They're not plants. They're not animals. Mushrooms are something altogether different—the spore-bearing fruit of decay and rebirth on the forest floor. And there's never been a better time to appreciate nature's greatest connectors.
In the 1990s, a team of researchers in Canada, hoping to understand why the destruction of one tree species in a single forest led to the destruction of another, examined the soil and discovered a network of pale, microscopic fungal threads extending in all directions. The threads, called hyphae, turned out to be an essential pathway for both nutrients and pathogens between the forest’s trees—and also between the trees and the mushrooms that sprouted from the network itself. The network was complex and vast, with miles of threads contained in each square meter of forest. It became known, among scientists and others who spend time in nature, as the Wood Wide Web.
Mushrooms, it turns out, have always been the forest’s connectors.
This is what I’m thinking about on a day in late May as I step into the woods in Delaware County to meet Columbus Monthly’s photo editor, Tim Johnson. Tim is a longtime mushroom aficionado; he’s been hunting and photographing mushrooms for more than 20 years. We’ve talked about mushroom hunting on earlier assignments for the magazine, and today, we are finally going to do it.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
It is an odd time in our world, obviously. Because of the coronavirus, I haven’t seen anyone other than my family and the occasional neighbor in person for nearly three months. Restaurants, bars and shops opened again in Ohio in mid-May; gyms and pools followed about a week later. But the thought of going to one of those places is unpalatable to me. A hike, however, is different.
Tim is in it for the photos, I see immediately. He notes the way tiny red mushrooms the size of pencil erasers pop against a brown log and looks for the contrast between filmy beige fungi and the green leaves behind them.
Within moments, we spot our first mushrooms together, shelf fungus growing near the base of an oak tree.
“It’s not edible,” Tim warns me, before pointing out some coral mushrooms growing from the ground nearby. They are white and built just like the spiny corals I’ve seen in coastal reefs, like tiny castles studded with spire towers.
We walk a little farther, and Tim explains how his love for mushrooms started with his father, who took him hunting for morels as a kid. Tim is a father himself, and when his kids were little, he’d try and entice them into hunting for mushrooms, too: a nickel for the person who found the first mushroom, a dime for finding the most interesting one.
“Mushrooms make little mini landscapes; there’s something almost otherworldly about them,” Tim says. “And they’re like a little entrance into nature: If you’re looking for mushrooms, you’re spending time outside, and that is always a good thing.”
As we hike through the forest—staying 6 feet away from one another, of course—Tim points out more mushrooms: a stand of turkey tails blooming from a fallen tree, small globby mushrooms he called “jelly ears,” a crop of oyster mushrooms—edible!—growing up a tree trunk. (They are surrounded by poison ivy; we leave them for the next forager.)
“I just love looking for them,” Tim tells me, and I understand. Ten minutes after we started hiking, I spot a tiny patch of coral mushrooms and feel a thrill rush up my arms.
There is something magical about mushrooms, and I’m not talking about the kinds that make you hallucinate. They create life from death, emerging from the rotting remains of trees and plants, consuming the decay and turning them, quickly, into something new. Some are edible and quite delicious—lion’s mane, morels, oysters and chanterelles are all wild in Ohio. Some live just for a few hours, appearing on ghostly little stalks, then quickly disappearing.
Only about 3 percent of wild mushrooms are poisonous, but I don’t trust myself to forage. And besides, mushrooms are so much more than food, I am learning: They inspire folklore and stories. They’ve been used to heal and in rituals, dating back thousands of years and continuing today. And there’s the way they connect the single tree to the rest of the forest.
Maybe that connection is part of why mushrooms seem to be having a moment right now. “Fantastic Fungi,” a documentary released in 2019, became available for streaming early in the pandemic lockdown through independent theaters, including Columbus’ Studio 35. In May, The New Yorker devoted 2,600 words to a feature about fungi. Life right now feels uncertain, and in-person connections could lead to serious illness or death. What better time to embrace nature’s greatest connectors?
To understand more, I talked with Walt Sturgeon, a longtime amateur mycologist who lives in East Liverpool, Ohio—a small city on the state’s eastern border along the Ohio River. Sturgeon wrote the book on mushroom hunting in this region. Literally. He co-authored “Mushrooms of the Northeast: A Simple Guide to Common Mushrooms” in 2016, then followed up two years later with “Appalachian Mushrooms: A Field Guide.” Both are considered definitive guides for mushroom hunters in the northeast quadrant of the United States. He even has a mushroom named for him: a deadly poisonous mushroom called Amanita sturgeonii—“Sturgeon’s Destroying Angel.”
Sturgeon came to his mushroom fascination the same way Tim did: through his stomach. As a kid growing up in eastern Ohio, he’d head into the hills with his dad each spring and hunt for morels. Morels can be hard to find for a new mushroom hunter like me, but both insist that once you know what you’re looking for, they jump out at you. They taste meaty and nutty, and are, I’m told, delicious sautéed in butter.
And like Tim, Sturgeon’s interest eventually grew away from edible mushrooms and toward the rare and photogenic.
“The pursuit of mushrooms can pull you into a lot of directions: forest ecology, medicine, art,” Sturgeon tells me. “They’re beautiful; there’s all kinds of aesthetics in mushrooms. And then you get into the questions of what are they doing out there in the environment? They aren’t plants. They aren’t animals.”
Mushrooms belong to the fungi kingdom, and another weird thing about them: Their DNA is more similar to the DNA of humans than it is to the DNA of plants.
And they are diverse. Some 2,000 different kinds of mushrooms grow in Ohio, and many mycologists, including Sturgeon, think it’s possible that number is more like 3,000. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the cherry-red pencil-erasers Tim and I saw in May (not edible) to massive chicken-of-the-woods clusters (edible and delicious) that can be as big as a small human.
Some species even glow in the dark. The week before I turned this article in, Jim McCormac, a well-known naturalist and nature photographer who lives in Central Ohio, photographed a mushroom in Washington County with gills that glowed green in the night. The mushroom is commonly called a bitter oyster, and scientists have been aware of it and around 80 other bioluminescent mushroom species for more than 200 years.
I was surprised to learn that mushrooms glow, but I shouldn’t have been. Mushrooms, like so many other parts of our ecosystem, tune in to what is happening around them and work within that system to evolve and survive. A study published in 2017 found that glow-in-the-dark mushrooms in Brazil and Russia gathered the compounds that emit light from other living things that glow, then turned those compounds into light for themselves to draw insects closer. When the bugs investigate the glow, they pick up spores from the mushrooms, spreading them throughout the forest and helping the mushroom species survive.
“Mushrooms are extremely sexual—that’s what they do,” Sturgeon tells me. “And it’s not monogamous. It could be a whole bunch of fungi mating in there and then you end up with the mushroom.”
Sturgeon tells me that, this spring, he had bad luck collecting morels in the wild—“I only found maybe six or seven,” he says. But each year, he rinses the mushrooms at his home, then tosses the water into his yard. And this spring, about 30 morels popped up there, likely from the spores that rinsed off in the water he used to clean his haul.
And then, there is the network, Sturgeon says. The caps and gills we see sprouting from rotting wood or poking from a forest floor are just the iceberg tips to massive organisms that can span hundreds of acres. The largest mushroom in North America—largest known organism in the world, when measured by area—is a fungus called the honey mushroom, discovered in Oregon, that spans more than 3 square miles. The blue whale, the largest animal on earth, weighs around 200 tons. Scientists think this one mushroom in Oregon could weigh as much as 175 blue whales.
Trees and mushrooms both benefit from that network, with nutrients flowing from plant to fungi to plant as needed—a coexisting society that sounds peaceful, even though I know nature is often violent.
“One oak tree will just be doing great, and then 50 yards away there might be another oak tree that is in big trouble, that needs some kind of nutrient,” Sturgeon says. “And the mushrooms need that tree to survive, and so it will play Robin Hood—it will take nutrients from the one that has everything and give those nutrients to the one in need.”
There seems to be a parallel there, maybe a lesson for humans, as we all fumble through a global pandemic. I say so to Sturgeon, and he’s quiet for a moment before answering.
“Mushroom hunting is probably the thing keeping me somewhat sane during this stay-at-home thing. I don’t need this bug, so I’m not going out really other than this,” he says. “And mushroom hunting, it’s like an Easter egg hunt. You get to be outside in the forest, and when you spot something that you haven’t seen, there’s a feeling of just ‘Wow.’”***
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