August 21, 2008

Wachusett Wednesday: Beautiful Beyond Compare

Yesterday's trip to my Wachusett Mountain field site was not only productive, it was perfect. There are few days in the years that I've been foraying that compare to it. It was a clear, cool day, an ideal 60°F when I arrived on site. Mosquitoes and biting flies were nearly absent and I barely broke a sweat. The recent rain and cool temperatures for August have produced a variety and quantity of fungal fruiting bodies that I haven't seen in years; there was such a diversity that I collected perhaps one species out of twenty that I actually saw. Lactarius spp. were particularly prolific, and much of that was the choice edible Lactarius hygrophoroides, although I didn't collect any of that. One would have needed a dump truck to haul off a fraction of that mushroom's bulk. The various Russula species of a couple of weeks ago have nearly vanished now. In their wake, thanks to the unusual weather, have come a number of species that are not often collected on the East Coast if they ever have been before. The coral fungus you'll see below, for example, is normally known only from Idaho westward, but there's nothing else it could be according to every characteristic I observed in the specimen collected. Next to Lactarius spp., the bulk of the fruiting bodies I observed in the field were boletes of various sorts, many of them quite robust and colorful. Tylopilus was particularly profuse.

I also brought back a few polypore specimens that look to have become home to beetles. I'll be opening up the fruiting bodies today to see what lives inside of them. That's interesting in terms of my research, but the photos that follow are of the most interesting and colorful mushrooms I collected, not the comparatively drab polypores.

Special thanks to Manfred Binder for his help with the identification of the boletes. Without his assistance, I'd still be in the lab trying to figure out what collections I was adding to the herbarium. It takes me a half hour to an hour to identify a single bolete; Manfred can do it in about 15 seconds most of the time. I hope he enjoys the Strobilomyces.

This mushroom isn't from Wachusett. Several Tricholomopsis rutilans popped up right in my yard. Commonly known as the plum and custard mushroom, it's distinctive mauve scales on the cap and stip and egg yolk yellow gills (when fresh; this specimen was already a bit dry) make it quite easy to identify. I last collected it in California in 2002; this photo of one of the California specimens better illustrates the color of the gills of a fresh specimen. While it's technically edible, I don't care for it. As I recall, the flavor is bland verging on bitter. Still, finding this growing literally in my own backyard was a nice surprise.
Coprinus micaceus is a common species, usually found fruiting in large clusters around decaying wood, as shown in these photos. The surface of the cap is usually covered in metallic gray flecks; you can just make them out in the second image. Rain will tend to wash those off, though. Some references list this as edible, others say its edibility is unknown. I've never tried it myself. While few Coprinus species are poisonous, some contain a chemical that can react with ethyl alcohol in the digestive system to cause very nasty illness, bad enough that in the past they were used as a sort of medicine to dissuade alcoholics from drinking. It's thus a good idea to avoid mixing Coprinus with alcohol.
One of the most distinguishing traits of Coprinus spp. is their tendency to digest their own fruiting bodies. In this image, you can see that process beginning. The gills, which are already black with spores, are the first to go. The cap margin soon turns black and gooey as well, and before long the whole mushroom decays into a mass of black goop. The ink used to write the US Constitution was made from that unpleasant-looking mess.

Again, this Coprinus micaceus specimen was found in my backyard; I didn't see any at Wachusett.
One last mushroom from my backyard. This is Inocybe lacera, and despite its rather nondescript appearance it's easy to distinguish from the seemingly endless parade of little brown Inocybes. Most of them have angular or nodulose spores; it's practically a signature of the genus. I. lacera, on the other hand, has spores shaped somewhere between a sausage and an egg. It also doesn't have a particularly strong scent, whereas many of its kin have quite distinct and often disagreeable odors. This makes I. lacera arguably the drabbest among the drab when it comes to little brown mushrooms. I suppose that's a sort of distinction. Most likely toxic, I doubt most people would even notice the thing growing among the pine needles in which it is typically found, let alone try eating the thing.
While the unusual-looking Orisalum mikeum has previously been collected from Florida, California, Pennsylvania and New York in past years, it has most recently been sited only in Massachusetts and briefly near the Penn State campus as well. As far as is known, it is a saprobe despite it's misleading name. While rare, it can be found in nearly any habitat and is as common under hardwoods as it is under conifers. It definitely appreciates cool, sunny days, beer and lobster.

The spore dispersal mechanism employed by Orisalum mikeum has been the subject of much speculation in the past, but authorities have since agreed that some things are better left unexamined. This species renders itself inedible by sequestering nicotine from its substrate. Do not attempt to eat.
My first collection at Wachusett was Tylopilus indecisus, and it also turned out to be one of the more run-of-the-mill Tylopilus species present, though it certainly was widespread enough. There are a number of similar looking species and it takes a bit of investigation to narrow it down to this one. The stipe lacks reticulation and turns dark brown in age, while the pores turn pink and bruise light brown. When cut open, the staining reaction is very slow and culminated eventually in a pink tone after about ten minutes. Applying FeSO4 to the cap context also results in a slow staining reaction that starts off a light gray and eventually turns blue after several minutes. Otherwise, T. indecisus is readily confused with any number of brown members of the genus, which is probably the reason it's called the indecisive Tylopilus in the first place.
Hydnum repandum is sometimes known as the sweet tooth, and that should tell you all you need to know about its edibility. It's quite tasty and safe to try; there are no truly toxic fungi that are likely to be confused with this one, just some bitter ones. I've collected it several times in the past. At Wachusett, I've only found pure white specimens of var. album; I've found ones with the characteristic dark scales in the past, particularly in the spring in California. If you look carefully, you can see that there are orange stains on the fruiting body in the second photo that weren't there in the first. That's a characteristic bruising reaction for this species; the slightest touch of human skin causes that discoloration. I've also noticed that the local variety has shorter teeth than those found on the West Coast. The latter have teeth that can sometimes be as long as 4 mm, but those around Wachusett have teeth that don't exceed 2 mm.
The appearance of the beautifully colored, slimy to sticky Cortinarius iodes is a sure sign that autumn is on its way to the northeast. I collected this species many times in Florida where it is the most prevalent winter mushroom at least as far south as Tampa. Definitely not edible and likely toxic. Most purple things aren't good to eat.
Speaking of things that aren't edible, here's Entoloma griseum. This is one that can kill you. When cut or crushed, these specimens gave off an almost eye watering bleach aroma, and that ought to be a warning sign for anybody with the IQ of a sand flea that it shouldn't go into one's mouth. The flesh of this fungus is crisp and somewhat fragile and the stipe is filled with stringy pith but has a hollow pocket running up the center.
Much more colorful than the above Entoloma but probably just as toxic, this cheerful-hued mushroom is Nolanea salmoneum. I've never seen it before, but it was prolific under hemlock at Wachusett yesterday. Normally, this mushroom is found in marshy areas such as cedar swamps, but I guess all the rain we've had this month has allowed it to explore some new terrain lately. Nolanea is a genus recently split from Entoloma; one of the distinguishing traits of the genus is the production of cubical spores, which makes them very easy to measure. Those from specimens of N. salmoneum I collected yesterday measured a neat 9 microns per side. This image shows a very mature specimen; younger ones are even more acutely conical and often have a little pointy bit sticking up from the apex. It might well be confused with a Conocybe or Lepoiota at first, but a quick look at the spores under a microscope soon reveal its true identity.
When I first noticed this specimen of Tylopilus felleus better known as the bitter bolete, I was surprised to see it growing high on an old hemlock stump. Tylopilus is an entirely mycorrhizal genus, not a wood rotter. Manfred tells me, however, that this species has learned the trick of growing on conifer stumps that have already decomposed enough to permit young roots from other plants to penetrate them; the fungus then forms an association with those rootlets. You can see some of these in the photo if you look careful at the left side. T. felleus looks a good bit like T. indecisus, above, but the brown reticulation over the top quarter of the stipe is distinctive. As its common name implies, T. felleus is far too bitter to be edible.
Otidea leporina, the rabbit ear fungus, is an ascomycete among the Pezizamycota, related to things like tree ears and elf saddles. These specimens were blowing off visible clouds of spores at the slightest provocation. Identifying things like this can be tricky and absolutely requires microscopic examination. While its edibility is not known, O. leporina very likely contains the nasty toxin N-methyl-N-formylhydrazone. Kinda cute, though.
There's little chance of mistaking Boletus frostii for anything else. This is one of the most colorful of the boletes, and the combination of crimson pores and a red stipe with yellow reticulation make it stand out from its peers. The pores readily bruise black when handled. B. frostii is edible though not particularly good and some people have trouble digesting it; it's probably best avoided unless one is certain of one's stomach's cast iron composition. Still, you can't beat this mushroom for sheer color and overall esthetics. On that front, I'll give it a 10.
B. frostii is all about red. This mushroom, Retiboletus ornatipes, is all about yellow. It's not quite as pretty as B. frostii in my opinion, but it is reputed to be a very good edible and it was fruiting by the hundreds in a particular area of Wachusett dominated by beech with a little birch as well. I soon gathered a paper bag full of these for the herbarium and there are enough that I don't think anyone will miss them when I pilfer a few to try eating as I have never done so before. I'm generally a bit circumspect about eating boletes (the only time I've ever poisoned myself was with a small bolete), but Manfred identified this one, so I'm willing to give it a go.
I have no idea what this fungus is doing in Massachusetts, but every single morphological character it possesses indicates that it's Ramaria magnipes, a species normally found from Idaho to the Pacific Northwest under trees like vine maple that aren't even present at Wachusett. This one was collected under mixed beech and maple. It's quite distinctive in many ways; the number of terminal branches is highly variable and each branch ends with what looks like the surface of a molar. The arms are quite short and the base is deeply rooting and tapers to a sharp point. From the clamps on its basidia to its chemical reactions, no other species fills the bill. Ironically, "magnipes" means "big feet," a reference to its unusually bulky base. I assure you, however, that this particular bigfoot is not a rubber Halloween costume.
We've had red and yellow, so I'll end with purple. This beautiful specimen is Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus, the purple bitter bolete. Like most purple things, it's as distasteful as its name implies. It may be hard to judge the scale of this mushroom from the photos; the larger specimen is over a foot tall and has a cap about six inches wide. This is the first time I've collected it and by the time I found it I had no room for anymore specimens. Polypores can take up a lot of space in one's backpack. Like all of the other collections made yesterday, this one will be deposited into the university herbarium for future study.

I should note that even with Manfred's help on the boletes, I spent over seven hours identifying the fungi whose photos you've just seen in addition to the five or six hours spent collecting them and the two hours spent composing this update. I hope the effort proves enjoyable and useful to my readers.
A final note: I saw absolutely no evidence of the presence of any Asian longhorned beetles at my study site yesterday. If you're in Massachusetts, particularly within 50 miles of Worcester, please keep your eyes open and report evidence of the invasive insect's presence in your area. You can learn more about how to spot the Asian longhorned beetle at the Massachusetts Introduced Pests Outreach Blog. If you see the beetle or damage you suspect was caused by it, please take pictures and file a report at this link or call the MIPO hotline at 617-626-1779.

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