Take a hike along any trail in Kentucky and you are bound to encounter wondrous beauty at every turn; brightly colored finches, ancient trees, wildflowers, butterflies and, if you know where to look, mushrooms. While they may not get the appreciation of the other beauties, mushrooms are vital to forest ecology in the same way that food is vital to you and me. Mycologists have discovered over 1.2 million species and to this day they squabble over their traits and classification.
When most people think of mushrooms they picture white buttons from the supermarket or perhaps the red and white magical fungus that Mario and Luigi munch to double their size. In fact, the word mushroom refers to only the fruiting body of a vast underground network of mycelium; soft white root-like fingers, reaching for miles or more. In fact the largest organism on the planet is an Oregon honey fungus whose mycelium stretches over 1,500 acres. When conditions are right, the fungus produces mushrooms that release millions of spores into the air. The spores are microscopic and come in various shapes and sizes; some are simple and round, others like a disc and others still resembling tiny kites riding the wind. Spores are made of chitin; the hardest known organic substance, and scientists believe that fungus may have been brought to earth on asteroids eons ago.
500 million years ago when the tallest plants were barely knee-high, a giant fungus called Prototaxites towered 30 feet above the landscape. While they used to be classified as plants, they now occupy their own kingdom called Fungi and are considered a closer relative to animals than plants. They breathe oxygen like animals and sustain themselves not through photosynthesis but by “eating” other organisms. Mycelium penetrate roots and other organic matter, absorbing carbohydrates and in turn providing extra nitrogen back to the soil or directly to its tree host. Other mushrooms form nets or traps from their mycelium underground and when a grub or worm enters, they close the trap around their prey. The byproduct of all this carnage is the black gold beneath our feet; humus, which enriches the soil and allows forests to thrive. Without fungus to decompose all the dying plants and animals, the forest would soon be a lifeless pile of lumber.
While only a few species can be found at your local supermarket, specialty groceries (especialy Asian markets) offer dozens of odd and intriguing specimens to delight the palate. Beech, oyster, shitake, enoki, hedgehog, chanterelle, and morel are just a few that can be found fresh or dried and they all have differing flavors and textures. Mushrooms are a rich source of protein, minerals, antioxidants and fiber and some have medicinal qualities such as the prized reishi. Of course wild edible varieties can be found in lawns and woods but…(and this is where the fear comes in) it is highly dangerous to consume any mushroom not purchased from a reputable vendor. Many delicious species have poisonous lookalikes that only an expert could tell apart, and some of those can cause severe illness or even death. Bottom line: don’t go picking wild mushrooms for food or it could be the last thing you eat. That being said, don’t be discouraged from visually enjoying mushrooms you encounter in the wild. They are as varied and beautiful as anything the forest has to offer. You can find them growing anytime of the year, except during a hard frost, and if you keep your eyes down, you will begin noticing them more and more.
Chicken of the Woods – fruits mainly in late summer and early fall, found growing out of stumps and decaying wood.
Elf Cups – fruits in summer and found on the ground.
Wood Ear – a related species that can be found year round.
Creaser’s Mushroom – named so because it was Julius Caesar’s favorite mushroom. Very dangerous as it’s in same family as some of the most deadly amanita varieties but beautiful to behold, found in late summer.
Giant Puffball – can be found in early fall in woodlands or grasslands. Can grow to several feet in diameter, releases over a trillion spores when mature.
Brown Bolete – very common in mid to late summer, often misshapen and can grow to the size of a dinner plate.Photos from Wikipedia.org; Story by Jared Petrone, volunteer blogger
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