Ecology of Mushrooms

Fred C. Feitler
Scarlet Elf Cup
Scarlet Elf Cup

Mushrooms play an important role by breaking down plant and animal material which is then reused by other plants and animals. Because mushrooms can’t produce their own energy to grow, they always live in reciprocal relationship with other organisms: As mushrooms get energy from plants, they, in turn, provide nutrients the plants themselves are unable to produce sufficiently.

There are three kinds of mushrooms, classified according to their relationships with plants:

  • Saprophytes clean up—they’re the garbage collectors among mushrooms. They clean up by degrading dead organic material such as wood, leaves, needles, feathers, hooves. They include puffballs.

  • Parasites are the murderers—they grow on living trees and other plants (often those sick or weakened), extracting their nutrients but giving nothing in return

  • Mycorrihiza mushrooms work together with their host, providing minerals and essential elements to the plant and receiving sugars and nutrients from the tree. Both plant/tree and mushroom profit. The milky Lactarius quietus is always found under oak trees, and Lactarius blendus is always found under beech.

Location is not a reliable way to find mushrooms from year to year. Mushrooms that appear in one spot may not reappear in the same location for many years. Never go onto private land without the landowner’s permission.

Four varieties of edible mushrooms provide early-spring to late-fall opportunities for searching:

  1. Morel, Morchella crassipes, is larger than the early Morel, Verpa bohemica, and the grey or black Morel, Morchella conica.

  2. The late summer Chanterelle, Cantharellus aurantiacus, or Orange Chanterelle, less than two inches tall, is used in cooking and can be dehydrated for later use.

  3. Hen of the Woods by Heather Baker
    Hen of the Woods (Heather Baker)

  4. Oyster Mushrooms, one of the most common edible mushrooms, are often found as isolated specimens in large clumps on fallen tree trunks, especially dead maples. The variety Pleurotus ostreatus, persisting through summer until after frost, become moist and unusable if allowed to turn yellow after harvesting.

  5. Hen of the Woods, Grifolia frondosus (in some field guides, the same species as Polyporus fronosus) is a local, late fall edible mushroom found at the base of the white oak. It looks likes a chicken crouched on the ground, made of mushroom material and can weigh more than 40 pounds.

WARNING: Not all mushrooms are edible. Some are distasteful, some poisonous. Use more than one field guide for identification (two are listed in More to Explore). Eat only mushrooms known to be edible. Be absolutely certain!

Two common, INEDIBLE mushrooms:.

  1. Scarlet Elf Cup, Sarcoscypha coccinea, is one of the first mushrooms of spring, inedible but eye-catching. A true harbinger of spring growing close to the ground, it is often attached to a root or piece of dead wood, in leaves, or even peeking through melting snow. In an otherwise bleak early spring landscape, Scarlet Elf Cup’s distinctive color makes it easy to spot (see picture in The Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide, Plate 3, p. 29).

  2. Dead Man’s Fingers, Xylaria polymorpha, also inedible, is identified in its unusual name. Its 1 to 5 inch tall erect “fingers” are attached to a piece of dead wood. Immature specimens are off white; mature specimens are dark brown or black. The Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms, Plate 1, shows both this variety and the inedible Scarlet Elf Cup.

More to Explore

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