A Walk in the Woods: There's a Fungus Among Us

It’s been a wet summer around here – between above-average rainfall and plenty of damp, foggy mornings (it is dark and rainy as I write this), the ducks in the pond are happy and the wild blackberries are productive. But the most unique (to me) evidence of the year’s trends has been the explosion of mushrooms in the woods. They’re everywhere – bursts of weird, vivid colors and shapes that turn the forest floor into a micro version of an old 50’s sci-fi film.

Even though several varieties have popped up this year that I’ve never seen before, they’ve always been there, hiding just beneath the soil. Fungi are fascinating things, still little-understood. The mushrooms we see are just the fruiting bodies of a massive underground web of hyphae that link together to form mycelium. For a parallel, think of your brain’s network of neurons and connections. These mycelial networks form “mats” beneath the entire forest floor, filling each cubic inch of soil with miles of tiny connections. The brain analogy for these structures is appropriate, as they do indeed network information and nutrients to and through a myriad of hubs within the system. But the network isn’t limited to fungal use – tree roots also plug in. It’s been demonstrated that trees communicate to one another through this hidden system (some call it the Wood-Wide Web, but that is more than a little cheesy), even shuttling resources from healthy trees to struggling ones to maintain the health of the whole forest. For more on this rather mind-blowing research, I recommend starting with The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. This is a paradigm-shifting rabbit hole to explore, just so you know. You’ve been warned.

But the colors and shapes above the surface are otherworldly. There are the coral fungi, in white:

 And another variety of coral fungus, this one yellow. It looks a bit like french fries growing up from the forest floor:

The puffballs, with their trademark spore cloud whenever your 8-year-old stomps on them. One puffball can release trillions of spores.

Beautifully variegated turkey tails are everywhere – this is a valuable medicinal:

Speaking of valuable medicinals, here is one of the biggest chaga "conks" I've found. We usually have a pot of chaga tea simmering on the woodstove during the winter months:

The woods are a busy place. There is so much going on all around us – overhead, underfoot – and we (for all our scientific advances) have managed just a glimpse of the whole story. 


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