We are frequently amazed by the vast array of fungi that make their above-ground appearances at different times in our yard and in the forests around our cottage. So great is the diversity of fungi that it has discouraged us from preparing an article, until now. Here we attempt to provide a rudimentary introduction to five of the many families of wild mushrooms we see at White Lake. While all of our field guides comment on which species may be edible or poisonous, we limit our enjoyment to observing and photographing them since we lack the knowledge to identify with certainty which wild species may be safe to eat.
Scientists estimate there are over a million species of fungi world-wide. They play essential environmental roles. Fungi are key, through their symbiotic relationships with tree roots, in helping trees to absorb essential minerals, increasing tree resistance to disease, and regulating water stress suffered by trees during droughts. They break down decaying wood, plant and animal waste, making minerals and nutrients available to many other organisms, and reducing the build-up of dead vegetation. Fungi can be food for many animals, including some humans. In addition, some fungi have medicinal properties. Some contain toxins and hallucinogenic substances.
Fungi are comprised of slender filaments, individually termed hypha and collectively referred to as mycelium, that grow primarily in the soil or dead plant material. These vegetative masses are not generally visible. When the conditions are favourable for a species to reproduce, some of its hyphae differentiate into reproductive or fruiting bodies that will produce and disperse spores. It is these fruiting bodies or mushrooms that we see above ground, typically for brief periods from spring to fall. The fruiting bodies come in a range of shapes including club, cup, cap, stalk, bracket, coral-like or globe.
Coral fungus resemble branches of sea coral. The colour of these mushrooms can include white, yellow, orange, pink and purple. We most often see coral fungi growing on the forest floor in late summer and early fall. This specimen of coral fungus was photographed in mid-September.
Puffballs range in size from golf ball to larger than a soccer ball. We see these mushrooms in our cottage yard and open woods from summer through fall. Young puffballs are globular, solid and white throughout. The puffball’s interior becomes powdery and darkens as the spores mature. The spores are typically dispersed, through a hole that forms at the top of the globe, in a ‘puff’. These puffballs, photographed in early September, include young white puffballs and mature brownish ones.
The shaggy mane mushroom is an inky cap fungus. Young shaggy mane mushrooms are cylindrical, whitish-coloured and covered in flat, curling scales. The cap can grow to a width of five centimeters and a height of 15 centimeters on a stalk that can grow to 20 centimeters tall. When the mushrooms mature, the caps dissolve into a spore-bearing black, inky fluid. We see these mushrooms in May and early June as well as in September and October. This young specimen was photographed at the beginning of September.
We see the bright orange shelf-shaped brackets of sulfur shelf mushrooms growing on the trunks and stumps of our deciduous trees from May through to November. The large brackets are smooth, flat shelves that can range from five to 30 centimeters across, up to 2.5 centimeters thick. They are usually found in overlapping clusters of five to 50 brackets. Also called ‘chicken of the woods’, one of our cottage neighbours reports the young brackets are edible and taste like chicken. This older specimen was photographed in mid-September.
Waxy cap fungi produce small, waxy, brightly-coloured mushrooms. We commonly see red, orange and yellow species growing in our yard and in nearby forests in late spring and in late fall. Typically conical, the caps can be 2.5 to 15 centimeters across and grow on stalks that are five to 15 centimeters tall. The red mushroom shown below was photographed in late August. We have also identified a species of waxy cap, the witch’s hat, that turns all black when damaged or bruised. How confusing!
We do not eat wild mushrooms and caution anyone considering trying them. Scientists have identified four different types of toxins in various fungi and identifying which mushrooms may be poisonous is difficult, even for experts. In addition, the effect of these toxins can be highly variable. What is delicious and safe for a person at one time may cause them digestive discomfort another time; the same mushroom may always cause mild to severe discomfort for other persons. Some toxins can kill. To be safe, check with an expert before eating wild fungus.
We relied on three field guides for researching this article: George Barron’s Mushrooms of Ontario and Eastern Canada; Gary H. Lincoff’s National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms; and, Kent H. McKnight and Vera B. McKnight’s Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America.