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Corals, Tongues, and Jellies

by MCHT Land Steward Kirk Gentalen

Typically, September rains yield many “regular” mushroom species. But, this year, the rains came early—August!—and it didn’t rain very much in September like it has the past two years.

Don’t worry: the mycorrhizal fungi that produce many of the “traditional” mushrooms are surely doing well, still living in the ground and enjoying (anthropomorphism) the sugars of their symbiotic relationships with neighboring trees. For whatever reasons this fall did not provide the right conditions for them (the “fungal” them) to pump out their spore dispersing apparatus (mushrooms for those not really paying attention). We’re sad to say that, yes, the King Bolete was among the many affected species.

Spindle-shaped yellow coral

To be clear, though, we are not saying that the fall 2019 Midcoast Maine mushroom scene was a dud. Just a little different. The early rains inspired blooms that were underrepresented over the last few years.

On one two-mile hike, my family counted over 30 Destroying Angels (Amanita virosa)—way more than we’ve come to expect on a simple stroll. “I thought coral was only found in the ocean,” is an actual quote, and it is a good one. There is, however, a group of mushrooms (the Coral Mushrooms—family Clavariaceae) whose fruiting bodies have adapted over the eons to resemble that of some oceanic corals. They are a group of many colors, but their fruiting bodies remain coral-ish, and they had a bomber fall for sure!

Whites and tans are common colors in the coral family, and the bright whites of Clustered Coral (Ramaria botrytis) and White Coral (Ramariopsis kunzei) seemed to line every trail and path. Violet-branched Coral (Clavulina amethystine) added some nice shades of purple in the woods as well. I can go years without seeing the C. amethystine. It’s a special year to see multiples. What a treat!

Orange jelly

My favorite frequently spotted coral (I will play favorites until the end!) this fall has been the Spindle-shaped Yellow Coral (Clavulinopsis fusiformis). Stretching from August into early October, clumps of the spindle-shaped coral lit up the forest with a yellow like no other. It was a pleasant arrangement; so wonderful to find!

Towards the end of October, things changed and Irregular Earth Tongues (Neolecta irregularis) had taken over. Earth Tongues (Family Helotiales) are sometimes thought of as coral mushroom wannabes, but these tongues are cool, oddly clubbed-shaped (judgment), and tend to be less clumpy than coral mushroom species.

Irregular earth tongue

Earth Tongues also happen to be representatives of the large mushroom group Ascomycetes. The kingdom of Fungi is divided into two groups: the Ascomycetes (subdivision Ascomycotina) and Basidiomycetes (subdivision Basidomycotina)—and the difference is in the development of spores. Ascomycete spores develop in round, sac-like microscopic structures called “asci.” Basidiomycete spores develop on “appendages protruding from variously designed (usually club-shaped) microscopic structures known as basidia.” Neat, huh? Anyway, the mushroom photos and discussion often focus on Basidiomycetes—nice to get some Ascomycetes in the mix!

Another group of Ascomycetes mushrooms representing and adding color in the woods has been the Jelly Clubs, also known as Jelly Babies. Both local flavors—Yellow Headed (Leotia lubrica) and Green-headed (Leotia viscosa)—have been doing their things and adding more fall colors. What a nice alternative to looking at leaves!

Green-headed jelly baby

My favorite fall color is probably orange, though, and there is no better orange than the Orange Jelly (Dacrymyces palmatus). These jellies are actually Basidiomycete mushrooms and the Orange Jelly variety holds a special place in my mushroom history. There are no poisonous jelly mushrooms, and the orange jelly mushroom itself is tasteless and made up of something like 95% water, so they are safe to eat.

They also happen to grow everywhere, and I have had the pleasure of eating this mushroom with thousands of kids all over the country. Since that impressive nor-easter a couple of weeks back, the orange jelly seems to be lighting up the woods and, needless to say, we’ve been poppin’ them in our mouths as well!

Oranges, yellows, greens, and purples: these are just some of the colors that make each fall in New England so special. Only time will tell if ’shroom-peeping takes the place of leaf-peeping.

See you out there!


A version of this story originally appeared in the St. George Dragon.

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