Fungus Among Us

Fungus is a kingdom, in the biologic sense. Roughly 100,000 species of fungi have been identified, although an estimated 1.5 million species exist. These organisms range from single-celled invaders of the bodies of humans and other animals, such as candida, to massive connected life forms thought to be the largest living things on earth. An example is the Armillaria ostoyae, which covers 3.4 square miles of forest in Oregon, and has been living for more than 2000 years. Fungi are eukaryotic organisms. This means they have a nucleus in each cell which contains their DNA. They are more closely related, genetically, to animals than to plants, and the earliest fungal life arose about 450 million years ago.

A Fairy Ring

This is a fairy ring. Depending on your culture, it can be evil or good, but evil, witchy or hedonistic elfin seems to win out. If you look carefully, you will notice the darker ring of grass where the mushrooms are popping up. The mycelium, an outward spreading network of hyphae, causes this appearance. Hyphae are the strands of multicellular growth of fungi, in this case, underground, which allow for propagation. Where the mushrooms are popping up, the hyphae are secreting enzymes which digest nutrients outside the hyphae, allowing them to diffuse back into the hyphae and support growth. As part of this, nitrogen compounds are released into the soil for the nourishment of the hyphae, but are also available for grass roots to use, making the grass taller and darker.

Penicillium Hyphae
Y_tambe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Not intending to write a treatise on fungus, I want to display some of the amazing forms mushrooms take. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi, which spread spores and enable fungi to propagate to new locations. Many are deadly poison to humans, some only a little poisonous and some edible. All, to me, are fascinating.

It is extremely important to have experienced help to decide if a mushroom found in the wild is edible.

Starting with an edible variety, this is called Chicken-of-the-woods, or Laetiporus sulphureus. It must be cooked well to eat, and the younger and more tender, the better. This is a common fungus, found worldwide, both parasitic and saprophytic, and found growing on a variety of hardwoods and conifers. This was seen in the woods of north central Pennsylvania.


Some mushrooms just look evil. While this mushroom is edible when cooked, as always, one must be cautious. It is known as Inky Cap, or Coprinopsis atramentaria. The black ink part is the mushroom digesting itself. It is also known as “tipplers bane”. It causes nausea, vomiting and other symptoms when consumed with alcohol, in a reaction similar to the drug Antabuse. This was also from north central Pennsylvania, in September.

Inky Cap

Another edible, although possibly mildly toxic to some, is the Orange Peel mushroom, scientifically known as Aleuria aurantia. It is very delicate and colorful, but used generally as a decoration for other foods. It must be cooked to consume. From north central Pennsylvania in September.

Orange Peel mushroom

Hen-of-the-woods is another edible I came across hiking in the Loyalsock State Forest in Pennsylvania. Its scientific name is Grifola frondosa. It resembles Chicken-of-the-woods in shape but is dark grey. It is said to make a good meat substitute in various dishes. It prefers dead oak as a base. These are popular in Japan, where they are known as Maitake.


An edible I found close to home is the black trumpet mushroom, Craterellus cornucopioides. These are considered to be some of the best tasting mushrooms, can be eaten raw or cooked, and can be dried for long term storage. These were seen close to a pond in my neighborhood in South Jersey, in early September.

Puffball mushrooms are edible, and some grow to very large size, a foot or more. When they are young, they are solid throughout, which is when they can be eaten. As they mature, spores develop which puff out in a cloud when the mushroom is disturbed. There are numerous genera of the puffball, and I’m not sure which I have in my photos.

Puffball mushroom
Cloud of spores puffing out of a mature puffball
A mass of puffballs on a dead tree stump

A member of the Phallaceae family, the Mutinus elegans, or commonly, the elegant stinkhorn, is a peculiar mushroom. It has a fetid, semen-like odor, and has slimy brown material attached, which carries the spores. They are common, and there are multiple types within the phallaceae family. These are not considered edible, too objectionable, but not poisonous. This particular example was in my backyard.

Elegant Stinkhorn

If spores alight on favorable ground, they will grow and form mushrooms. Here, these spores found ideal ground, in a cow patty in a pasture in Oklahoma. Not that one would be inclined to eat these, but they demonstrate a few features of poisonous mushrooms. They have a parasol-shaped cap and ring around the stem. Other features of poisonous mushrooms, not demonstrated here, are red color on the cap, particularly with white dots, presence of a volva, or bulging at the base of the stem, a brittle stem or cap, blue color on cutting the mushroom, and bumps or scales on the cap. This is not a complete list, but a sampling of poisonous features.

There are some growths I have come across which have defied identification. This is a very leafy growth found attached to a large granite wall.

I don’t know what this is

I was not able to identify this. It looks a bit like a puffball, but I could not find a photo that looked similar. This is from my hometown in South Jersey.

Another similar one from the woods of north central Pennsylvania.

Mushrooms love to latch on to any structure that will feed them. Here, some are growing out of a gravel road.

And here, attached to a log across a stream.

And finally, back to the fairy ring

Plucked from the Fairy Circle”. A man saves his friend from the grip of a fairy ring.

Google Books version of Sikes, Wirt (1880). British Goblins: Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions pp. 74. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington.

Except as documented, the photos included here are all taken by me. I retain all rights to the photos.

Uncorking Croatia


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