A MUSHROOMING FUNGUS POPULATION

Now's a great time of year to hit the trails in search of a wide variety of beauties

It’s that time of year again when the preserves are beginning to explode with some fascinating colors. 

In a few weeks, you’ll be looking up high for fall color, but for now you’ll want to be looking down low and at eye level across the forest. That’s because at the moment, there's starting to be a lot of fungus among us.

From the bright orange and yellow chicken of the woods, to the tiny false turkey tail and the eye-popping puffballs, there will be no shortage of things to see as fall creeps in.

“September and October are great times for mushrooms,” said Forest Preserve interpretive naturalist Kelli Parke. 

In Illinois, there are at least 2,000 species of mushrooms and a walk through the preserves can yield a wide variety of interesting finds.

While it appears there’s new life springing up, the fungi have been alive and well all along as the microscopic mycelium – the vegetative part of fungi – has been absorbing nutrients from the environment. 

“When the conditions are right, like a flower, it puts out the fruiting body,” Parke said. “The fruiting body is what we see, it’s the mushroom.”

What you see today may not be what you see tomorrow, considering a mushroom’s life span can be as short as a few days, with its appearance changing rapidly over this time.

Unlike the fruiting body, the underlying mycelium is anything but short-lived. For example, there’s a colony of Armillaria solidipes at Malheur National Forest in Oregon that’s estimated to be between 1,900 and 8,650 years old.

Here’s a sampling of the fabulous fungi you can expect to see on the forest floor:

CHICKEN OF THE WOODS

(Photo by Chad Merda)

Thanks to their size and color, these beauties are usually hard to miss. The fact that they often grow out of wounds on trees and can be higher up than most mushrooms also helps.

This fungus grows in large clusters with overlapping brackets and often feeds on dead or dying oak trees.

The bright and vivid color is present in younger specimens; as it ages, it will begin to darken. 

PUFFBALL

(Photo by Chad Merda)

These can grow to some impressive sizes, often to the size of a basketball before they burst. 

When they burst, it can be quite a scene because clouds of dust-like spores are released into the air. This mushroom starts out white and as it matures, the tissue inside begins to turn yellow or brown.

TURKEY TAIL

(Photo by Chad Merda)

This one is commonly found in clusters on dead logs, and individual mushrooms can range from being fan-shaped to circular. 

It has concentric rings of color and those colors can vary. Each ring also can have a different texture, ranging from smooth to fuzzy.

Younger specimens have a white edge, which closely resembles an actual turkey’s tail.

FALSE TURKEY TAIL

(Photo by Chad Merda)

These look like real turkey tails, but there’s one way to tell the difference: The underside is smooth like wood.

DEAD MAN’S FINGERS

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

These super creepy mushrooms can be a variety of colors when they first form, ranging from light blue, purple or gray. It's at this point that the "fingers" have white tips, resembling that of fingernails.

It grows either alongside or on top of tree roots, which can be the perfect combination for giving people the heebie jeebies.

They can grow singularly, but it’s a real treat when they form in groups and truly resemble a hand coming out of the ground. 

As they age, they’ll turn black. Clearly this example is past its prime.

SHELF FUNGUS

(Photo by Chad Merda)

This is a general group of fungi that primarily inhabits tree trunks and branches. 

They’re polypores, which means they have little holes that release spores.

OLD MAN OF THE WOODS

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

It's wooly. It's scaly. It has uneven coloring.

Once its flesh is damaged, it will turn pink and then fairly quickly fade to black. 

Be on the lookout for these in mixed hardwood forests, especially under oak trees. 

JELLY FUNGUS

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

One of the great things about this group of fungi is that they can come in all shapes and sizes, but they have one common characteristic: A gelatin-like consistency.

Some jelly fungi can dry up and shrink down, but with some rainfall or a solid morning dew, they’ll rehydrate and continue releasing spores.

JACK  O’LANTERN

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Thanks to its bright orange clusters of color, this one is fairly easy to identify when it sprouts on dead trees and stumps.

It’s one of more than  40 species of bioluminescent fungi and the gills on this one will glow a blue-green color in the dark.

RUSSULA

(Photo by Chad Merda)

There are more than 750 types of russula mushrooms worldwide and they are one of the easiest ones to spot in the forest thanks to their large size and brightly colored caps.

In most cases, the caps are extremely brittle and will easily break.

COMMON FUNNEL CAP

(Photo by Chad Merda)

As the name suggests, these aren’t at all rare on the forest floor.

If you’re out and about this time of year and haven’t spotted any, you’re not looking hard enough.

LITTLE BROWN MUSHROOMS

(Photo by Chad Merda)

This isn’t a scientific term, but instead, a broad generalization to lump together small- and medium-sized mushrooms. 

There are hundreds of species of little brown mushrooms and outside of lab testing, they are very difficult to identify.

CROWDED PARCHMENT

(Photo by Chad Merda)

Commonly found on dead trees, this fungus is elastic and tough when wet. But once it dries out, it becomes hard and brittle.

Some species can “bleed” a red fluid when they’re cut.

CORAL FUNGUS

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

There are more than 200 species of this fungus worldwide. They come in a variety of colors from bright yellow, red, orange, purple and white.

ARE ANY OF THESE EDIBLE?

It’s not a matter of if we’ll get this question when sharing a mushroom photo on social media, but instead it’s a matter of how quickly someone will ask it.

There are many mushrooms that are edible, but there’s also a number that are deadly. The ones that are toxic but not deadly are sure to leave you with a belly full of regret. 

It’s for that reason, along with the difficulty of properly identifying some mushrooms that we steer away from answering the “Is it edible?” question. Remember, some edible mushrooms have poisonous look-alikes.

“No one should eat mushrooms unless an expert has told them that it is OK to do so,” Parke said.

Now also is a good time to remind people that it’s against the District’s General Use Ordinance to remove anything from the preserves. 

So look at these beauties. And leave it at that.

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Lead image by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg

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