Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Forest Rainbow

Sunlight streamed through a golden canopy of maple and poplar leaves, bathing the hiking trail in warm energy. The group chatted merrily, their lively conversations keeping pace with eager hiking boots, bright moods reflected in bright clothes. Pink and purple leaves on the maple-leaf viburnum added color to the understory, while the last remaining berries on blue-bead lily and blue cohosh stalks provided accents. Overall, the fall forest was a rainbow of color.

But not all the most interesting colors were immediately obvious. As my boot scuffed the dry brown leaves on the side of the trail, a glimpse of vivid color caught my eye. Buried beneath the fading leaf litter was a bright red fungus. As I brushed the crinkly leaves aside, my fingertips relished the smooth, slippery texture of the mushroom’s surface.

Aptly named the scarlet waxy cap, clusters of this beautiful mushroom has been livening up most of my hikes lately. Earlier in the fall, their particular shade of red, with yellow on the margin of the cap, blended in perfectly with fallen maple leaves. Now, although buried under more leaves, the colors stood out distinctly.

Since this mushroom is easy to identify, it is tempting to harvest it for my kitchen. Indeed, it is reported as “mild tasting” and is eaten throughout its habitat in Europe and Asia. However, since some mycophagists (people who eat mushrooms) in North America have reported adverse reactions to the scarlet waxy cap, I have decided to enjoy it solely in the woods.

After examining that first patch of waxy caps, I began to see them peeking up among leaves all along the trail. Then I started seeing fungi everywhere! Lichens (composed of fungus and algae) encrusted all the trees, shelf fungi gave trunks interesting silhouettes, and rows of white turkey tail mushrooms lined every fallen log.

Turkey tails are some of most common mushrooms found on wood in the world. They are a type of bracket fungi, meaning that they form thin, leather-like and leaf-like structures in concentric circles. When you flip a scarlet waxy cap upside down, you find rows of bright yellow gills. But, on the underside of a turkey tail, you find tiny pores.

It is the upper surface of a turkey tail mushroom that provides its name, though. Concentric rings of brown, orange, maroon, blue, and green remind us of the iridescent tail feathers on a wild turkey. While not as bright as the waxy cap, the turkey tail has subtle beauty, and is worth close examination. It also has medical uses.

Turkey tail mushrooms have been used to treat various maladies for hundreds of years in Asia, Europe, and by indigenous peoples in North America. Traditionally, our ancestors boiled mushrooms in water to make a soothing tea. Records of turkey tail brewed as medicinal tea date from the early 15th century, during the Ming Dynasty in China. A few years ago, my Aunt Nan used turkey tail tea to boost her immune system during a battle with cancer, and she outlived the doctor’s predictions by several years. Last summer, a promising clinical study showed that the turkey tail mushroom (Trametes versicolor) improves the immune systems of breast cancer patients.

As I examined a log covered with little bracket fungus, I noticed that some of them looked purple around the margin instead of the typical white. When I broke one off to examine it more closely, I found a very different mushroom!

The plain white and cream cap of a violet-toothed polypore hides a gorgeous lavender underside. If you tilt it, the color becomes almost iridescent as light bounces around the brightly colored pores. While not medicinal, this mushroom always makes me smile. I can’t wait to bring my four-year-old niece Kylee mushroom hunting, so she can look for her favorite color on every fallen log.

What she won’t see as easily is the true body of the fungus. Scarlet waxy caps, turkey tails, and violet toothed polypores are saprophytic fungus, meaning that they decompose wood to obtain nutrients. The mushroom you see is simply the reproductive structure, tasked with releasing spores. The true work is done by a network of fungal cells (called mycelium) penetrating the decaying wood. One analogy is that the mushroom is like an apple, with the mycelium is like the tree.

You can sometimes find a web of black or white mycelium under the bark of a tree, beneath a rooting log, or under thick leaf litter. By some accounts, the world’s largest known organism is an interconnected web of genetically identical mycelium in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. This honey mushroom occupies 2,384 acres of soil (approximately 1,665 football fields) and could be as ancient as 8,650 years old.

All those mycelium are extremely important links in the food chain, since they play an enormous role in recycling nutrients from old plants and animals into new plants and animals. Can you imagine a forest without fungi? In the absence of wildfire (another decomposer) dead trees and plant debris would pile up horribly, and new trees would not have enough nutrients to grow.

As our hike ended, the chatter continued right on in to the cars. What fun it was to take a closer look at all the components in the forest’s rainbow on a beautiful fall day!

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