Wild Ideas: ’Shroom bloom boom and bust  

With all the rain this summer, I figured we should have a good crop of mushrooms this fall. But, in continually checking the forest around my house, on Oventop Mountain, I was coming up empty. I started to think maybe even these damp-loving organisms could have gotten too much rain.

Mushrooms are the external fruiting bodies — the blooms — of fungi, carrying the spores for reproduction. Many fungi reside mostly underground, in a symbiotic relationship with a plant’s roots, with only their seasonal blooms showing above ground. Other fungi may feed aboveground on rotting wood or have other hosts.

To try to sort out the various mushroom species, I often turn to two excellent references. One is William C. Woody’s “Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians,” a thick printed guide loaded with photos and great information for mushrooms in our area. The other is Michael Cuo’s website MushroomExpert.com, which has writeups and photos of each species, along with a glossary and key to ID.

I hunt mushrooms to admire and photograph them rather than to eat them. Even if I think I have the ID right, I would never eat any mushroom unless I see an expert eat one of the same species first — a practice I highly recommend to other novice ’shroom hunters.

During a dry stretch at the end of September, I finally found a variety of different fungi blooming in two spots: the forest edge around one of the ponds at the base of the mountain, and a patch of forest up the mountain. The pond is surrounded by mixed deciduous forest, including walnut and hickory trees, and the its edge is filled with moss, dead leaves, rotting nutshells and other detritus. The patch up the mountain is relatively damp and has rich soil and lots of rotting logs and stumps.

After I found a bunch of other species up and down the mountain, I emailed an SOS for ID help, including a link to a slideshow of the ’shrooms that I’d put together. Harry Puffenberger, who is an avid amateur mycologist and Virginia Master Naturalist from Spotsylvania County who gave a talk on local mushrooms at an Old Rag Master Naturalists meeting and led a chapter ’shroom walk I attended, responded with some IDs.

While last fall I found some giant puffballs at my place and nearby along the Thornton River Trail, my fungus finds this fall have mostly been just a few inches tall at most, with most caps less than one inch in diameter. I was sure about the identity of only one species: a white worm coral mushroom (Clavaria fragilis), which sometimes pops up in the lawn around my house and was growing near the pond. It looks like a bunch of white worms or bean sprouts sticking up out of the ground.

Nearby I also found a cluster of another distinctive mushroom that is about three inches tall with a thick stalk, white-and-tan cap and purplish gills. In looking through my guides, I was pretty sure it was the purple-gilled laccaria (Laccaria ochropurpurea), which Harry confirmed.

Other mushrooms around the pond included a small white one (about 1.5 inches tall) with a mildly pleated cap. After checking my references, I thought it might be a walnut mycena (Mycena luteopallens). This species grows on decomposing remains of walnut shells, which are plentiful down there. Harry agreed on the genus but wasn’t sure about the species.

When I went back down to check more ID points, this one was gone, but an even tinier mushroom that looked similar was growing nearby. Scattered around in the forest edge were also clusters of a tiny beige or brown mushrooms with white margins. I thought it might be a coral, club or cauliflower mushroom, all named for their shapes. Harry identified them as species in the Thelephora genus, which is related to coral mushrooms. In the same area was a beautiful mushroom about the same size as the first white one but with a waxy, golden stem and mildly pleated cap. As Harry confirmed, it was a golden waxy cap (Hygrocybe flavescens).

On the dam side of the pond, among the leaf litter, I found two tiny but spectacularly colored red mushrooms with yellow stems. One’s cap was tiny (about a quarter inch) and fuzzy, looking like a gumdrop. The other’s cap was smooth, with yellow streaks, and had spread out into the umbrella shape popularly associated with mushrooms. Harry thought it was another waxy cap but wasn’t sure of the species.

Up in the forest edge behind my house, I found some lovely little white mushrooms growing from a rotting stump in the forest edge around my yard. They had gills and delicate caps, some of which were ragged along the margin. Harry identified them as tufted collybia (Gymnopus confluens).

Lovely, delicate tufted collybia cover a rotted stump. By Pam Owen

Further up the mountain, I didn’t find a lot of mushrooms in the places I usually find them, but on Oct. 7, I decided to bushwhack to the spot where I’d stumbled onto a mushroom patch early last spring. Climbing over logs and through thorny thickets, I found a variety of interesting mushrooms on the ground and on rotted logs and stumps. Like almost all the mushrooms I found this fall, most were tiny.

In this patch was what appeared to be mushrooms with spongy white caps on top of rusty-colored, bark-like stems. Harry determined these to be two mushrooms: a Hyphomycetes species (anamorphic fungi lacking a closed fruiting body) growing on top of another unidentified fungus. Also up the mountain were mushrooms that Harry confirmed were yellow blushers (Amanita flavorubescens), along with more tufted collybia, fungi in the genera Thelephora and Mycena, and one mushroom that may be in the Russula genus.

Within a few days, most of the mushrooms around the pond disappeared, and I haven’t fought my way up to the mountain patch to see what may be left up there. With the recent cold weather, this year’s show, which boomed briefly, is now probably over. See the updated slideshow below. I welcome more help with ID.

© 2018 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 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.”


  1. Pam, Thank you for this interesting article. Although I love to eat mushrooms, I like your idea of photographing them the wild. They are a wonder to behold as your slide show illustrates. I have found some very colorful specimens during this wet weather.

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