Notes from Underground by David Rose

On the Fungus Trail with COMA

This column originally appeared in the Fall 1998 issue of Spores Illustrated, the newsletter of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association (COMA).

            2 May 1998. Fox Lane Trail. Bedford, NY.       COMA'S first walk of the morel season. Everyone was enthusiastic about hunting their favorite morchellas. It had been an early season - some of us had been collecting for two weeks. Funny thing about hunting morels in a group - each person had a singular theory. 'You must look uphill to find them.' 'They're mycorrhizal.' 'They're not mycorrhizal.' 'Seek out trees in clay soil, not in lime.' 'Stand still, and they'll come to you.' 'To preserve, soak in lightly salted water.' "There, there's a tulip tree, and another. . .' So we exchanged more theories than we found morels, but it was an excellent walk just the same.
            At one point we were entertained by a young lady (age 7) accompanying her parents; she discovered a stump covered with Fomes and Daedelea that was a fine percussion instrument when struck with a fat stick. We discussed Gary ('Far Side') Larson's new book, There's a Hair in My Dirt, in which he depicts bears reading a 'Field Guide to Humans.' One type of human is the 'mushroomer, usually seen in spring and summer; shy, secretive; always looking down; good eating.' Hopefully this dangerous book will not find a wide circulation among woodland bears. In my opinion, the finest catch of the day was a pair of Psathyrella rugocephala, deep reddish-brown in grass at a woods margin. The inconspicuous ones always have the most charm.

            7 May 1998. Westmoreland Sanctuary. Bedford, NY.       Before the walk got started, Morrs found a great cluster of Stropharia rugoso-annulata under pines near the parking lot. We decided to call it quits at that point and went home. Well, not quite. A morning thick with humidity in a woods thick with birdsong and insect buzz. Deep into the woods a pond, a trailside stream, a swamp, and many mystery LBMs. Then, Mycena haematopus, blood-red juice seeping onto hands. Favolus, the orange one with hexagonal pores. An early, secretive, deadly Galerina tucked into moist, decaying tree bark. Some distance downhill a resplendent fungal growth on a stricken tree, and down we tumbled to a pristine Polyporus squamosus, layered and fragrant. Evelyn and I discussed Meinhard Moser's work on the genus Cortinarius as we plodded deeper into the woods. Sue and I turned back early; on the side of the trail we came upon an ovenbird skittering on the ground below broad-leafed greenery. We watched it ten feet away dart back and forth, unconcerned with our presence. Received wisdom has it that you hear an ovenbird ten times more often than you see one. This time it appeared for us. Then, it flew away.

            16 May 1998. California Hill Multiple Use Area, Putnam County.       I figured out what 'multiple use area' meant when we found empty shotgun casings scattered over the trail. When the first camouflaged hunter emerged with rifle on shoulder, we interviewed him about action at the front and possible jeopardy to 'mushroomers.' Yes, it was OK to proceed. Our collecting baskets and Swiss Army knives to the ready, we appeared neither shy nor secretive. It was a hot day with scant rain during the week, and we found little more at first than assorted Agrocybes and Inocybes. Then we began to spot morels as we headed down a slope towards Morrs' house. A swampy area and more morels - we fanned out to begin the serious search. Exhausting this area of our dear morchellas, we began a trek down a steep hillside toward Morrs' home rather than return the longer way back to our cars. As we descended the rocky, slippery cliff, whose vertical drop was nearly 980 feet, we all agreed that this was the best way to get back. Miraculously, no one fell down, no one ripped his pants, no one got muddy, dirty, or bitten by insects, and not one of us cursed or yelled at Morrs. This was mushrooming at its finest. Morrs and I especially enjoyed the descent - we're just crazy about muddy hillsides. Back at the house we had lunch with Beverly and watched Wanda wave mushrooms around teaching us the more important lesson of the day. She confidently demonstrated how simple it is to find delectable mushrooms. You just hold out your hand, and one appears. As simple as that! All mycologists take note.

            17 May 1998 Tallman State Park. Piermont, NY.       Others mycologized, Sylvia and I botanized. She pointed out viburnum, madder, jewel weed, spice bush, and sweet cicely. Still, our eyes turned toward fungus - from ladders of Trichaptum biformis reaching skyward to Lycogala epidendrum, 'wolf's milk slime,' whose toothpaste-pink squirt fascinates kids. And me. Sandy and I show one youngster P. squamosus, the 'Dryad's Saddle - a seat for the fairy that lives in the tree!' We dispersed through the park, Don and George bushwhacking south, some sticking to the trail, others elsewhere. Regrouping at noon, we emerged from the woods among rows of spring beauties and solitary bursts of cancer root.

            31 May 1998 Saugatuck Trail. Westport, CT.       On an asphalt path Jerry and I discussed the pressure that certain mushrooms exert to push up through asphalt. Discussion was critical; after all, where were the mushrooms Jerry said, "I can't believe I'm still looking for morels!" This was the curiosity of the season - morels arrived early in April - and boletes? Well, minutes later there one stood - Leccinum scabrum. A lackluster day, saved only by the bolete, but not much else. Slim pickings at Saugatuck; but what of it? Along the lake path Rena described the behavior and birdsong of the ovenbird (tea-cher TEA-CHER TEA-CHER TEA-CHER) and other warblers. Pause and listen.

            11 June 1998 Pound Ridge Reservation.       Many of us attended COMA's annual survey at Pound Ridge, with the weather humid and summery. A large group rarely stays together, so several contingents dispersed through the forest. Sam Ristich had traveled from Maine to attend; his approach to the survey was far more holistic than the limitation of a 'mushroom walk.' He styled it "Royal Systems Analysis," emphasizing the study of the ecological internetwork of flora, fauna, and environment. Our first find was turkey tail, Trametes versicolor, a common recycler of deciduous wood. Next was Stereum sericeum, whose only host is American hornbeam, also known as bluebeech or musclewood. Alder fluff wafted over Tricholomopsis platyphylla in woody decay on the ground, a sure sign the morel season is ended. Nearby grew a fern, Finulus. Sam: "It's one of the six ferns that overwinter name the five others." Mushrooms were suddenly abundant; Hygrophorus flavescens with yellow-orange viscid cap; Phaeolus schweinitzii on yellow birch; Pluteus cervinus, a host for the rogue-winged beetle; mycelia of Armillariella mellea hanging from oak in twisted strands, 'honey shoestrings.' Every one of us was busy with study, excitement, discovery, the sheer fun of it all. Down the path Sam cries out, "Whooooeeee! Here's another that's new to science!" It was an absolutely wonderful day.

            13 June 1998 Babcock Property. Greenwich, CT       In light rain our cars fidgeted slowly over muddy puddles and potholes to a parking space in an excellent woods. Sandy and Sam led; Don bushwhacked carefully on the far sides of the trail; Rena, Serge, Sue and others explored the trailside. Sam pointed out the black cherry nipple gall sprouting from a leaf, caused by the fungus Apiosporina morbosum. We walked past dead branches covered with Stereum, lrpex lacteus, and Xylobolus frustulosum, the parchment fungus. Sam explains/complains that name of the broad-gilled collybia was changed to Tricholomopsis platyphylla: It's like knocking on your neighbor's door and finding out he's changed his last name.' He pulled a cheesy Tyromyces caesius from the side of a tree, "Now, here's a #2 Charmin for you!" And on the saprophytic Indian pipe: 'Why live and pay rent when you can get it for free?' The heavier the rain became, the more mushrooms we found. The trail was longer than I expected, and we picked up speed on return. We got back into our cars, and Sam left with Sandy for the Arntrak train to Boston. My notebook was nearly bursting with its baggage of scribble.

            11 July Fox Lane Trail. Bedford, NY       Don Shernoff, Steve Rock, and I were the trio who met on this clear summer Saturday. A short but productive walk netted Amanita flavoconia, Hygrophorus cantharellus, Fuligo septica, and the corals Tremellodendron pallidum and Clavicorona pyxidata. The mystery mushroom of the day was a ripe bolete with decurrent pores. Was this new to science? The nice thing here was that we closely collaborated on identification, reading descriptions from Gary Lincoff's guide to study the minuter details. As we left, Steve told me of a sequel-in-progress to "The Truman Show.' To be titled 'The Shroomin' Show,' it's about a team of mycologists whose professional lives are televised internationally whenever they foray into the forest . . .

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