Wild Ideas: Cool, damp weather brings ’shroom bloom 

Although you can find mushrooms pretty much year round in our area, especially in shady forests, spring and fall are the prime times for ’shrooming because of the usually cool, damp weather.

This summer has been cooler and damper than usual, even in the usually boiling July, so lots of mushrooms have been popping up, if sporadically. If the weather holds, this year’s fall crop may rival 2011’s, when the number and variety blooming in the Piedmont and Blue Ridge of Virginia were truly amazing.

This hemlock varnish shelf mushroom, photographed along the Limberlost trail in Shenandoah National Park in May, is big and bold, thus easy to identify.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
This hemlock varnish shelf mushroom, photographed along the Limberlost trail in Shenandoah National Park in May, is big and bold, thus easy to identify.

I love fungi, but of all the organisms in nature, they are among the hardest for me to sort out. Many can only be accurately identified through their tiny spores, which are usually collected by wrapping a paper funnel-shaped collar underneath the mushroom cap and gently tapping the ’shroom to dislodge them. They’re so small that a magnifying glass or microscope is usually still needed to determine their size, shape and color.

It takes patience and dedication to correctly identify mushroom species. Getting it wrong can be dangerous, even lethal, for anyone who likes to consume their fungus finds. When I find a mushroom I like, I usually photograph it and then browse through the best printed guide I know of for mycology for our area, “Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians,” by William C. Roody, a biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Wildlife Diversity Program. About half is available to view online for free through Google Books, but the book is not expensive and well worth purchasing.

To look for more photos and take advantage of interactive keys that are now available, I usually go online to Rogers Mushrooms. It has a visual key along with an easy, text-based key, and descriptions of 1,660 species of fungi located across Europe and North America.

Compiled by mycologist Roger Phillips and colleagues, it also has a glossary, lots of other useful info about fungi and an international chat room so shroomers can compare notes and get further help with ID. This site has only one photo for each species in the visual key, although often that photo features several specimens or parts of the mushroom, as does the photo for each species in the Roody guide.

“Pro” and “Lite” versions of a smart-phone app for Rogers Mushrooms are also available. I haven’t used them yet, but from the screenshots, they look suitable for mushroom newbies. You’ll still have to be able to convert inches to centimeters for size, but there are several apps and websites for that, too.

I found the text-based key worked pretty well in the web version, offering a simple series of multiple choices for most descriptors and also an option to put in keywords. Texture and smell options are included in the key under “flesh,” but I skipped over those, since I didn’t entirely understand them. (This mushroom had spongy flesh and a mild, normal shroomy smell to me.)

What appears to be a large oyster mushroom is growing on the stump of a tulip tree.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
What appears to be a large oyster mushroom is growing on the stump of a tulip tree.

The interactive key returned what appears to be the correct species quickly — oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus), although Roody describes this ’shroom as having a “pleasant, anise-like” smell, and I didn’t get any hint of anise. He also describes it as being “tender,” with a “mild” taste, but I’ll take his word for that.

The oyster is actually a common, highly edible mushroom, available in most grocery stores, but I wanted to make sure of the ID, even though I have no intention of eating it. As always, I strongly encourage anyone who has not carefully studied mycology to find an expert to help with identification before consuming any fungi found in the wild  — and even then, wait for him or her to eat it first.

With no expert handy, I’ll settle for admiring this mushroom’s lovely form. Good thing I’m not wildly enthusiastic about eating mushrooms, although I do enjoy them from time to time if they’re nicely prepared.

Whatever guide you use, familiarity with mushroom nomenclature — pileus (cap), lamellae (the papery ribs, more typically called “gills,” under the cap of some mushrooms), stipe (stem), etc. — is pretty much a necessity. No mycophile (‘shroom fan), I’m still working on this. I also haven’t gotten to the point of checking spore samples of a specimen, but I’m getting there.

I have some less-obvious species to ID, including some lovely little delicate, grayish mushrooms that keep popping up out of a decaying fiber doormat at the bottom of my porch steps. Unfortunately, they keep disappearing as soon as the sun comes out and the heat goes up, so I haven’t done more than grab a few shots from above and check for gills.

I put the little information I had about this little mushroom into the Rogers Mushrooms key — size, color, shape and substrate (material on which they were growing), which brought up 10 possible species, most in the Mycena genus. The one that looked closest, M. uracea, is found mostly in Europe and “maybe North America,” according to the site.

Cool, damp weather this summer has triggered recurring blooms of these small, delicate, as-yet-unidentified mushrooms growing on a decaying doormat.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Cool, damp weather this summer has triggered recurring blooms of these small, delicate, as-yet-unidentified mushrooms growing on a decaying doormat.

It’s not in the Roody guide, but in looking at other species on the Mycena genus, I’m thinking it’s the purple radish (M. pura), a really common species here. As the name implies, it tends to be more purple, but my little guys do have a slight lilac hue, which is within the color range for the purple radish. If only I’d smelled it. The “radish” part of its name applies to its distinctive smell. Next time these mushrooms emerge, I’ll take a whiff and collect spores.

Working out the terminology in the Rogers Mushrooms key is a bit tricky for a neophyte like me, but I find the best way to get the hang of keys is to pick a species whose ID is known and basically work backwards, putting in only the really obvious identification points and seeing if the species comes up, and how it is described in the relation to the key terminology.

To check the Rogers Mushroom key, I put in only the most obvious details from a photo of a hemlock varnish shelf mushroom (Ganoderma tsugae), a mushroom that is hard to ID incorrectly. With the sparse data I put in, 22 possibilities came up, including G. tsugae. I’ll keep doing this for the few mushrooms I’ve confirmed and eventually, I hope, become adept at picking the appropriate descriptors in the key.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 286 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”