Popping up like mushrooms

Monday was a gray and damp day, with thick fog and misty drizzle in the morning. For the first time in a week, it was cool enough for the dog and me to walk to the Place of Pines and back. Few dog-walkers were out because of the threat of rain, and it was too cool for bugs.

Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) fruit forming

There’s a solitary American wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) I see blooming every year near where the trail forks toward Puritan Road, just past Beethoven Street. Right now, this shrub is done flowering and is forming green fruit that will in time ripen to red and burst. I stopped to take photos of these fruit in formation, but it was difficult given the paleness of the hanging globes and the lack of a contrasting background.

Solitary ghost pipe

I also photographed a solitary ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora). It was odd to see just one blooming, as they usually grow in clumps. But I know now to look for others: if there is one blooming, there are presumably more, and the first appearance of ghost pipe always comes as a surprise, a reminder that it is later in the year than I think.

Mostly, these moist and steamy days are good for fungus and fern. There is a sensitive fern spontaneously sprouting by our back door, and dead stumps along the Aqueduct Trail are frilled with shelf fungus. Today there is a stand of mushrooms where there were none yesterday: a bit of fungal magic brought about by weeks of almost-tropical humidity.

Twin saucers

Two years ago, we had a bumper crop of acorns here in New England, and this year, we seem to have more mushrooms than usual. This week has been damp and humid, with misty mornings and drizzly days. On my morning dog-walks, I’ve been on the lookout for fungi and have not been disappointed, the work of decomposition happening at every step.

Overhead

Looking for mushrooms is like looking for Easter eggs: you never know what strange thing will appear on any given morning. Some mushrooms look like saucers landed from another planet; others resemble alien outgrowths from otherwise healthy-looking trees.

Even though I know mushrooms and other fungi don’t appear out of nowhere–fungi, like icebergs, hide most of their mass below the surface, in a spreading web of mycelia–it always comes as a surprise to see Something where there once was Nothing. A sudden eruption of fungi reminds us of the invisible forces that are always present, lurking underfoot.

Underfoot

All year long, mycelial mats have wormed underground, ferreting the food that fungi consume. Lacking chlorophyll, fungi suck nutrients from the living or steal them from the dead, and when the conditions are right, fungal mycelia send up fruiting bodies to spread spores. The mushrooms and other colorful fungi we see above-ground are reproductive parts, with a fungus’ true work happening in secret, underground. Mycelial mats are workhorses, toiling (and enduring) in secret, while their ephemeral fruiting bodies garner all the attention with their fleshy (and transient) exuberance.

As a composition instructor, I teach my students how to craft sentences and paragraphs to communicate meaning, word upon word. Fungi of all shapes and sizes are experts in decomposition, reminding us through their sudden autumnal emergence that everything eventually falls prey to parasitism, death, and decay.

Click here for more photos of fall fungi. Enjoy!