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Think Like A Decomposer

October 22, 2013 at 1:32 pm
By Emma Rapperport '14

Chicken of the Woods 

Plum and custard wood Trich, Shimeji Funnel Cap, Cinnabar Chantarelle, Rosy Gomph: what species to do these names refer to? That’s right: these are all mushrooms that thrive in northern woodlands like the Arb (I asked a friend late last night what her favorite mushroom was, and she answered “Chicken of the Forest!” I laughed, because she meant Hen-of–the-Woods!).

Late summer and early autumn are high season for mushrooms, and the rain brings them out in clusters. Mushrooms pop up overnight because the little mushroom we see is only the “tip of the iceberg” : the “feelers” sent out by the fruitbody of the fungus  itself, which lives in a log or underground. When the conditions are right (especially when there is enough moisture), mushrooms sprout up. You can compare mushrooms to the “flowers” of a fungus, because they serve the same purpose as flowers on plants. Mushrooms disperse spores of the fungus in the wind or by animals or insects. The spores are usually held in the gills underneath the cap of a mushroom.

Before you close this window in disgust, remember that humans have a close relationship with fungus and bacteria. Every culture has some kind of fermented food that’s an important part of every traditional meal (bread, beer, yogurt, kimchi, cheese, and miso are a few examples.) Mushrooms are eaten regularly in China, Japan, and Russia. Interested in becoming an expert mushroom hunter?

Most mushrooms found in the Arb are either decomposers, living in rotting logs and leaf litter, or have a symbiotic relationship with living trees where the tree gives mushrooms sugars, while the mushrooms provide water and nutrients. This exchange takes place deep in the roots, to which the mushroom has attached itself. Remember, the mushrooms you see sticking out at the base of a tree are only he tips of its fruitbody.

So where can you find your own chicken of the forest?

Mushroom hunting is just that: hunting. It requires you to think like a decomposer. Knowing that mushrooms like moist places, rotting logs, and the base of trees, you gradually get the hang of where to look – on the underside of logs in low areas of the forest, near the bases of big trees. When you spot a white puffball or or an orange cap peeking out of a log, you know you’re on the right track. It’s a marvelous excuse to touch old dead logs and smell the wet leaf litter and get a sense of the digesting, fermenting, transforming busy life of mushrooms that goes on busily and silently.

Happy hunting!

-Emma Rapperport ’14, for the Cole Student Naturalists

(P.S. Your death is not eclipsed by any of satisfaction from living off the land. Please do not consider eating any mushroom unless you are absolutely sure of its identification. XOXO, the Editor)

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