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Signs of the Times

Berkeley's polypore

Stories from the Coast

Signs of the Times

Monday, October 7, 2019

By MCHT Land Steward Kirk Gentalen

If you asked me today, I’d say fall is the most wonderful time of the year. Temps are cooling, brisk breezes roll and flow, and the fungi on the peninsula are making themselves known.

Get to know your local fungi

Fall’s a great time to acquaint yourself with your neighborhood fungi. And this year, significant late summer rains have inspired a mushroom scene that is rich and diverse. Things are looking good.

Even with incredible diversity before your eyes, it can be easy to start focusing on the most lucrative of fungal species—both monetarily and salivatory-speaking, that is. We are talking about King Boletes (Boletus edulis) of course, and it is only logical to be distracted in the presence of greatness.

Where there are Boletes…

One of my favorite fungal rules is to look for King boletes when the Amanita muscaria are up. In my humble, fungal experience these two mushrooms are often found together.

Amanita muscaria, aka “Fly Agaric,” are easy to identify (they’re tall, yellow, and scaly—even by mushroom standards) and often can be seen from a distance. Driving on 131 gets a little more dangerous this time of the year as we (the royal “we”) scan yards and forest edges for Amanita muscaria. “Giddypation” levels rise with every muscaria sighting, and some yards are so loaded they inspire extreme giddypation. Happy for the Amanitas, but also happy for the Bolete clues they provide. Thanks, Fly Agaric!

Amanita muscaria

One of the best spots to spot Amanitas and Boletes in my neighborhood is around the big oak at the end of the road. Once we make it past said oak tree we are in the woods, where predators hunt and death works its way through the food chains of the mixed, spruce-fir forests of Midcoast Maine.

The neighborhood oak harbors mushrooms of all kinds

The oak marks a significant change of scenery and inspires a different kind of search mission. The tree however, also has some serious “butt” issues (just being honest here)—and a pair of mushroom species fruiting below the oak reveal just how serious of an issue this is. They also happen to fruit when the Boletes are up!   

Berkeley’s Polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi) is the largest polypore mushroom to be found on the peninsula. The term “polypore” refers to the spore-releasing section of the mushroom itself—“poly” meaning many and “pore” meaning pores.

In other words, polypores are a group of mushrooms whose undersides are full of holes. A Berkeley’s polypore fruiting body is comprised of many overlaying, pale-buff shelves that can measure three feet across! The fungus itself causes “butt rot” in standing trees and thus the mushrooms are generally found at the base of hardwoods they are rotting. The fruiting schedule of this particular Berkeley’s polypore mushroom makes me want to say, “Look for the boletes when the Berkeley is in bloom!” (There, I said it.)

Not too long after the Berk’s emerge, bright orange Jack O’ Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius) join the scene. The fungi that makes the Berk’s and the Jack O’Lanterns mushrooms aren’t killing the oak per se, but instead are turning the heartwood at the base, or butt of the tree, back into soil.

The heartwood gives a tree strength and stability and is where you can count the rings to age a tree. Seeing the Berkeley’s and Jack O’ Lanterns fruiting so boldly does not bode well for the future of the tree, however. Its heartwood is at the very least compromised, and at the worst the heartwood is mush. That said, “When the Jacks start to glow, a bolete-looking we must go!” (Still working on the wording…)

‘Tis the season for Jack O’Lanterns (mushrooms, this is)

And of course, the Jack O’ Lantern serves as more than just a reminder to look for Boletes. Jack O’Lanterns earn their common name by being orange in color, and by glowing an eerie green at night. This bioluminescent “foxfire” is likely used to attract insects and other dispersers in an effort to get the spores out!

Jack O’Lantern mushroom

Foxfire is also very entertaining for human observers, but probably not a reason behind its fungal presence.

And as if that weren’t enough, Jack O’ Lantern mushrooms are poisonous to humans. They aren’t toxic enough to kill you (good news!), but if eaten, Jacks will leave you digestively unstable for some time (bad news!).

Somehow they are mistaken for Chanterelles—I know, seems ludicrous—even though Jack’s have gills and Chanterelles have ridges. And the two species don’t really look or act like each other. Getting sick off wild mushrooms is a humbling experience that I would never wish on anyone. Hearing tales of illness and then crossing paths with the culprit can be a reminder to show respect and do your due diligence before pickin’ and mackin.’ Thanks for the lessons and reminders, Jack O’ Lantern! What would the road be without you!

And so yes, it is a great time to be out in the woods, seeing the signs and connecting the reminders. Someday, in my neighborhood, the big oak will be gone and we’ll be left to find new signs o’ the times. It’s truly just a matter of time.

See you out there!

A version of this story originally appeared in the St. George Dragon.

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