September marks National Mushroom Month, and rightfully so! Many amazing, forage-able fungi start appearing around this time of year. Whether you’re looking for mushrooms to eat, to use for making botanical dye, or just because you plain old appreciate them and find them fascinating, September is a great time to start going around searching for fungus. As the temperature drops from the intense summer heat and the late summer rains create a moist environment, perfect for growing fungi.
To celebrate Mushroom Month, I participated in the #FallFungiChallenge on Instagram, put on by Alison Lyon. During the whole month, I drew and learned about various fungi species. Each scientific illustration tells a story of the fungal species, from highlighting their role as decomposers, to how the fungi spread their spores, to how important their bioluminescence is in identification! What I love the most about the challenge is that with each illustration I do, I grow in my understanding of fungi and I get to see what about that species other artists find fascinating and choose to highlight!
The primary role of fungi is to act as a decomposer either through digesting dead organic material (Saprobial fungi), or through eating living organic matter (Parasitic fungi). As organic matter builds up in the fall (think of all those fallen leaves!), fungus are in heaven and will break down that matter so that the nutrients may be cycled back into the ecosystem.
Below, you’ll get to see some of my favorite pieces from the #FallFungiChallenge, as well as get to learn about the stories each fungal species tells!
First in the series was the Scarlet Elf Cup Fungi (seen above). When drawing fungi, I love showing and telling the story of the species, and in this case, I was excited to learn more about how the Scarlet Elf Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea) gives it’s nutrients back to the cycle of life! As fungi play an important role in nutrient cycling, I really wanted to highlight one of the ways in which it does that – by being eaten! Snails and slugs LOVE this species and are and one of it’s primary resource users. As fungi break down rotting organic matter and turn that into usable nitrogen and other nutrients to share with plants again, they also store much of these nutrients inside their visible, above ground fruiting bodies. When the snails and slugs come to eat the mushroom, they are also ingesting those nutrients. Eventually, when a bird or other mammals eats the snail, they are ingesting not just the nutrients (such as calcium, which is important for healthy egg production) from the snail, they are also getting the nutrients from the fungi that the snail ate earlier! When the bird that ate the snail lays an egg, eventually the egg will hatch and the shell will break down in the nest or fall to the ground where other fungi species may help to decompose it. Everything is connected!
Next was the Jack-o-Lantern Mushroom (Omphalotus olearius), which is an incredible fungi for MANY reasons, but my favorite thing about it is that it is bioluminescent! This fungi produces an enzyme called Luciferase, which is also what helps create the glow in fireflies! This enzyme is used in a reaction that helps the fungi process and remove waste materials during it’s “digestion” process. During the 1700-1800s, the American Pioneers found a creative use for these fungi. Harvested Jack-o-Lantern mushrooms would still glow faintly, and if you were walking around at night, you could use them as a torch or as a trail marker so you wouldn’t get lost even if it was dark!
During the day, these fungi might be indistinguishable (to the untrained eye) from Chanterelles, a delicious edible mushroom, however, forager beware! The Jack-o-Lanterns are toxic, so getting this wild-edible wrong can have terrible consequences. One of the best ways to differentiate between the two is to look at the gills on the underside of the cap. The Chanterelle has forking, chunky gills while the Jack-o-Lantern has straight, parallel and very thin gills. f you’re out walking around at night, check to see if the fungi is glowing! If it is, it’s absolutely NOT a chanterelle and should not be eaten.
Morels (Morellcha esculenta) is one of the most common edible mushrooms, but edible is a tricky term! Not everything that’s edible can be eaten willy-nilly. Most mushrooms contain toxins that are destroyed when exposed to heat, so cooking the mushroom can remove those toxins. Morels contain amounts of hydrazine toxins, which is combustible, toxic, and can even cause cancer! This is definitely not a toxin that you want to go around eating raw in the woods. Once it’s cooked though, that toxin vanishes, leaving a delicious food that is beyond tasty in a cream sauce over chicken and asparagus!
As with many edible fungi, there is also a completely toxic look-alike. Even cooking the False Morel can still be fatal! The edible morel has a hollow stipe, whereas the False Morel isn’t hollow and is filled with a whitish, somewhat stringy material.
Now, with the next fungus, those who know me, or have listened to my YouTube videos, read previous blogs, or listened to my podcast will immediately know why I find this a fascinating species!
The Blue Pinkgill (Entoloma hochstetteri), native to New Zealand, is actually true blue! While this is very uncommon and extremely rare in the natural world, this fungus produces Azulene pigments that are only really found in a handful of fungi and marine invertebrates. Typically, the color blue in the natural world is caused by iridescence, although species of fish, such as the Mandarin Goby, do have a cyanophores, which contain other blue pigments. In Maori legends, the Kokako bird got a blue wattle because it rubbed up against this mushroom, forever staining it!
When looking at the gills, as one should always do when trying to identify a mushroom, you can see a faint hint of red, which gives the fungus it’s very appropriate name of Blue Pinkgill. The spores of this fungus is red, so before releasing the spores, you may notice that the gills look slightly pink!
Magpie Ink Cap (Coprinopsis picacea) is typically found by itself in the wild, however you might be lucky enough to come up on a cluster of these incredible fungi! They thrive in leaf litter, so going into a deciduous broadleaf forest, especially if there are beech trees around, is a good idea if you’re looking for these elusive mushrooms.
As an artist, these are a foragers dream find, not to eat it, but to use in art! The “ink” produced by the mushroom as it ages can actually be used as an ink source for writing, drawing, and painting. This happens when the mushroom “Deliquesces”, or melts away in order to aid spore dispersal through moisture. To use the ink, you can simply bottle the melting portions and then use to refill ink cartridges or to dip a quill or brush into, or you can simply use the cap itself as a stamp or paint sponge to smear the ink around!
Fortunately, if you use the cap to smear ink, you probably won’t be tempted to eat this toxic mushroom. Similarly with the other fungi here, they do have a look-alike relative that IS edible! The Shaggy Ink Cap is known to be edible when cooked, however, when combined with alcohol, become extremely toxic. Aren’t fungi bizarre?
A mushroom that’s very easily recognized, other than the Morel, is the Fly Agaric Toadstool (Amanita muscaria). Many people buy these as statues for fairy gardens, or just to decorate with. Dishes and tea towels are emblazoned with their illustrations; they are such an iconic mushroom! Many people people also know about their hallucinogenic and toxic properties when eaten.
While these fungi are rather toxic to humans, they are to animals for the most part too! Many mammals, such as foxes, have been known to eat these mushrooms and have similar, yet less dangerous than what humans experience, reactions that make them “feel good”.
While humans may hallucinate, have seizures or loose all control over their muscles and bodily functions, vomit, and more. However, not all animals who eat the toadstool experience this, or find the reactions as bad, and therefore are willing to consume the easy calories. For example, the Red Squirrel isn’t able to consume unripe acorns that the Eastern Grey Squirrel can. Due to this, red squirrels need to find alternate food sources and mushrooms are great for year-round calories! They will occasionally forage for the Fly Agaric mushroom and hang them up to dry in trees until they need the calories later. This drying process helps mitigate the symptoms and the squirrels don’t seem to mind, or at least, are very impacted by it!
Another beautiful, yet relatively inedible toadstool is the Parrot Waxcap Toadstool (Gliophorus psittacinus). This is a small mushroom that is covered in a sticky, clear substance, hence the name “waxcap” and scientific genus name meaning “Glue Bearing”. While many waxcaps are considered edible, the slimy nature, especially when humidity increases due to dew or rain, increases and people don’t really like eating slimy things.
These waxcaps are considered relatively common, however they are becoming increasingly less. Many waxcap species, including the Parrot Waxcap, are bioindicators of the health of the land they grow on. They are known to grow in conjunction with mosses and grasses and are often growing in pastures or low-maintained grassy spots, such as cemeteries or abandoned agricultural fields. A large amount of waxcaps can signify that here hasn’t been a high use of chemical fertilizer in quite a long time, since the fungi are very sensitive to chemical pollutants. Fields with many waxcaps can also signify that there might be less nutrients in the soil overall since it hasn’t been modified.
Do you love these fungi as much as I do? While I don’t recommend foraging for fungi unless you are beyond 100% sure of it’s identity (without a shadow of a doubt….) as an edible fungi, there are some other great ways to get your fill of fungi! You can find some mushroom prints in my shop, as well as take my online botanical illustration course “Focus on Fungi”! In that 50 minute course, you’ll learn more about mushroom anatomy and fungi taxonomy, as well as some helpful illustration tips for drawing fungi.