Some are ghostly. Some ooze. Some look like they belong underwater.
This is the year for mushrooms.
My mania has grown exponentially over the summer as the fungi erupted in the woods where I walk my dog daily and only increased when I forked over cash for the lone copy of “National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mushrooms” at Bull Moose earlier this month.
Armed with book, pen, paper and camera the very next day, I took the dog for a walk to see if I could figure out the identity of even a few of the scores of mushrooms I have spotted since late July.
I think I matched six kinds. Maybe.
Identifying mushrooms is tougher than one might expect, and I felt better when I read the first line of the guide’s introduction: “Mushrooms are among the most mysterious life forms.” I didn’t feel so bad that I couldn’t easily name most.
And what names there are. Half the fun of the book is reading names — many of them so apt — and then being totally grossed out.
The worst are the “slimes” and “jellies,” which are whole categories of mushrooms. I may never look at one dessert the same way after seeing the picture of Tapioca Slime. Or Pretzel Slime (it looks like pretzel twists). Or Scrambled-egg Slime and Red Tree Brain. Black Jelly Roll is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen oozing from a photograph.
Other varieties are adorable, looking like models for a Disney movie. White Dunce Cap matches its name, while Japanese Umbrella Inky resembles a little parasol.
Most mushrooms seem otherworldly, appearing as if by magic overnight and growing in places that often have no other plant forms.
And that’s the punchline: Plant forms are there, just underground. The mushrooms we see are “the fruiting body of a plant, the part of a fungus that typically appears above ground and contains its reproductive units, or spores,” the book says.
One would assume that conditions have to be ripe for those plants to reproduce. This year would be a really, really ripe year.
And to give you even a slight clue about the many things one has to consider when identifying a mushroom, let’s run down an abbreviated checklist for mushroom caps.
Many caps can be round, conical, bell-shaped or convex when they first emerge, although that changes as they age, at least for most. Some caps are vase-shaped or become so as they age. The cap may have a knob or be sunken. The cap margin may be inrolled, downcurved, straight, upturned, torn, wavy, hairy or smooth. The cap might be lined, furrowed, wrinkled or pitted and possibly dry, moist, sticky or slimy.
I could go on, but we haven’t even started to chat about the gills, which are generally the underside of the cap, and how the gills are attached to the stalk. Or not.
All of which is part and parcel of how to identify a variety.
Not that those are the only things to consider, for there are shapes to look at, veils to consider, colors to compare and even the smell.
I ended up feeling infinitely less ignorant after reading all that and even pleased I managed a few identifications.
The easiest one had to be the Spiny Puffball, which caught my eye one day when I thought I saw the remains of a sea urchin in the path. I did a double-take and then started to wonder what it was.
Thus began mushroom mania.
The Spiny Puffball does the coolest thing as it matures, the outside seemingly cracking with a brown puffball emerging. At least I guess, since I only ever saw the cracking one day and a brown puffball the next.
A few steps away was what I am pretty sure was a bunch of White Leucopax, with white caps flat to convex and crowded gills. The book says they grow near spruce in the East, but that the best way to tell is to look at the spores microscopically. I am good with just saying I think it was this one.
A little farther down the trail might have been Short-stalked Suillus, a slimy-looking thing with a brownish cap. It had been knocked over so I could see that it was in the bolete classification, which means that instead of gills, it has porelike openings that are the mouths of tubes where spores are produced. The effect is the underside looks like a sponge.
I may have found American Caesar’s Mushroom, with its reddish-orange caps, or possibly False Caesar’s Mushroom. Or perhaps both. I didn’t yank any out of the ground to further examine the stalk and other parts. But the color pictures make me think I was close.
Perhaps the two that were the most fun to find were those I don’t ever recall seeing in my life. They both belong to the coral-like mushrooms, which prompts me daily to ponder about the similarities of underwater coral and under-air corals.
The first I have seen everywhere we walk on the rougher woods road. Spindle-shaped Yellow Coral is fairly distinctive with its yellow fingerlike clubs that grow in clusters or rows of single clubs emerging from the path.
The other was a bit harder to name, although the book had a drawing of its toothed tip that helped to identify it when I picked a piece to compare. Crested Coral looks more like a slab from a coral reef, with its ghostly white clusters rising up, often out of mossy patches that highlight its ghostliness.
I find I like the mystery of these plants as I mull over what their underground world is like since they send up such splendid specimens to carry on the family line.
I think they are the black holes of the plant world: enigmatic, baffling and fun to learn about.
Without them, life would be a lot more boring.