Wild Ideas: Rain brings inky ’shrooms  

The continuing heavy rain seems to have made the whole world outside damp, smelly, slimy and dark. But some organisms, undaunted by the rain, go about the business of reproduction, including a few mushrooms.

Mushrooms are the spore-producing structures of some fungi that bloom above ground, while the bulk of fungus body is underground and can be quite extensive. A species of honey mushroom, Armillaria ostoyae, is among the world’s largest living organisms. One specimen, dubbed “Humongous Fungus,” has been spreading its black, shoestring filaments (rhizomorphs) through Malheur National Forest, in eastern Oregon, for an estimated 2,400 years, killing trees as it grows. It now covers 3.4 square miles (2,200 acres) acres and weighs an estimated 200 tons.

Most mushrooms need damp, moderate weather to bloom, which typically comes in spring and fall here in Virginia. Morel expert Tim Geho wrote an extensive article on the this holy grail of local ’shroom hunters, “Morels and Where to Find Them”, in which he takes a deep dive morel requirements for blooming, some of which is not thoroughly understood. “Moisture is a key determinant of morel growth just as it is with other mushrooms,” he says. “Rainfall, including the preceding year, the months leading up to, and during morel season have a major impact on fruiting of morels.”

With the drought that started at the end of last summer and continued into early spring, I saw few mushrooms blooming in the usual places last fall. When I ran across a few jelly mushrooms blooming on rotting wood in February, during unseasonably warm but dry weather, I had hoped for a better mushroom bloom this spring.

But the dry weather continued into early spring. Small shelf or bracket fungi (polypores) have been blooming on rotting wood here and there. I even found a some tiny ones (less than an inch) growing on one exterior wall of my house. But few mushrooms have been popping up out of the ground.

A tiny (less than one inch) shelf mushroom found growing on the side of a house. By Pam Owen

Then the rains came, continuing as I’m writing this (June 4). Would this finally mean mushrooms would start blooming? A few did respond, but I’ve heard from ’shroom hunters that mushrooms have been scarce since last fall, including morels. Perhaps the rain came too late for many.

Although early-spring bloomers may have been daunted by the unusually cold, dry weather this year, by May, when morels usually bloom, the temperatures should have sufficed. Although morel requirements have not been nailed down, according to Geho, this species seems to need a consistent soil temperature of about 53 degrees; a week of nighttime temperatures in the 50s should get them blooming.

While the lingering drought appears more the culprit to the low mushroom crop since fall, that doesn’t mean the fungus bodies have perished. With the bulk of many fungi remaining underground, they are somewhat protected from drought.

At my house, one host of several species of mushrooms, the remains of a tuliptree stump, seems to have kept their underground bodies alive. The stump was in the yard between my landlords’ house and mine, but between insects and fungi feeding on it, it was being recycled pretty quickly since the tree was cut down several years ago. As it rotted, this stump hosted several species of mushroom, including oyster mushrooms, which are good for eating, and ink caps, which grew nearby, apparently feeding on the stump’s roots.

While the recent heavy rains be annoying to us humans, these ink cap mushrooms seem to enjoy it. By Pam Owen

Eventually, the stump became the target of pileated woodpeckers, which all but destroyed it in pursuit of the insects inside. Then my landlords turned what little remained of the stump into the center of a fire ring for burning yard debris. But the ink caps and a few other mushrooms still bloom near or in the ring, feeding on what is still left of the tree belowground.

Ink caps, or inky caps, are Coprinoid mushrooms, of the genera CoprinusCoprinellus, or Coprinopsis. While the caps vary somewhat in shape and color, the gills under them, and the margins of the tops in some species, are dark, from gray to purple to black, the whole mushroom darkening as it matures. More than one species of ink cap blooms in the yard, but in the past few weeks the steady rains must have triggered the spores of one new to me that popped up at the edge of the fire ring.

In checking my favorite ’shroom book, “Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians,” I thought it might be scaly ink cap (Coprinus variegatus). I should have checked for gills and spores under the cap to be sure. Often the spores are what will clinch the ID of a mushroom species. But the mushrooms just looked too lovely to disturb . . . and then they were gone, turned into a black puddle of inky mush.

When the spores of ink caps are ready to disperse, the caps liquify, producing the “ink,” explains Michael Cuo, who hosts the wonderful ’shroom website, MushroomExpert.com. While the liquid can be used as ink, this liquefaction is more to help with reproduction, he adds:

“Liquefying the gills is a clever strategy for dispersing spores more efficiently. The gills liquefy from the bottom up as the spores mature. Thus the cap peels up and away, and the maturing spores are always kept in the best position for catching wind currents. As this happens, the shape of the cap progresses from more or less oval (when seen from the side) to broadly bell-shaped and, eventually, more or less flat as the spores nearest to the stem are exposed to the air currents.”

Not sure about the species of ink cap, I posted photos of it to the Facebook group Virginia Mushroom Hunters (formerly Central Virginia Mushroom Hunters). Within minutes, I got two replies that concurred on the species. Being right about a mushroom ID is almost as big a miracle as having these lovely ’shrooms still recycling nutrients from a tree that’s now just a charred patch above ground.

© 2018 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 338 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.”