“This is a lot more fun than I expected it would be.”, laughed one UW student who was spending this brisk Sunday morning trekking through the Preserve with forty other hikers in search of fall fungi. To be fair, it wasn’t a passion for mushrooms that drove this student to get out of bed on this frigid October day and ride his bike to Picnic Point for a Friends Field Trip. He was there (perhaps begrudgingly, judging from the look on his face as he blew into his hands for warmth) for a class.
Along with the rest of the flock of attendees, the student was welcomed to the Preserve today by UW mycologist Marie Trest. Trest, an instructor and laboratory coordinator in the Department of Botany, has an infectious passion for fungi. As the group ventured into the woods, it didn’t take long for some otherwise-inconspicuous specimens to begin showing themselves and posing questions about the nature of their existence.
Marie picked up a dead branch containing a Stereum mushroom, also called a false turkey tail. “Can you eat it?”, muttered one participant in the back who looked suspiciously like he was in the “fulfilling-a-class-assignment” demographic. Marie smiled and answered the question the way that great teachers do, by not answering the question directly. "Knowing how to identify what you’re looking at is the first step to knowing if something is edible." Marie passed the branch around and explained that the false turkey tail is a crust fungus, so it will have a smooth underside while a true turkey tail mushroom is a polypore, which will have an underside covered in pores.
Within arm’s reach was another specimen that Marie pointed out as being on many forager’s menu, the honey mushrooms. The ones that Marie found were past their prime. Marie pointed out that a mushroom of this type (Armillaria) is considered to be the largest organism on earth. A single individual can grow to encompass hundreds of acres and live for thousands of years!
A few more steps into the woods uncovered some fascinating root-like formations called rhizomorphs. Attendees took turns inspecting the web of fungus as Marie explained how they allow fungi to transport nutrients throughout vast networks, transferring liquids to fruiting bodies and allowing fungi to travel through barren stretches of soil in search of new food sources.
Before long, participants were venturing out on their own in search of fungal treasures to bring back for identification. Under the permission of a Lakeshore Nature Preserve Teaching and Research Permit, a plethora of small specimens were gathered up and discussed. Some of the highlights: artist’s conk (used in the creation of intricate artistic etchings), puffballs (who’s spores are distributed via raindrops), jelly fungi (which consume other fungi), and the remarkably creepy and well-named wood ear mushroom. It was uncanny how the wood ear looked so much like an actual ear, a feature that caused me to consider its potential for an upcoming Halloween party. Marie noted that the wood ear is closely related to the mushrooms used in hot-and-sour soup. Trick or treat!
Xylobolus, Auricularia, Phellinus! No, this is not a wizarding spell. These are names of mushrooms that Marie identified while participants gathered up a mini-herbarium of specimens and displayed them on a fallen oak tree that served as a makeshift lab bench.
Marie also discussed the importance of fungi as a functional component in the Preserve’s patchwork of ecosystems. Fungi play a major role in decomposing and recycling organic matter and make it possible for members of other kingdoms, like plants and animals, to be supplied with critical nutrients. The food web and nutrient cycles would be incomplete without fungi.
Marie also noted that because fungi have not been as extensively documented as other realms of life, fungal species are mostly overlooked when considering conservation, preservation and restoration efforts. She is personally fond of a special group of fungi, the lichens. Lichens serve as biological air-quality indicators. Many of the lichens that were once documented in southern Wisconsin can no longer be found in this area, presumably due to diminishing air quality.
The importance of fungi and their amazing diversity, stories, traits, and appearances were all on display during this fruitful autumn walk in the Preserve. Today’s event was a great example of how Friends Field Trips support a diverse array of interested parties and how the Friends help introduce all types of people to the wonders of the Preserve. Some participants arrived eager to learn more about mushrooms. Some came to simply be in nature. A few showed up to fulfill a class requirement. No matter the motivation, it was evident that everyone had a lot of fun….even that one guy. Friends host for this field trip, summary and photos: Seth McGee