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Fungus among us

By Ranger Steve Mueller

BFall is a beautiful time when most of us enjoy the splash of forest color before sullen bare branches on trees leave us anxious for the first snow to brighten the world. Whiteness brings energy and joy. I will conclude with a fun experience about Fungi lesterii.

White coral fungi explode from the ground over night during warm wet fall weather. “But wait that is not all” like we so often hear on those infomercials. Orange and purple coral fungi are also common. Fungi live hidden lives under ground, under bark, in leaves, and even on animals. They are industrious workers allowing us life.

Their important nature niche is to recycle nutrients. As saprophytes they decompose dead organic matter and make minerals available for plants. As parasites they are found eating living tissue and sometimes become problems on our skin or in our bodies. Many have mutualistic symbiotic relationships with living organisms where both individuals benefit. Symbiosis is a relationship between two unrelated species. 

Mycorrhizal fungi live on and in plant root tips where they provide essential health benefits. The fungi assist plants with nutrient and water absorption. In return they get sugars that the plant produces through photosynthesis. Trees often grow poorly or do not survive without mycorrhizae. 

Benefits of the fungi associating with plants include; reducing the need or quantity for crop fertilizers, enriching soil quality, suppressing disease and pathogens, improving crop growth survival, reducing drought severity that causes crop losses, and increasing flowering and fruit production abundance. 

Aside from their essential importance for our personal survival, they bring flavor and joy to lives. Many people enjoy collecting and eating the fruiting bodies that seem to pop from the ground overnight when conditions are favorable. 

The fungi connect roots of different plants facilitating transfer of nutrients between individuals of the same species. This improves forest and plant community health as well as our own. We depend on the hidden lives of fungi associating with nearly all plants. 

Many of us enjoy fungal beauty. When I was leading a group of 4th grade students on an exploratory hike at the Howard Christensen Nature Center a couple decades ago, we experienced a wet warm fall when fungi fruiting bodies were abundant. One of the students discovered a bright purple fungus growing from the ground. It looked like a coral that should be on a coral reef in a shallow ocean. 

Its branching arms were soft to the touch and almost glowed in the shaded forest. We gathered around Lester who first noticed the fungus. He wanted to know its name. I couldn’t help. Though I know many organism names, there are about 30 million species on Earth. I am sure this common fungus has been named and we could find it in one of the mushroom field guides.

Instead, I told the group it was something that perhaps had not been named and we could name it ourselves. It was clearly a fungus and Lester had discovered it so the group decided to name it Fungi lesterii. At the end of the day when groups gathered to conclude the day’s activities, each group shared a significant event. Our group told the others about the fungus discovery. “But wait that is not all.”

A year later the students returned as 5th graders. As they approached the Red Pine Interpretive Center where I daily greeted students at the entrance, students were pointing at a student and shouting, “Remember Lester?” Fortunately, Lester is not the most common name and I immediately recalled the Fungi lesterii discovery. The experience stuck with students and probably still does after 20 years. The point is we should all spend time outside exploring the natural world. I suspect we each have a special experience tucked away in our memory.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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