Although known for containing some tasty edible species, the fascinating Kingdom Fungi also play crucial ecological roles in our environment. Most notable is their role as decomposers, as they can degrade wood much more efficiently than other organisms like bacteria. Fungal tissues are easier to digest than plant tissues, so fungi are critically important in making energy locked away in tough plant material like wood available to the rest of the food web. Fungi also play a very important role as predators of animals such as insects. Many insect-attacking species even seem to influence their targets’ minds, causing them to fly or crawl up to high branches and leaves, and sticking to their undersides so spores released by the fungi are more likely to be caught by winds. An example of a species that predates on other organisms is the oyster mushroom. Prized as an edible, this mushroom traps and consumes microscopic roundworms as a source of nitrogen! However, most mushroom species are not known to predate animals, and instead get most of their nutrients by decomposing plants.
Winter is just around the corner, but a surprising number of mushroom species can still be found this late in the year. Identifying mushrooms can seem daunting, as there are hundreds of species in Nova Scotia, but if you know what traits to look for and have the right book in hand, it can be done! This guide will cover 11 commonly encountered seasonal mushroom species, describing the structural features that are important for identification should you come across them in the woods.
Probably the most familiar type of mushrooms are those with gills underneath the cap, such as Cortinarius traganus:
This mushroom is very commonly found late in the season and is identified by its striking purplish hues and brown gills, as well as its thick stem which widens to a bulb at the base. Younger specimens may also have a webby mesh over the gills called a cortina, which is pictured in the image above. This species forms a mutually beneficial partnership with conifer trees referred to as a mycorrhiza, where the fungus provides nutrients to the plant in exchange for a portion of the sugars the plant derives from photosynthesis. In general, mushrooms are very good at obtaining nutrients from soil, where they produce very fine root-like structures called hyphae. These are much finer than plant roots and allow for more efficient nutrient uptake. Cortinarius traganus are not edible.
Coprinus comatus, also known as the shaggy mane, is a frequent sight in lawns and mulch. This species is often white when young, with a long, bell-shaped cap. As they get older, the mushrooms release enzymes that effectively digest the mushrooms themselves, resulting in what looks like black ink. Several species in this group show this liquifying behavior and are together known as inky caps. These are considered edible but contain a toxin which reacts with alcohol up to a week after consumption. This can cause unpleasant symptoms such as vomiting, so eating this type of mushroom is not recommended.
Another white mushroom commonly found this time of year is Amanita bisporigera, also known as the Destroying Angel. As the name suggests, they are deadly poisonous. They are identified by their tall stem with a bulbous base, a ring around the middle of the stem, and a round cap when young that expands to become flat with age. Like Cortinarius traganus mentioned above, this species is mycorrhizal with oak trees, so they will only be found in forests where this tree is present.
Connopus acervatus can be found growing on rotting conifer wood. Unlike the other species covered so far, this species forms dense clusters of mushrooms with reddish-brown caps up to the size of a toonie that become lighter towards the edge. The stem is long and slender with slightly pinkish hues. This species is not known to be edible.
Some mushrooms don’t have gills at all, and instead have pores underneath their caps, such as Suillus cavipes. The fuzzy reddish-purple to brown cap, and pale-yellow pore surface help distinguish this species from other pored mushrooms. It only grows with larch trees, and sometimes several meters away from the host tree. Because of this, it is easy to overlook its tree associate. This species is not known to be edible.
Fomitopsis pinicola, also known as the red banded polypore, is a very common sight in coniferous and mixed forests where it can be found decomposing dead trees. Mushrooms in this group are called polypores or bracket fungi, which form a sort of disk off the side of a piece of wood, allowing the spores produced on the underside to fall out and blow away with the wind. Unlike the other mushrooms covered so far, which may have shorter life spans, this type of mushroom grows and produces spores over the course of many years. This species has a woody texture and is thus only edible to the adventurous (not tasty!).
Hydnum repandum, or Hedgehog mushroom, gets its common name from the teeth underneath the cap. This mushroom is identified by its brown to orange cap and whitish stem. It forms a mycorrhizal relationship with conifer trees and likes to grow in wet seepage areas with dense moss cover. It is a prized edible with a mild taste.
Pseudohydnum gelatinosum looks superficially similar to the Hedgehog mushroom because of its teeth but is actually only very distantly related. It is one of the jelly fungi, a group whose name is unsurprisingly derived from their gelatinous texture. The teeth of this mushroom are generally grey to white and translucent, while the cap can range from pale grey to brown. This species can be found growing on rotting conifer wood on the forest floor. Jelly fungi are not valued as edibles.
Dacrymyces chrysospermus, also known as ‘Witches’ Butter’, is a very common sight throughout the year. This species does not form a cap and stem, but rather it looks like a mass of bright yellow or orange folds growing on the surface of dead and rotting wood.
Another type of mushroom is the puffball, which is usually round, with the spores being produced on the inside. While many mushrooms often rely on wind to disperse their spores, puffballs need to be disturbed in some way, such as being squashed by animals, in order for their spores to shoot out in a cloud of smoke. A common late season puffball is Calvatia gigantea, which can grow in lawns to enormous sizes, often up to 50 cm or more in diameter, and contain trillions of spores when mature. This species is white on the outside and white on the inside when young, but the interior turns brown with maturity. They are edible while they are still white inside. A related species, Calvatia cyathiformis, looks similar when young, but
is rougher and its outer surface turns brown with age.
Leotia lubrica, also known as ‘Jelly Babies’, are a member of a group called sac fungi that are about as closely related to other mushrooms as humans are to earthworms. Species in this group are usually microscopic, but a few species have grown to a conspicuous size. Jelly babies are identified by their yellow stalks supporting a wrinkled, brown head that may take on greenish colours. They are not known to be toxic but supposedly have little flavour.
To delve further into the world of mushrooms, a good field guide is critical. George Barron’s Mushrooms of Ontario and Eastern Canada is a great place to start, available in Wolfville at the Box of Delights bookstore on Main St. The website mushroomexpert.com is an invaluable free resource covering over 1000 North American mushroom species, but it is generally more technical than a field guide. Not only is collecting and identifying mushrooms a lot of fun, but there are likely many species that have yet to be discovered in Nova Scotia. The next time you go for a walk through the woods, you might just find something new!
Thanks to Dr. David Malloch for giving his permission to use some of his photographs. To learn more about fungi, consider taking Dr Allison Walker’s BIOL3663 Mycology course at Acadia (follow her @FungalDreamTeam) and check out blomidonnaturalists.ca or nsmycologicalsociety.org for information on mushroom walks in the province.
Bruce Malloch is completing is MSc. in Biology with Dr. Allison Walker researching the succession of decomposers in salt marshes. His project looks at the idea that the decomposition of a plant species is a complex process involving many species that are functionally unique. Some may decompose leaves and shoots, others roots. Some may be decomposers of freshly killed grasses while others will decompose older material. His research is focused on determining which fungal species are present in the Wolfville marsh, and how these communities change over the course of a year.