Our Fantastic Fungi
Our Fantastic Fungi
By Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide and Retired Research Forester
Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA) supports its share of fantastic fungi. Our fungi are very diverse in size, shape, color and life style. With the coming of fall, when fungal fruiting often peaks, it’s a good time to get better acquainted with TCSNA’s fungi.
Fungi are amazing. They are one of the most diverse groups of organisms in the world. There are estimated to be over 5 million species of fungus worldwide. In contrast, there are estimated to be fewer than 1 million species of insects, and only about 10,000 species of birds and a paltry 5,500 species of mammals. Strangely enough, a fungus lays claim to being the largest organism in the world. A single fungus found in the Blue Mountains of Oregon extends over more than 4 square miles! Yikes!
We’ve got lots of mushrooms, right?
Yes we do! Mushrooms are the most common, and obvious, part of fungi at TCSNA. The one pictured below is the typical umbrella-shaped mushroom we all recognize.
Umbrella-shaped mushroom (bonus points if you spot the tiny one to the right of its base)
The mushroom produces spores, which will be blown away to start new fungi. In many common mushrooms these spores are produced on the surface of “gills” on the underside of the umbrella. The underside of a gilled mushroom looks like this:
Mushroom gills (stem is the brown in the upper left)
In the side view of a mushroom cut open below, you get a different perspective on the gills. The red arrow points to a single gill, and the blue arrow points to the mushroom stem.
How does the fungus get its food?
Well, duh! If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen a mushroom that looks like this:
So at night, when no one’s looking, they just bend over and grab a big bite of….. No wait! That’s not true! Fungi don’t have mouths! Let’s start over on how mushrooms “eat”.
Mushrooms, instead of being a “fruit” nourished by a system of leaves, twigs, branches, stems and roots, are fruiting bodies that get nourishment from their hyphae. The hyphae are long, thin, living threads that grow in soil or wood, or on those strawberries you left out on the counter too long. Collectively, they are known as mycelium. Below is a typical bunch of hyphae that were found amongst some decaying leaves and twigs at TCSNA.
But wait, there’s not any mouths on these hyphae either. How does the food get from the organic matter into the fungus? The answer to that is simple; extra-cellular digestion. That means the fungal mycelium secretes digestive enzymes into the organic matter, which break down large molecules into smaller molecules. These smaller molecules are then absorbed by the hyphae, and provide nourishment for the fungus.
Cool! But what other kinds of fungi can we find?
Another really common type of fungal fruiting body that we can see in the forest is called bracket or shelf fungus, often referred to as “conks”. These conks are flat-ish to horse-hoof shaped objects sticking out of the sides of trees or logs. These can range in size from one inch up to at least two feet across in rare cases. There are many different species of fungi that produce conks at TCSNA. One common example is the red and gold beauty shown below.
These conks are different in several ways from the typical umbrella-shaped mushroom that was pictured above. For one thing, conks don’t have gills! They grow their spores in tiny tubes. If you look very carefully at the underside of the conk pictured above you can see round holes which are the ends of these tiny tubes.
Tubes vs. gills, cool! What else is different?
If you like to cook with mushrooms, you know they have a fairly short shelf-life. This is another huge difference between some of the fungi we see at TCSNA. The life spans of the fungal fruiting bodies vary tremendously. Most mushrooms have a fairly short life. Their job is to make spores. When they are done, that’s it! In fact, one group of mushrooms, generically known as “inky caps” takes it to an extreme. The inky cap mushroom produces spores, and then the mushroom cap starts to dissolve into “ink”. As it dissolves, it releases the spores into the environment. Some inky cap mushrooms are reported to totally dissolve in 24 hours, although my personal experience suggests it can be a little slower than that. In the photo below, the mushroom cap has just started to dissolve. As it dissolves, the cap curls back and turns into black goo, starting from the edge and working steadily upwards.
On the other hand, conks tend to be hard woody structures that in many species are perennial. Each year they produce a new layer of tubes, which produces a new crop of spores. They can persist for years. Look back at the red and gold conk pictured earlier. When we cut vertically through one of those conks we can see they have layers. So just like counting rings on a tree, you can tell how old an individual conk is by counting layers. However, be careful because some conks produce two layers per year, one is the layer containing all the spore-bearing tubes, and the other layer is tissue that supports the tube layer. So while the layers in the conk are indicative of how old it is, determining age is not as straightforward as counting tree rings.
But wait, there’s more!
The fascinating world of the fungi goes on and on. To end on a colorful note, the horn-like jelly fungus (yes, that’s its real name!) is a delightful addition to TCSNA. Although it is only about ½ inch tall, it tends to grow in large colonies where its bright yellow color perks up any forest view. I’ve found these most often on trees and logs that have a pretty decent start on the road to decay. The one pictured below is a far cry from the shapes we’ve already seen. In addition, it is very soft. Unlike other fungi, this produces a fairly small number of spores, only 2 per “horn.”
The fungi at TCSNA are diverse in size, color, structure and lifestyles. If you want to get more information about some of the fungi at TCSNA, there is a great 3-ring picture notebook (Mushrooms of Tryon Creek) by Marilyn Anderson located in the library in the Kraft Room at the Tryon Creek Nature Center. She has pictures of a large number of fungi found at TCSNA, some of which I’ve never seen myself. As fall sets in, it is a good time to get familiar with the many faces of our fantastic fungi.