooms lovely? Other fruiting bodies—apples, berries, and such—are attractive to animals in order to be eaten and seeds dispersed. Mushrooms don’t need their bright colors to spread seeds.

The beauty of mushrooms serves no practical purpose. Either they are alien life, an accident of nature or a gift from a whimsical God. In any case, I hope you enjoyed the unusual display of our queerest life form.

 

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Author info

Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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mushrooms, fungus

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