Fairy Inkcap

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While looking for snakes in southern Illinois, I noticed a large number of tiny mushrooms at the base of a tree. This species derives its nutrients from decaying wood and is usually found on or near dead tree stumps or decaying logs.

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These gregarious little fungi occur from early spring until the onset of winter, and they are at their most spectacular when the caps are young and pale – sometimes nearly pure white.

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Common in Britain and Ireland and throughout Europe and North America, the Fairy Inkcap is truly a cosmopolitan mushroom, being found also in most parts of Asia and in South America and Australia.

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For most types of inkcap mushroom, the gills and caps melt into an inky black ooze – which is what gives the inkcaps their common name. Though this is not a feature of the Fairy Inkcap.

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Rather than melt into mush, the caps of the Fairy Inkcap remain brittle, and easily teared, hence their alternate common name of Trooping Crumble Cap.

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Witches’ Butter

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While walking along the edge of a cypress swamp in southern Illinois last month, some small, yellow, irregularly lobed, gelatinous masses caught my eye.

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Witches’ Butter has fruiting bodies that are brain-like, sulfur yellow-to-pale yellow and have a gelatinous texture. It grows in masses on dead deciduous wood, especially oaks.

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This fungi’s full-time job is to inhabit dead wood as a parasite that gets nourishment by digesting the tissues of an unrelated fungus (a crust-like fungus that is itself parasitizing and maybe killing the tree). Witches’ Butter is therefore a parasite of a parasite!

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Witches’ Butter has a cosmopolitan distribution, having been recorded from Europe, North, Central, and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Its fruit bodies are formed during wet periods throughout the year.

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A type of Jelly Fungi, the investigation of the medicinal benefits of Jelly Fungi has revealed that they stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol and are useful in the treatment of allergies and diabetes.

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This fungus is also known as Yellow Brain, Golden Jelly Fungus and Yellow Trembler.

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While hiking at Hinckley Reservation, these eye-catching fungi attracted my attention. Their yellow-orange vase-shaped caps were hard to miss on the dark forest floor.

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This is among the most popularly eaten species of wild mushrooms. There are many species of edible Chanterelle; the most well known is the Golden Chanterelle Mushroom.

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They are often bright in color and funnel-shaped. On the underside, most species have gill-like ridges that run almost all the way down to their stem.

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Chanterelles tend to grow in clusters in mossy coniferous forests. In addition to North America, they can be found in Eurasia and Africa.

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They are mycorrhizal, which means they have a beneficial, symbiotic relationship with the roots of trees. In Ohio they tend to fruit anywhere from June to September.

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The flavor of Chanterelles is often described as fruity or peppery. They’re excellent with meats, fish, or as an entrée topping. They’re also very popular with eggs or as a filling in crêpes.

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Hare’s Foot Inkcap

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Since the rain has started last week, our rock garden has filled with inkcaps. The small, umbrella-shaped fruit bodies (mushrooms) of the fungus grow in grass or woodchips and are short-lived, usually collapsing in a few hours.

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This is an inkcap of woodland habitats, where it grows among twigs and leaf litter. Outside of its “natural habitat,” in parks and gardens, this little mushroom is common in flowerbeds covered in woodchip mulch.

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Coprinopsis lagopus gets its common English name from the way the young “fur-like” fruiting body begins to come out of the ground before turning into a traditional-looking mushroom. this inkcap has a worldwide distribution, occurring on every continent except Greenland and Antarctica.

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The slender, whitish stems are up to 5 inches long and very thin. When the fruit bodies are young and fresh, the caps are reddish brown and can glisten – especially if wet. As the mushroom matures, the outer edge of the cap turn a greyish color while the center remains reddish brown.

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This is known as a saprobic species, meaning that it obtains nutrients by breaking down organic matter into simpler molecules. The cool shapes and intricate patterns of this fine, fragile fungus make it a welcome sight on a January day.

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Ganoderma sessile

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This cool looking bowl-shaped mushroom growing in my sister’s front yard is kind of neat. It sprouted out of a buried, decaying tree stump and has been coming up every year.

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Although I can’t say I’ve ever seen an example of this mushroom previously, it is reportedly common and found in practically every state East of the Rocky Mountains. Its mature fruiting bodies are shiny and reddish-brown.

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Ganoderma sessile has a bright, white, outer edge while growing. This organism is a polypores – part of a group of fungi that form fruiting bodies with pores or tubes on their underside.

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This genus of mushroom has long been used in traditional medicine and practitioners of Chinese medicine refer to it as the “king of herbs.”

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Shaggy Mane

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I saw this fungi while visiting Hinckley Reservation, also occasionally known as the Lawyers Wig, this is a distinctive and simple to recognize mushroom. It’s size, texture and shape make it easy to spot even from considerable distance. They are often seen growing on lawns, along gravel roads and waste areas in Summer and Fall. They may grow singly or scattered, but are often in large, tightly packed groups.

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Shaggy Mane has an elongated, bullet-shaped, shaggy cap, with brownish upturned scales and a straight fairly smooth stem. The white caps are covered with frilled scales, creating the origin of the common name of this fungus.

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This mushroom is known for its unique robust flavor. Shaggy Manes can also be used for dyeing wool, some types of fabric, or paper and will yield a bayberry color when cooked in an iron pot.

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Mushrooms and other fungi are one of the most important groups of organisms on the planet. This is easy to overlook, given that most of the organism is largely hidden. The fruiting body (mushroom) is all you see of a vast network of thread-like structures hidden from view deep the soil, wood or other food sources.

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Fungi, together with bacteria, are responsible for most of the recycling that returns dead material to the soil in a form in which it can be reused. Unlike animals, that digest food inside their bodies, fungi digest food outside of their “bodies” and then absorb the nutrients into their cells.

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Yellow Dog Vomit Slime Mold

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While hiking through a damp, dark forest in Maryland, I noticed some bright coloration on a log. Also known as Scrambled Egg Slime, because of its peculiar yellow appearance, it often appears suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere.

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This is common species with a worldwide distribution. In non-natural areas, it is often found on bark mulch or in lawns after heavy rain or excessive watering. Slime molds are most often found in moist, shady areas with abundant organic matter, such as dead leaves and wood.

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Though it is often referred to as a fungus, slime molds are now thought to be a different type of primitive organism and more closely related to amoebas and certain seaweeds than fungi. They derive nourishment from decaying organic materials, and will not attack living plants.

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The ecological role in nature of slime mold is to break down dead materials to recycle the nutrients for other species to utilize. Although some people may be alarmed, grossed out, or frightened by it, this slime mold is harmless to plants, pets and humans.

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Yellow Dog Vomit Slime Mold is without a doubt is one of nature’s interesting oddities.

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Reindeer Lichen

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Although I’ve encountered this lichen occasionally on my travels, while visiting Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Maryland, I saw quite a bit of it.

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Lichens are “dual organisms,” made by mutualistic associations between fungi and algae. They grow in some inhospitable environments – on rocks, trees and man-made objects – yet they are very sensitive to air pollution and are natural indicators of air quality.

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These organisms are important to the environment because they break down rocks into soil and they help to stabilize soil that’s already there. There are several different species known as “Reindeer Lichen” and this is Grey Reindeer Lichen, which is also known as True Reindeer Lichen.

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It features hollow intricate branches coming out its main stem. The branches have a dull, cotton-like look and feel. Grey Reindeer Lichen can form extensive carpets over the ground in open pine forests, especially on sandy soils and in open areas.

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This organism has a range extending into the tundra and is a important food source for Caribou. Reindeer Lichens grow slowly and mature clumps are often around 100 years old.

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Morel Mushroom

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Morels are one of the most desired wild mushrooms in the world. They are not farmed like most grocery store mushrooms, but instead gathered in the wild.

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Their most identifiable characteristic is what’s typically described as a honeycomb-like exterior. I saw a few of these distinctive fungi recently while in Carter County, Kentucky.

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Despite their popularity as a food item, relatively little is known about this particular fungal complex or its lifestyle in the wild. What we call mushrooms are actually just the fruiting body of the organism.

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Most of a mushroom is threadlike like fine roots, and branches and burrows extensively through the soil or wood in a manner similar to the roots of plants.

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The roots (called a mycelium) spread underground for an indeterminate length of time – perhaps months or even several years – before they store enough food to produce a fruiting body – the actual mushroom.

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In the United States Morel Mushroom season generally lasts for about three weeks in April, which adds to the craze for mushroom hunters, as this delicacy can only be obtained for a limited time.

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British Soldier Lichen

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This is a common and easy to identify lichen, found throughout the northeastern United States and into Canada. I encountered it while visiting Carter Caves, Kentucky.

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The little red fruiting structure of the lichens resemble the red hats worn by invading British troops during the American Revolutionary War; they give this lichen its common name.

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This composite organism is a mutualistic association between a fungus and green alga. In theory, the fungus receives sugars from the photosynthetic activities of the alga, while the alga receives some minerals and a safe place to live from the fungus.

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British Soldier Lichen prefers to grow on rotting wood and these examples were on decayinging wooden posts. It also is often found at the base of old tree stumps.

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These are among the most colorful of all lichens. Their bright red caps don’t form until the organism is at least 4 years old. They are extremely slow growing, only gaining 1-2 millimeters a year.

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“Back in the day” British Soldier Lichens were used to create pink dye for wool. These days it is often a colorful addition to terrariums.

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