Most people I know spend the fall looking at the foliage; the swamp maples in our area are already flame red. What most people miss is another change occurring at our feet: mushrooms.
Fall is the best time to see mushrooms in Maine, especially a few days after a good rain.
There are about 2,000 kinds of mushrooms and other fungi native to Maine; more than 1,000 live in our part of the state, and no one knows for sure exactly how many kinds there are. Mushrooms can be as large as a hubcap or as small as a pin. Some are so white they appear to glow amid the brown duff on the forest floor. Some look like a snowball stuck on a dead tree. Others look like psychedelic coral in yellow, orange, or even purple.
To my children, many milky and russula mushrooms look like bagels in color, size, and shape. They can be green, red, brown, or even black. Some fungus looks like gelatinous ooze, seeping out of fallen trees; the turkey tail looks just like its namesake stuck to a tree.
Most mushrooms you see look like they have bites taken out of them, which they do thanks to slugs. Every once in a while, I’ll find a mushroom placed carefully in the crook of a tree several feet off the ground. Squirrels do this to store them until they dry sufficiently to be eaten. Even on our lawns white and brown mushrooms are popping up.
Mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi that live in the ground or in rotting wood. Without native earthworms, Maine’s soils need fungi to keep aerated and help hold moisture. Many trees need specific species of fungus living on their roots to draw needed nutrients from the soil.
Most of the year, the fungi are thin filaments that snake through the soil or within rotting wood, then mostly in the fall, they “flower.” After every rain hundreds of mushrooms burst from the ground to spread dust-like spores.
Many Maine mushrooms species are edible, but several are poisonous, too. Anyone interested in collecting wild mushrooms contact Maine Audubon’s Fields Pond Nature Center about a day-long class being offered Oct. 7 with Greg Marley. For more information, call 989-2591.
David L. Spahr of Knox County, has a nice guide, “Edible & Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada,” and a helpful Web site at Mushroom-Collecting.com.