From yeasts (responsible for bread leavening) to molds (we’ve all forgotten about food for too long), the world of fungi is vast and fascinating.
But the role that fungi play in our natural environment is perhaps one of the most important of all.
Have you ever wondered how old tree stumps break down and are slowly reclaimed by the forest floor? Or how plants can obtain water and nutrients essential for their survival?
The answer is mushrooms.
Fungi are the engines of forest ecosystems. They are the best wood decomposers found in the natural environment and form relationships with almost 90% of the world’s land plants.
In Frontenac Provincial Park, more than 700 species of fungi have been identified in our forests.
Let’s find out some interesting facts about some of them:
Mushrooms with gills
Gilled mushrooms are a distinctive but diverse group of fungi that includes the stylized mushrooms of our childhood, such as the fly agaric of fairy tales.
They are characterized by having spore-producing gills that are located at the bottom of the cap.
Like all mushrooms, the “fruiting body” is the part that is visible on the surface. Its only purpose is to spread spores. In the case of gilled fungi, the increased surface area allows for a massive increase in spore production. The chances of a spore landing in the right place and becoming a new fungus are remote, so mass production is the key. Each of the following groups employs variations on the theme.
orange mycena (Micena leiana)
When fresh, this little beauty is one of the easiest gilled mushrooms to identify.
It’s hard to miss the distinctive bright orange caps and stems of Orange Mycena. It grows in dense clusters and only on decaying hardwood.
The color of the same name eventually fades to pale orange or almost white. Fortunately, the edges of the gills are still bright orange.
A bolete is any mushroom with a cap and stem, soft tissue (not woody or leathery), and a tubular layer at the bottom of the cap that can be easily separated from the rest of the cap tissue.
Each tube produces millions of spores that fall freely out of the tubes and are carried by air currents.
With a little luck, some of these spores will land in ideal conditions and eventually produce new mushrooms.
old-man-of-the-forest (Strobilomyces strobilaceus)
Although it may appear to be in an advanced state of disrepair, this Old Man of the Forest is at its best.
Photo: John Woods
Of the dozens of bolete species found in the park, this is certainly one of the most unusual.
Old-Man-of-the-Woods, like most boletes, forms symbiotic relationships with the roots of several tree species, but also associates with plants such as grasses, wildflowers and shrubs.
Support fungi, also known as shelf or polypore fungi, can take on a variety of shapes and textures.
Chicken of the woods, a parenthesis mushroom
Most species have a leathery or woody texture (although a small number of common species are smooth) and protrude from the sides of trees, stumps, or trunks in a shelf-like manner.
Some polypores have a mushroom-like appearance, but are differentiated from boletes by their hard, leathery texture. Others form a flat layer on the underside of twigs or branches.
Some polypore species are annuals and decompose at the end of the season. Others are perennial, surviving more than a year and producing spores each year.
All of these types of mushrooms have tubes at the bottom of the fruiting body where spores are produced. The tubes can be shallow or deep depending on the species.
Turkey tail (Versicolor shipments)
The commonly found turkey tail gets its name from the concentric areas of color, similar to the pattern of a turkey’s tail feathers. These zones can be white, brown, reddish brown, tan, beige, orange, green, blue and gray.
Hence the name of this colorful mushroom, versicolor (from the Latin “varied color”).
Photo: Jennifer Sanderson
Turkeytail, a wood decomposer, grows in overlapping clusters, or rosettes, on logs and stumps of dead wood and occasionally on dead conifers.
The turkey tail is often confused with an unrelated species called the false turkey tail (sterilized oysters).
The best way to distinguish these doubles is to examine their underside. The bottom of Turkey Tail has small pores (3-5 per mm) that may require a magnifying glass to see, while the bottom of False Turkey Tail is completely smooth like parchment.
Both species can sometimes have green algae, or even patches of moss, growing on the upper surface.
Puffballs and similar
Unlike gilled mushrooms and boletes, puffballs lack a spore-producing coat and instead develop their spores within their fruiting bodies.
When a fruiting body matures (that is, it has produced its spores), it forms a small opening at the top called the apical pore.
When raindrops hit the fruiting body, the body is compressed, causing the spores to be expelled from the pore. The spores are then dispersed by air currents.
Pear-shaped puffball (Apioperdon piriformis)
Of the dozen or more species of puffballs found in Frontenac, the pear-shaped puffball is by far the most common.
Photo: Jennifer Sanderson
It decomposes wood and often grows in dense clusters on rotting logs and stumps.
The fruiting bodies can be pear-shaped or somewhat round, starting out almost white in color and eventually turning tan or reddish brown.
Jelly mushrooms get their name from their irregularly shaped fruiting bodies that resemble the consistency of gelatin.
The spores are produced in microscopic structures on the upper surface of the fruiting bodies.
Orange Jelly (Dacrymyces chrysospermus)
This commonly found gelatinous mushroom is quite easy to identify.
When fresh, this mushroom is bright orange. It is more difficult to detect during prolonged periods of dry weather when it decreases in size, becomes hard as a horn, and turns reddish orange.
Once it rains again, it resurrects and returns to its fresh, gelatinous state.
Photo: Jennifer Sanderson
Orange Jelly grows on conifer logs and stumps, where its fungal threads break down the wood for food, helping to recycle nutrients that other organisms can eventually use.
Orange jelly is sometimes confused with the much less common witches butter (Tremella mesenterica), but this last species grows only on dead wood branches.
Orange Jelly also has a small core of whitish tissue near the point of attachment to the wood, while Witch’s Butter does not.
Cup and disc mushrooms are quite similar in appearance.
Cup mushrooms, depending on the species, have a shallow or deep bowl, while disc mushrooms are flat. Some species within each group have short stems, while others are stemless.
To reproduce, spores are forcibly expelled from microscopic sac-like structures that line the inner surface (cup fungi) or upper surface (disc fungi) of the fruiting bodies. Once the spores are discharged, they are carried away by air currents.
Yellow Fairy Mugs (Bisporella citrina)
Yellow fairy mugs. Photo: Jennifer Sanderson
These attractive mushrooms are quite small, just 1 to 3 mm wide, and can be cup, saucer or disc shaped.
Despite their diminutive stature, they are easy to spot because they are often found in groups of hundreds.
You will find them growing on barkless (decorticated) hardwood logs, stumps, and branches, where they help break down wood.
Other distinctive species of cup-, saucer-, or disc-shaped mushrooms include the eyelash cup (Scutellinia scutellata), which varies from bright red to orange and has “eyelashes” lining the edge.
Another is a turquoise species that goes by several common names, including Green Wood Cup, Green Stain, and Blue Stain (Chlorociboria aeruginascens). Both species are occasional to common.
If you see fairies drinking from yellow fairy glasses, don’t forget to let the park staff know!
Throughout the amazing variety of colors, sizes and shapes of mushrooms, there are even some that resemble miniature corals.
Almost all species of Frontenac coral mushrooms grow in soil, except for this species which is suitable for a queen.
Crown tip coral (Artomyces pyxidatus)
One of the most commonly found coral fungi in the park, and possibly the easiest to identify, is the crown tip coral.
This mushroom sports a majestic ring of small finger-like projections at the tip of each branch, giving them a crown-like appearance. You’ll have to look very closely to spot this unique feature.
Look for crown tip coral growing on well-rotted logs and other hardwood debris.
What mushrooms will you find?
We encourage everyone to keep an eye out for different types of mushrooms while hiking this fall.
Remember to only take photographs of your mushroom finds, as mushroom hunting is prohibited in provincial parks.
Be sure to add your sightings to iNaturalist to help increase our knowledge of the incredible species that inhabit Ontario’s parks.