By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener
Go for a hike in the woods in November, and you’ll see plants you’ve probably never seen before. With the wetness of fall comes an entire forest of miniature fungus elements of many different shapes, sizes and colours. Some can be eaten, others don’t taste very good, some will make you sick and a small number of them will kill you. In general, the types of trees in the forest will determine what fungus and hence what mushrooms will grow there.
Mushrooms are the fleshy, spore-bearing fruit of various fungi. They are generally short-lived. They can emerge from the ground, expand, produce spores, and die back in a matter of a few days. Some are as big as dinner plates and some as small as pinheads.
This fall, myself and two active friends have been going hiking in different parks, conservation areas and public wild spaces in our area. Whenever we see a new mushroom, we generally stop and take a closer look and we’re often amazed at what we find. In additional to the white, brown and sometimes orange mushrooms, we also find different mosses and lichens. We often taunt each other to try to eat the different mushrooms, but just in jest — recognizing the danger of improper identification.
Mushrooms play an important role in our ecosystem. They are capable of decomposing pretty much any material (plant or animal) in the woods and breaking it down into the primary components of forest soil; providing nutrients that feed the plants growing in it. Many animals rely on mushrooms for food, especially squirrels and other rodents. Slugs also dine on mushrooms, and certain types of flies spend their whole lives on, and in, mushrooms.
Mushrooms develop from a mycelium; a mass of threadlike structures that make up the main part of the fungus. It is usually embedded in soil or wood. These mycelia often form connections, called mycorrhizae, with the roots of coniferous trees and other plants. Unlike plants, mushrooms cannot synthesize their own food from the sun’s energy. They lack chlorophyll – the substance which permits plants to use sunlight to form food. Mycorrhizae assist the plants around mushrooms in absorbing water and nutrients, and in turn, the fungi receives some of the carbohydrates the plant produces through photosynthesis — it’s a symbiotic relationship.
Most interesting to me are the mushrooms that grow in rings. Recently, while hiking the “UpTown” trail in HaroldTown Conservation Area east of Peterborough, we spotted several large rings of mushrooms and wondered how and why they were growing like that. Turns out that when a mushroom spore lands in a suitable location, the underground roots grow out evenly in all directions. As the fungus grows and ages, the oldest parts in the center of the pile die, creating a circle. When the fungus roots produce its mushrooms, they appear above-ground in a ring. The ring continues to grow outwardly, eating up all of the nutrients in its path, and leaving behind nutrient-rich soil.
There are edible mushrooms in our forests like chanterelles, morels, and porcini mushrooms. Also to be found from the fungi family are edible puff balls. Foraging is prohibited in Ontario’s provincial parks without proper authorization and also in conservation reserves, unless the forager is harvesting for personal consumption. In Toronto, foraging for any purpose is illegal in city parks and natural spaces. The Ontario Poison Centre views foraging as an “extremely dangerous” hobby because the difference between safe and toxic mushrooms can be microscopic.
Warning: Never consume a wild mushroom unless you are certain of its identity and edibility. Do not attempt to identify a mushroom from comparing photographs alone. Check out all the characteristics and if in any doubt, do not eat them.
Foraging aside, my suggestion after my experiences this fall is to get out and hike in the forest before the snow falls because there are still thousands of mushroom creatures along the forest floor in different shapes, sizes and colors. It’s a whole new garden in the fall once most of the green has disappeared. Take a camera along with you!