Fall colors: Mushrooms on forest floor blaze brightly with autumn hues

Fall colors: Mushrooms on forest floor blaze brightly with autumn hues

  • These boldly-colored Sulfur Fungi are sure to catch your eye. As beautiful as they are, these and related fungi may signal the decline of the tree's health.

    These boldly-colored Sulfur Fungi are sure to catch your eye. As beautiful as they are, these and related fungi may signal the decline of the tree's health. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

  • It's not just orange, white and brown in the world of fungi. Some mushrooms come in shades of purple, like this Violet-toothed Polypore at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve.

    It's not just orange, white and brown in the world of fungi. Some mushrooms come in shades of purple, like this Violet-toothed Polypore at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

  • Dead Man's Fingers rise from logs on the forest floor at Tekakwitha Woods in St. Charles. They may not be colorful, but they give a spooky feel to the woods, just in time for Halloween.

    Dead Man's Fingers rise from logs on the forest floor at Tekakwitha Woods in St. Charles. They may not be colorful, but they give a spooky feel to the woods, just in time for Halloween. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

 
Posted10/21/2019 6:00 AM

Fall is fickle. One year, color explodes from the trees with vivid yellow, orange, red, and scarlet leaves. The next year, the leaves fade without fanfare, and we're left craving a fall color fix.

What the canopy may lack in the color department, the forest floor has in spades. Turn your attention from the treetops to the ground below, where mushrooms display a panoply of color. In a good rainy year like this one, mushrooms of every color, size, texture and shape appear. They pop up on fallen logs, in the leaf litter, along old tree stumps, and just about every organic surface in the woods.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Giant Puffballs turn brown and misshapen as they ripen. It's at this point that they release clouds of spores that will create new puffballs next year.
Giant Puffballs turn brown and misshapen as they ripen. It's at this point that they release clouds of spores that will create new puffballs next year. - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi. Their job is to disseminate spores so that more fungi can grow. One fungus that does this in a big way is the giant puffball. Giant puffballs are, arguably, the coolest of the cool fall mushrooms. They're certainly the easiest to identify. These huge, round, white orbs pop up in woods, parks and lawns every autumn. They range from golf ball size to beach ball size, though the latter is rare. Many are about 25 inches in circumference and look remarkably like soccer balls, which seems to give people an irresistible urge to kick them. Please suppress the urge to kick, though, so that everyone can enjoy these awesome fungi.

Inside Giant Puffballs are trillions -- that's right, trillions, -- of spores. These spores ripen as the puffball turns from white to cream to light brown. That's the time to kick them ... and watch clouds of light brown spores poof like smoke from the puffball. The spores that land in just the right spot may become big puffballs next year.

That's cool, you may say, but are they edible? If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me if a mushroom is edible, I'd be a millionaire. Giant puffballs are edible -- and I'm told they're tasty -- but I will leave the culinary aspects of fungi to the experts. After all, everything is edible, once. Bear in mind that most forest preserves and public natural areas have no-collecting policies. So, consider it an academic question and enjoy the mushrooms in situ.

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Chicken-of-the-woods fans out from the base of hardwood trees like this old oak in St. Charles. This species has been used as a dye for paper, wool and other fabrics.
Chicken-of-the-woods fans out from the base of hardwood trees like this old oak in St. Charles. This species has been used as a dye for paper, wool and other fabrics. - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

Another eye-catching fall mushroom is Chicken-of-the woods. Last month I spotted a blaze orange Chicken-of-the-woods while hiking at Forest Glen Preserve in Vermilion County. It was hard to miss, a beacon of orange visible from afar. When I reached it, I was astonished to find it was as big as my kitchen table. (Speaking of which, yes, it's edible. One blogger wrote that this species is a "gateway mushroom" that led him to the hobby of foraging for edible mushrooms.)

Chicken-of-the-woods is sometimes used as a dye. According to www.mushroom-collecting.com, this species "can be used for dyeing wool, some fabrics, or paper and will yield an orange color with wool when ammonia is used as a mordant."

Chicken-of-the-woods and the closely related Sulphur fungus are in a group called shelf fungi, growing in layers somewhat horizontal to the ground. You can find these brightly colored fungi fanning out from the base of hardwood trees. They're beautiful to behold -- but not such good news for the host trees. These fungi are parasitic and can lead to heart rot in oaks and other hardwood trees.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Jack-o-lantern mushrooms are a wonderful find in autumn. In the daytime, the pumpkin-colored fungi belie their talent for creating an eerie glow in the dark of night. The gills under the mushroom tops bioluminescence.
Jack-o-lantern mushrooms are a wonderful find in autumn. In the daytime, the pumpkin-colored fungi belie their talent for creating an eerie glow in the dark of night. The gills under the mushroom tops bioluminescence. - Courtesy of Caitlin Rodehero

What's October without pumpkins? Bright orange jack-o'-lantern fungi are always fun to find, with their pumpkin-colored caps atop 2- to 5-inch stalks. They grow in tight clusters, emanating from buried wood. The jack-o'-lantern's claim to fame, though, is bioluminescence. That is, these fungi glow in the dark. Specifically, it's the gills under the mushroom caps that glow. Kinda eerie, in keeping with the Halloween season.

Jack-o'-lanterns have a pleasant smell, but don't let that fool you into taste-testing. They're toxic. In spite of -- or, because of -- its toxicity, this fungus has medicinal potential in fighting cancer. A drug synthesized from its toxins is currently being tested in clinical trials.

Turkey Tail fungi grow along tree trunks and fall logs. They play an important role in decomposing dead and dying trees in the woods. Their fan-shaped tails with bands of color resemble a tom turkey displaying for hens in courtship.
Turkey Tail fungi grow along tree trunks and fall logs. They play an important role in decomposing dead and dying trees in the woods. Their fan-shaped tails with bands of color resemble a tom turkey displaying for hens in courtship. - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

Another fall classic is Turkey Tail. This mushroom is aptly named for its colored bands of red, brown, orange and gray, fanning out like a tom strutting his stuff. Turkey Tail grows in just about every woodland, and when you spot one you'll find a bunch. Look for it clustered along the trunks of dead trees and on fallen logs.

Some folks claim that Turkey Tail is medicinal, but this has been dismissed by some mycologists. Mushroom expert Michael Kuo wrote, "The only health benefits associated with consuming (Turkey Tail) result from the exercise involved with hunting for it in the woods." It has been found useful, however, as a dye for woolen clothing.

Turkey Tail belongs to a large, diverse group of fungi called polypores. These fungi are invaluable in the forest ecosystem because they recycle nutrients and minerals slowly, over a long period of time. The paper industry has taken note of polypores' ability to break down lignin in wood, while leaving cellulose. Inspired by Turkey Tail's talent, scientists have researched "biopulping" to improve the papermaking process.

Finding fall color is as easy as a walk in the woods. Whether you look up to the canopy or down on the forest floor, you're sure to be wowed by the display.

Want to learn more about mushrooms?

There are some 2,000 species of fungi in Illinois, and in the space of this column we have only covered four that put on a show in autumn. If you'd like to learn more, check out the Illinois Mycological Association. The IMA holds monthly meetings at the Niles Historical Society, 8940 Milwaukee Ave., on the first Monday of every month, except January and February, and offers presentations on mushroom identification and ecology. The group also leads monthly forays in various parks in the Chicago area, which are usually followed by an identification session. Visit www.facebook.com/IllinoisMyco/ or www.meetup.com/illinoismyco/.

• Valerie Blaine is a lifelong naturalist, recently retired from the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at natvblaine@gmail.com.

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