Fall is an unpredictable time of year. Cool mornings may blossom into warm afternoons, sometimes with unexpected showers. After a rain, mushrooms can, well, mushroom up. They seem to appear like magic, quickly pushing up through leaves, the stalk elongating and the cap expanding like an umbrella.
Mushrooms are the most familiar type of fungus. While ordinary citizens broadly divide the world into plants and animals, scientists say that fungi are different enough from plants, animals and other micro-beings to have their own taxonomic kingdom.
Fungi do not produce their own food, often relying on dead and dying things for nutrients. They are very important as decomposers and nutrient cyclers. Fungi can form life-giving symbiotic relationships with trees and other plants, allowing them to absorb carbon dioxide more quickly, and slowing climate change. Fungi serve as a source of food for many creatures. Deer, squirrels, turtles and even slugs will eat mushrooms.
Mushrooms are the reproductive body and most visible part of the life cycle of a network of thread-like strands (mycelium) which is usually concealed underground in other substrates. Mushrooms or toadstools appear quickly but last only a few days. They exist to release the reproductive spores, similar to the way flowers produce seeds.
Some mushrooms are edible and delicious — Chicken of the Woods or the celebrated Morel — while others are deadly if eaten. They can have fascinating common names: elegant stinkhorn, giant puffball, Destroying Angel and Devil’s Fingers. They come in many colors from the common white or tan to bright red, blue or even purple. Mushroom lovers such as the Long Island Mycological Club hold forays to teach about these fascinating organisms.
Although highly weather dependent, late summer and fall are prime time for mushrooms. After the next rain, take a look around and see what mushrooms you can find: fairy rings or toadstools might just be waiting in the corner of your yard to surprise you.