Notes from Underground - by David Rose

Fungi of Mines and Caves

This column originally appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of Spores Illustrated, the newsletter of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association (COMA).

            When Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher visited the cave at the climax of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, they encountered many strange and scary things, not the least of which was Injun Joe. In this classic misadventure Mark Twain described the splendid colors and structures of the subterranean rock formations, made even stranger by flickering candlelight. One might think that Twain would have described the fungi that surely inhabited this underground environment, but he did not. In Roughing It, an account of travels in the “Wild West,” he depicted another classic environment of subterranean (as opposed to hypogeous) fungi, this time in the gold and silver mines of the Comstock Lode. The Ophir Mine was particularly impressive, both in size and in monetary value – at the time of Twain’s adventure the Ophir Mine was being sold at around $4000.00 per foot! We will return to this mine later. Here is Mark Twain’s description of the Virginia City mine:

            “Virginia [City] was a busy city of streets and houses above ground. Under it was another busy city, down in the bowels of the earth, where a great population of men thronged in and out among an intricate maze of tunnels and drifts, flitting hither and thither under a winking sparkle of lights, and over their heads towered a vast web of interlocking timbers that held the walls of the gutted Comstock apart. These timbers were as large as a man’s body, and the framework stretched upward so far that no eye could pierce to its top through the closing gloom. It was like peering up through the clean-picked ribs and bones of some colossal skeleton.

            “Taken as a whole, the underground city had some thirty miles of streets and a population of some five or six thousand. In this present day some of those populations are at work from twelve to sixteen hundred feet under Virginia and Gold Hill, and the signal-bells that tell them what the superintendent above ground desires them to do are struck by telegraph as we strike a fire alarm. Sometimes men fall down a shaft there, a thousand feet deep, In such cases, the usual plan is to hold an inquest.” (Mark Twain, Roughing It, Chapter XX.)

            Now that we have some idea of the extent of this gargantuan gold mine, let’s turn to an account of mine fungi, about 20 years after Twain’s western travels, that appeared in the Bulletin of Torrey Botanical Club in 1881. The Ophir Mine had been “mined out” and was deserted, and the Torrey Bulletin gave a verbatim account of a newspaper report of the fungi that had replaced the gold ore and the miners who scrambled after it. I quote this account in its entirety:

“Botanical Notes. – Curious fungi in the Nevada Mines. – The Virginia City (Nev.) Enterprise, speaking of the old deserted Mexican and Ophir mines, says that fungi of every imaginable kind have taken possession of the old levels. ‘In these old mines, undisturbed for years, is found a fungus world in which are to be seen counterfeits of almost everything seen in our daylight world. Owing to the warmth of the old levels and to the presence in them of a certain amount of moisture, the timbers have been made to grow some curious crops. Some of the fungi in the old chambers are several feet in height, and, being snow white, resemble sheeted ghosts. In places are what at a little distance appear to be white owls, and there are representations of goats with long beards, all as white as though carved in the purest marble The rank fungus growth has almost closed some of the drifts. The fungi are of almost every imaginable variety. Some kinds hang down from the timbers like great bunches of snow-white hair and others are great pulpy masses.

These last generally rise from the rock forming the floor of the drifts and seem to have grown from something dropped or spilled on the ground at the time work was in progress years ago. The growths have in several places raised from the ground rocks weighing from ten to fifty and even one hundred pounds. Some of the rocks have thus been lifted more than three feet. In the higher levels, where the air is comparatively dry, the fungi are less massive in structure than bellow and are much firmer in texture. Some resemble ram’s horns, as they grow in a spiral or twisted shape, while others, four or five feet in length and about the thickness of a broom handle, hang from the cap-timbers like so many snakes suspended by the tails. One kind, after sending out a stem of the thickness of a pencil to the length of a foot or two, appears to blossom; at least it produces at the end a bulbous mass that has some resemblance to a flower. In all the infinite variety of these underground fungi it is somewhat strange that not one was seen at all like those growing upon the surface in the light of day. Nothing in the nature of toadstools or mushrooms was found.’

“The fantastic forms assumed by the higher fungi when growing under abnormal conditions of light, heat and moisture, like those above-mentioned, are certainly very curious, and have been the subject of frequent comment. … In all these instances the metamorphosis of the fungus remains incomplete, and, in many cases, the plant (to use the words of Fries) ‘preserves its mycelium nature, its thwarted growth being limited to a monstrous modification of this mycelium,’ or to a sort of exuberance which is opposed to the formation of fruit-bearing organs; just as a too luxuriant vegetation often opposes an obstacle to the flowering or fruiting of phaenogams. [sic] As an example of one of these imperfectly-developed fungi was exhibited by Mr. Fairchild at the January meeting of the Torrey Club. This specimen, which, judging from its texture, color and polished surface was Polyporus lucidus, Fr., was obtained from a coal mine in Pennsylvania. It was an elongated growth, about two feet in length and two inches in diameter, consisting of a succession of swellings and appearing as if the fungus had made an attempt at each of these points to produce a pileus.” (Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, February, 1881, Volume VIII, No. 2, pp. 19-20.)

            Two of the many curiosities about fungi are that they may appear anywhere and that we often invest them with human attributes, and this account seems a classic illustration of this. We don’t often get a chance to become acquainted with mine fungi, but the strange, even abnormal, forms described above are due in part to high humidity and stability of temperature favorable to abundant growth. George Atkinson, in his book Mushrooms, Edible, Poisonous, etc. (1901), explained that that these conditions permit mycelium to grow over the surface of wooden doors and posts deep underground, with unusual results. Threads of mycelia dangle in branched tassels from columns, thick mycelial gobs spread out overhead on ceilings, and the surface texture of the fungi assumes other weird properties in an environment usually well-saturated with water.

            The newspaper writer who so vividly described fungi of the Ophir Mine above was using his imagination only in investing the mine fungi with zoomorphic and monstrous properties and not in fabricating a fantasy vision wholesale. Fungi of caves and mines have attracted much startling commentary over the years, but we rarely hear of them anymore. As disciplined and cautious as we may be to dig deep to extract the volva of an Amanita we are collecting, we have to dig even deeper to become acquainted with likes of the remarkable fungi that proliferated in the Ophir gold mine.

But dig we must!

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