A Fantasyland of Fungi: By Kathleen Scavone

Recent rain showers have created conditions that are perfect for mushrooms and fungi in which to thrive. Now, a fantasyland of decomposers in all shapes and sizes is appearing as though by magic, on rotted tree limbs, under leaf litter, and along creek sides. A wide variety of mushrooms abound in Lake County, visible in many alien-appearing forms from lowly slime to fan-like showy bracket fungi. According to the Bay area Mycological Society where the art and science of mushrooms is studied there is even such a thing as a glow-in-the-dark Jack-O-Lantern mushroom which thrive in Northern California. Known as Omphalotus olivascens, the Jack-O-Lantern mushroom’s bioluminescent properties provides its own light!  Mycology, the study of fungi which includes mushrooms and yeasts, holds an important place in  the baking, wine and dairy industries – think of cheeses such as Brie and Camembert or brewer’s yeast used in the beer industry. Another field, that of medical mycology studies fungus that may cause certain diseases in human beings.

Mushrooms play a vital role in the landscape, with their critical abilities to decompose matter. For example, when a tree comes down in the forest it hastens the process of decomposition ultimately returning the tree back to soil. Then, Saprotrophic fungi colonize the dead wood and grow into a large system of hyphae when they can decompose the matter by discharging unique enzymes to break down material. According to scientists a whopping 90% of the millions of fungi the world over are not yet known. Since fungi underpins life on our planet, playing  an important role in nature and human-kind –  from helping plants gain nutrients and water from the soil, to promising new uses as a possible source of biofuel to breaking down plastics to soaking up toxins produced after the devastation of wildfires, these studies are more important than ever.

Note: while some wild mushrooms are edible, there are poisonous varieties which look remarkably like the edible kind, so leave wild mushrooms in the forest for safety’s sake! How about these amazing mushroom tidbits: the cultivated mushrooms found in stores, known as white or button mushrooms start out as wild mushrooms do, as fungal spores. Next, they germinate and morph into lace-like roots that are actually mycelium searching the soil for food. When mature, mycelium morphs again, but this time changes into a mushroom when it multiplies its spores to carry on its lifecycle. Another store-bought variety, the delicious Portabella, is a powerhouse of potassium and often holds more potassium than a banana. Mushrooms, consumed in cuisines all over the planet, are sometimes called the meat of the vegetable world and have been enjoyed for thousands of years.

The citizen science app iNaturalist shows that there have been nearly 2,000 species of fungi and lichen logged in the Bay Area alone. With all of this fungal diversity occurring now, try your hand at being a fungi finder! Hunt out nature’s eye-catching, bizarre and whimsical species which some call the ‘flowers of winter’ as they burst above the soil and out of stumps and logs.

Here’s a link to a helpful online wild mushroom guide.    https://www.mykoweb.com/CAF/skey.html

Kathleen Scavone

Kathleen Scavone, MA., is a retired educator who has resided in beautiful Lake County for over 45 years. She freelances fiction, poetry, nature writing, curriculum ideas, and local history. She writes for The Press Democrat, Napa Valley Register, News From Native California, Green Prints, etc. She has published three books, a play and a poetry chapbook. The second edition of her locally set historical novella, People of the Water- a novella of the events leading to the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850 is available in local museums and stores, as well as on Amazon.com and IngramSpark in both paperback and e-book formats. She has written Anderson Marsh State Historic Park- A Walking History, Prehistory, Flora and Fauna tour of a California State Park, and Native Americans of Lake County. Kathleen is a photographer and potter. Her other interests include hiking, assisting on archaeology digs, travel, gardening and reading.

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