There are thousands of fungi found in Northeastern America alone. Although there is probably at least one type of fungi growing in most of our homes (that moldy strawberry in your fridge?), there are many more beautiful and interesting varieties growing in our woodlands.
Fungi, unlike other plants, lack chlorophyll (used for photosynthesis) and rely on different sources of energy. There are three main types of fungi: saprotrophs, (decomposers and recyclers), symbiotes (fungi that have a mutually beneficial relationship with plants) and parasites (fungi that feed off another living organism, providing no benefits). Thus, fungi do not require a source of sunlight to prosper, and many prefer dark and damp environments, like the understory of forests. For many fungi, the part we see (the fruiting body) is just a small portion of the organism, the majority of which exists as a fine network of threads beneath the soil called the mycelium. The mycelium connects the body to sources for food, water and nutrients. This is why harvesting certain mushrooms doesn’t necessarily injure the organism itself, and one may find more fungi growing in the same place again. See below for few examples.
The Barometer Earthstar (Astraeus hygrometricus) is a fungus which thrives in the sandy soil of the Pine Barrens, and can be seen in the field here at the Refuge. Earthstars can grow up to 1.5 inches wide and are most common in the summer and fall. These fungi are not edible and don’t look particularly appetizing! Earthstars have a dark, tough outer cover that splits into rays in damp or wet weather. This reveals the “fruiting body”, a tan puffball with a small hole in the center. In wet weather each potential rain drop that connects with the body will send a cloud of spores into the air for distribution. In dry weather, the rays curve inward to cover and protect the body. Earthstars have a symbiotic relationship, are ectomycorrhizal, which means that they have a symbiotic relationship with another plant, most likely a pine or oak tree.
Sulphur Shelf or “Chicken of the Woods” (Laetiporus sulphureus) are striking orange-yellow mushrooms can grow up to 10 inches wide and may grow in clusters of up to two feet across. These edible fungi are often found on logs, stumps and tree trunks in oak woodlands and are prized by mushroom aficionados everywhere! They are saprobic to dead trees, but parasitic when found on living trees. There are so many types of fungi, and most can only be truly told apart by one or two tiny features! If you are interested in foraging for mushrooms check out the events held by the Long Island Mycological Society, as it is never recommended that novice mushroom hunters try to identify a species alone.
Inkcap (Coprinus atramentarius) are little mushrooms that are saprobic and typically found in clusters on or near buried wood or roots. They grow primarily in oak forests from the spring to the early winter on Long Island. They can grow up to 4 inches in height, and their caps reach a peak of 3 inches in width. They have white stalks, and brown-gray bell shaped caps. When the caps mature they liquefy to create an inky fluid, hence the name “Inkcap.” Interestingly, if these mushrooms are consumed with alcohol they become extremely toxic, best to leave them off the dinner plate altogether!
New fungi species and uses for fungi are still being discovered. Mushrooms are being developed into a flame retardant, ecofriendly and renewable source of insulation and building material, and certain types of fungi are being researched as immuno-aids for cancer patients, and as a possible key to unlocking new treatments for antibiotic resistant bacteria.
By Kimberly Stever