Gardens of the Cross Timbers: The magic mushroom

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Clitocybe Mushrooms

The first day of summer is not far away. Twenty twenty-one has so far experienced a record-breaking cold snap in February (the month received only 1.30 inches of water from melted snow) and long cool damp periods into June. April and May were inundated with nearly 12 inches of rain. So many lawn mowers bogged down in muddy yards. The temps are now rising as the moisture goes away. What’s next?

Have you noticed the mushrooms? The moist weather has been very favorable for fungal growth. Timing is everything and the fungi are champs at quickly assimilating nutrients to form reproductive structures that release spores to propagate a new generation of shrooms on shower curtains, leather shoes, or yards. Fungi may inhabit the same territory as plants, but since they don’t have chlorophyll, they can’t make their food and must absorb it through enzymatic activity. Similar to what happens in your mouth and stomach after a snack.

We share 50 per cent of the same DNA with fungi. Animals and fungi had a common ancestor, but split apart over one billion years ago. Could this be why Portobello mushrooms have a meaty texture and are used as meat substitutes? Technically, mushrooms are not plants and thus, are not vegetables. They’re fungi in the kingdom of mycology. Yeasts, smuts, rusts, mildews, molds and mushrooms comprise the 144,000+ species in the mighty mycology kingdom. The largest organism in the world is the honey mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae) growing in Oregon. Although most tissues are 3 feet underground, the fungi covers 2,385 acres and is guesstimated to be between 2,000 to 8,000 years old.

If you are into foraging, take care with wild mushrooms. There are those perfectly safe to eat including those that are edible but tasteless, and others that should be avoided at all costs. Chiseled on a cemetery wall in France: “All mushrooms are edible, some of them only once.” My mycology professor liked to say there are bold mushroom eaters, and old mushroom eaters, but no bold old mushroom eaters.

Ink Caps

Eating fungi is called mycophagy. If you enjoy mushrooms, you are a mycophagist. Reactions to mushrooms is another thing. An Englishman can put away a mushroom pie made of field mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) and feel wonderful, but his wife may feel queasy. The popular Shiitake mushroom is widely used in cooking but in sensitive individuals, Shiitakes may cause bloating and diarrhea. Mushroom allergies do exist.

Mushrooms can adapt to their surroundings and devise strategies to live and thrive right where they are. If you see them above ground, congrats. You’re looking at their fruiting body. Much of their life is usually spent underground in the form of fine thread-like absorptive tubes called mycelium. Fungi are amazing saprobic scavengers that break down dead or dying organic remains. They send their mycelium in or around roots and create nutrient exchange networks between plant and fungus. On the other hand, fungi, in their search for food, can be opportunistic causing colorful molds on bread or fruit, itchy athlete’s foot or mildewed plants. Species of fungi live in salt water. The shaggy mane mushroom grows in the California desert. As with other mushrooms, it usually appears after a rain. People don’t often see the desert mushroom. Fungi are everywhere.

Outdoor fungi often reappear in the same spot. Morel people know where their lovelies grow and never divulge the location. One of the few unfarmed schrooms, morels are short-lived and erupt from late March to May in Oklahoma. They like it warm, wet and wooded.

Jelly Ear Fungi and Slime Mold

The morels (Morchella species) come in a variety of colors (blond, gray to dark brown) and sizes. The cap looks like a stretchy hole-ridden honeycomb directly attached to the stem. In North America, Black morels (Morchella elata) arrive first in large groups around ash trees. Yellow morels (Morchella esculenta) are less common and tend to grow under hardwoods such as elms, sycamores, pear trees and apple orchards. The rare late morels have small yellow caps. Seasoned hunters report morels grow better under trees in decline, especially dead or dying elms. Lots of nutrition in the leaking roots to feed the fungal mycelium.

Be on the lookout for “false morels” which are toxic, especially if eaten in great quantities. Not a morel if it looks like a convoluted brain, is a strange color or the inside has tissue or chambers. Key diagnostic characteristic of the morel: Cap and stem are hollow inside. Be sure to properly identify the mushroom before going wildly ecstatic.

Morels not only grow in North America, but pop up in India, the Himalayas, China, Turkey, Pakistan, Australia, Spain, Israel and the Kashmir. Controversy has been generated trying to pin down the different species (3 to 70)! We’re past morel season in Oklahoma but a number of other mushrooms have come up after the warmish rains. I did spore prints to determine spore color. Each cap was placed on a white piece of paper to allow spore fallout over several hours. Another tool for identification.

The decrepit boxelder is wearing purplish-brown jelly ear fungi (Auricularia auricula-judae) on the trunk. Spore print white. The mushrooms exploded in size after the rains and even has yellow slime mold (Physarum polycephalum) growing on it. The brilliant plasmodium is composed of tubes not plant, animal or fungus, but a protist capable of reacting to and solving problems! Below the peach tree briefly appeared a group of gently waving pink mushrooms (possible Clitocybe species). Under the bird feeder sprung up a collection of ink caps (Coprinopsus species). Indeed, years ago the drippy black spore residue from these mushrooms was used as an ink. The pine trees had sticky brown Suillus mushrooms poking up through pine straw. All these mushrooms have secretive relationships with their respective plants and the plants are healthier for it. Except maybe the boxelder. The tree is being recycled right before my very eyes.

Ready to watch a cool fungi video? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYunPJQWZ1o

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.