Mushrooms are interesting, just like all aspects of nature, but I hesitate to study them because you have to destroy them to know them.
I've mentioned this elsewhere on this Web site, but now I'm inspired to discuss it a little further. The thing is, I'm not much good at identifying fungi and their kin because every "field guide" I've seen on the subject ends up becoming a laboratory guide. It seems you just can't identify most fungi without dissecting them, or without bringing them home for laboratory analysis, or carrying laboratory equipment out into the field with you.
Now, none of the required tests and studies are terribly complicated. I could do them if I could sustain my curiosity long enough and deep enough to carry out the required tests. But first, I'd have to get over my reluctance to destroy things that I observe in nature.
Just what kinds of tests are we talking about, and what kinds of challenges are there to identifying mushrooms? Here are some relevant quotes from my little-used National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, 1997 edition.
Distinguishing certain groups of look-alikes, such as LBM's ("little brown mushrooms") may require microscopic examination or chemical analysis and can confound even an expert. Identifying even the genus of these mushrooms is a good accomplishment.
The surface, flesh, or spores of some mushrooms change color when various chemical solutions are applied.
Spores are most easily seen at a magnification of about X 400.
A spore print is essential for accurate identification of many mushrooms. To make one, cut off the mushroom's stalk close to the base. Place the cap, with the gills or pores facing down, on a piece of white paper. … Some mushrooms produce spore prints in a few hours; others take much longer, sometimes overnight.
This is a "field guide"? Right!
I prefer to identify a mushroom, or anything else in nature, using its characteristics that can be observed in the field without disturbing it. If I have to dissect it to know whether it's Species A or Species B, I'll just say it's either Species A or Species B, and leave it at that.
Part of this might be laziness, and/or using my family members as excuses for laziness. Unfortunately, I am the only member of my household with any real interest in nature, and nobody else would take kindly to my occupying the kitchen table overnight waiting for some possibly poisonous mushroom to produce its spore print.
But more importantly, I think, I just don't like to destroy wild things.
Yes, I have hunted animals in the past (I don't anymore), and I gather edible wild plants now and then, but that is different. That is a kind of communion with nature, not paying someone to do my killing for me, but placing myself directly into the web of life.
But I object to wanton destruction of anything in nature, whether plant, animal, or even mineral. Let them be, so that others who come after me can observe them in their undisturbed state, and so that I can observe them later to see how they change in response to the natural forces around them.
Besides, it's illegal to disturb living things in most of the places where I go to observe nature. I haven't noticed any exceptions in the rules, so I assume that includes mushrooms.
Recently, I found myself prodded sharply by the horns of this dilemma. I had observed a most unusual fungus or lichen, posted pictures on the Web site, and invited mycologists to help me understand what it is.
What I saw, just as the snow was melting away in Mine Falls Park, was a bracket fungus on a dead log. In size, shape, and pattern, it looked like either a turkey tail mushroom (Trametes versicolor) or false turkey tail (Stereum ostrea). But it was green!
The emerald fungus that emerged in late winter as the snow melted off looked to me like a lichen.
A closer look reveals the exact shape and pattern of a turkey tail bracket fungus.
I wondered if somehow a lichen had formed when one of these fungi had merged with an overwintering alga under the snow. A lichen is not exactly an organism, but a community of two species, a fungus and an alga, living in a symbiotic relationship. Many lichens, not all, consist of two species which can each live independently, but which live better together. They live in conditions and environments where neither the fungus nor the alga could live on its own, but together, they can thrive.
But as far as I know, when living as a lichen the community takes a form that is completely different from the usual form of the "parent" fungus. I had never seen nor heard of a lichen that was the same shape and had the same banded color pattern as a typical bracket fungus.
But what was this green turkey tail?
As I said, I posted pictures on the Web site, provided information about the environment and location which I thought would be helpful in identifying it, and asked mycologists to comment.
I exchanged a few e-mails with Dr. Seidl of EMLab P & K who said, based on my photos and descriptions, that it was probably an old, dead turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) with an alga simply growing on its surface.
Like many mushrooms, turkey tail dies off in the winter. The living filaments of the fungus (the mycelium) within the rotting wood live for many years, but the external mushrooms die each year, and new ones grow the following year.
So, as Dr. Seidl explained it to me, my "green turkey tail" were not green at all, but covered by a thin film of algal growth that had simply used the dead mushrooms as a convenient platform to grow on. The alga lived under the snow, since plenty of light gets through a thin layer of snow to support photosynthesis, and many algae can tolerate low temperatures as long as they have enough liquid water and light. I would guess that this same alga also lived on the surface of the log itself, but it was only plainly visible on the smooth, white surface of the dead mushroom.
I further surmised that as the season progressed and the snow melted away completely, the alga would die in the open air and harsh sunlight. Even though one end of the log was in the pond, and plenty of moisture would get to all parts of its surface by capillary action, it seemed to me that the alga would simply not be able to tolerate the drying effects of air circulation and dessicating sunlight of springtime. Time would tell.
But meanwhile, Dr. Seidl sort of insisted that I should gather more information to make a positive identification of the mushroom. Was the underside of each mushroom smooth, suggesting false turkey tail (Stereum ostrea), or porous, suggesting turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)?
I didn't know. The way the mushrooms were growing, it was impossible to see the underside without breaking one off.
Thus I came up against my reluctance to destroy natural things, even a dead mushroom that had already fulfilled its purpose and that would be replaced by a new mushroom from the still-living mycelium in a few months.
My reluctance was further bolstered by an incident I had witnessed just a day before I received Dr. Seidl's e-mail.
Two young men were fishing in the clearing under the power lines on the north shore of the Mill Pond, just across from my favorite sitting rock. One of them entered the grove of pitch pines (Pinus rigida), heading for a small clearing in the grove that was near a sunken log (great place for fish). He crashed his way through the trees, snapping off inch-thick branches and trampling waist-high shrubs, sullying the spring afternoon with noise and mayhem, and leaving a path of destruction behind him.
I know it is possible to get to that clearing without destroying anything, because I have sat in that very clearing, many times, without having broken a single twig to get there.
Meanwhile, a pair of belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) were fishing about a hundred yards to the east. This was the first time I had seen the two together this year, and I was hoping they would nest along the Mill Pond this year, as they had for most, but not all, of the past few years.
The kingfishers flew in circles above the narrow bay of the pond a few times, and I noticed that the two fishermen across the pond were watching them. Soon the birds turned west and headed toward the river. They would have to fly either under or over the power lines on the way, and they hardly ever fly high enough to go over them.
As they approached, they dipped lower to pass under the power lines, even though this would bring them close to the fisherman, who was plainly visible to them in the clearing under the power lines. He cast his line, much, much higher than necessary for fishing, and just in front of the two kingfishers. Clearly, he intended to harass the birds, perhaps to injure or kill them. Fortunately, he missed, and the kingfishers continued to the river.
Now, these were not immature, unthinking, forgivably ignorant kids. These were men in their twenties or thirties. Immature and unthinking, to be sure, but not kids. Ignorant, certainly, but not forgivably so.
Sometimes I think some people should not be allowed to have contact with nature.
And this image burned fresh in my mind as I read Dr. Seidl's e-mail and contemplated cutting a mushroom off a dead log to examine its underside.
I also had visions of a city police officer coming upon me just as I was cutting the mushroom off the log. Yes, technically, it's illegal to destroy a plant in the city park, even if it is a plant that's already dead and even if your reason is scientific curiosity.
Maybe I just think too much. There is a huge difference between examining a living creature in order to understand it better, and casting a three-pointed barbed steel hook in front of a bird just for one's perverse amusement. What I was contemplating was not wanton destruction and was not born of animosity toward wild things.
Well, in the end, I gave in. The next time I went to the park, I made sure I had my pocket knife (I usually do anyway), and I brought a magnifying glass with me, thinking it might be difficult to see the little pores on the underside of the mushroom.
When I got to the log, I saw that, as I had expected, the alga was mostly gone. The mushrooms were now stark white, although they still showed the banded pattern they had had when alive.
I selected a mushroom that had grown on the bark of the log, which was now separated from the log itself. My thought was that this was now isolated from most of the living mycelium, and so my dissection would have little effect on the way the mushrooms would grow later in the season. The new crop of mushrooms would grow on the surface of the bare, rotten wood rather than on this sliver of dead bark.
When I examined my specimen, I was surprised to see that the magnifying glass was completely unnecessary. I could see the porous texture of the mushroom very easily with my aging eyes.
This is the one I cut off. In mid-spring, the green film of alga was gone, and the mushroom was clearly dead.
The underside is clearly porous, even without a magnifying glass.
So, I had indeed learned something. This mushroom was almost certainly a true turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) and not the nearly identical but smooth-bottomed false turkey tail (Stereum ostrea). And I had learned that these two are not as difficult to distinguish as I had feared.
Maybe I could bring a small mirror with me to examine the inaccessible undersides of mushrooms without cutting them. Sheesh! More stuff to carry into the woods with me! Soon I'll be considering bringing a microscope and a collection of reagent jars to make the mushroom's spores turn colors!
But maybe I could use the mirror to reflect sunlight into the eyes of fishermen aiming for birds and so make sure they miss.