June 25, 2008

Wachusett Fungal Diversity: The Colors Are Coming

Today's exploration of my study site was good and bad. The good news is that there are lots of fungi fruiting now and the colors, as you'll see, are vibrant, even flamboyant. Reds, yellows and oranges are beginning to dot the forest floor. Yesterday's rain has certainly brought out the mushrooms. I didn't even bother with the numerous Suillus today. While some were nearly as large as dinner plates they were already well-munched by various insects and they're unmanageably slimy things, anyhow. Some people — including one of my lablings — eat them, but my one attempt resulted in something far too bland and of too unpleasant a texture to bother with ever again. Slugs certainly seem to like them, though.

Here's a sampling of what resulted from today's investigation. All specimens have been preserved and added to the university herbarium for future research.

The first Amanita I've found this season, Amanita flavorubescens. As you'll note from the photos, the partial veil was still mostly intact on this specimen which is why you can't see the gills. Like other Amanita species, this one hatches from an "egg" enclosed in a universal veil, the remnants of which are the bits that look like warts on the cap. The bottom of the stipe bruises easily, turning a wine-red color. The spores of this species also turn blue in iodine solution. Also like most Amanita species, this one is toxic. I don't know if it's lethally toxic or if it'll only make the consumer violently ill for a couple of days. I don't suggest experimenting.
When I first noticed this brilliantly yellow little mushroom I thought it was a Hygrocybe of some sort, but it isn't. This is Cyptotrama asprata, and as far as I've found it's the only member of its genus that grows in North America. It also grows everywhere from Hawaii to Costa Rica. Specimens that grow in the tropics have pyramidal warts that make the pileus, and to some extent the stipe, look rather spiky. It appears that the warts are reduced to a mere scurf on those from temperate climes, though frankly I wonder whether the tropical and temperate populations might be different varieties, subspecies or even species. The scurf on cap and stipe, complete dryness, and a furrow-like stricture that runs around the margin of the cap help distinguish this mushroom from Hygrocybe as does its habit of growing on fallen wood; the majority of Hygrocybe and Hygrophorus species are terrestrial. Unfortunately the first photo came out a bit over-exposed, so it's hard to see the texture of the cap. You'll have to take my word on this one.
I can describe Megacollybia platyphylla with three words: big, bland and ubiquitous. It grows on or near dead wood and it is everywhere right now. I had to have seen at least thirty of these mushrooms today. They're technically edible, though many people have problems digesting them and they must be very thoroughly cooked. The lamellae (gills) are loaded with cystidia; it seems a decent enough rule of thumb that mushrooms with lots of cystidia are likely to cause indigestion. This is one of two mushrooms that, honestly, I'm sick of seeing, the other being Pluteus cervinus which is currently intent on giving Megacollybia a run for its money.
I include these two photos as an example of how much a mushroom can change over the course of its existence. One would probably never guess that this little button would grow up to become a full-sized Megacollybia, but that's exactly what it will do (or would have had it not been dried for herbarium storage). When I saw it growing from a pile of logs I had no inkling of its identity. It wasn't until microscopic examination that I realized what I had. The numerous cystidia are a dead giveaway. OK, enough of Megacollybia for today. How about something more colorful?
How's that for color? These tiny buttons are an early stage in the fruiting of Hygrophorus coccineus, commonly known as the scarlet waxy cap. These specimens are only a couple of millimeters across; they'll get a good deal larger when mature. They're a very common mushroom in the wetter, hemlock-dominated areas of Wachusett and share their domain with the very similar Hygrocybe punicea. The easiest way to distinguish the two in the field is to look at the lower part of the stipe. In H. coccineus, the stipe is orange right to the base most of the time (although there might be some white mycelium, so carefully scrape away the fuzz). H. punicea generally turns white at the base, even when the mycelium is removed. H. punicea is also quite large when mature, but one could easily find a small or immature specimen. I don't suppose most of you reading this will ever have a burning need to distinguish the two.
Another rather colorful mushroom, this a bolete-like species, is Tylopilus chromapes, sometimes known as the yellow-footed bolete. The genus Tylopilus is not monophyletic, and this species falls into a clade that is closer to Leccinum, though it isn't that genus either. Molecular analysis suggests that this and some other Tylopilus species may need a new genus name. This was all explained to me today by the same guy who wants to eat Suillus. Whatever the case may be, it's not often that one sees an organism other than a tropical bird that combines mauve and chromium yellow as these fungi do. I've found these in Florida as well, but the ones there were a good deal smaller than these specimens as I recall.
The above is the good news. The bad news is that I came home without a single new polypore specimen today despite three hours in the field. That was a bit discouraging; it's a good thing I had all these bright colors to cheer me up.

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