fairy finger fungus

The fairy fingers fungus derives its name from its appearance of long, slender, glowing white protrusions from the ground or tree branches.

“… Little or nothing.

So many of us!

So many of us!

We are shelves, we are

Tables, we are meek,

We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers

In spite of ourselves.

Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning

Inherit the earth.

Our foot’s in the door.”

— from “Mushrooms” by Sylvia Plath

As the sun angles away, autumn seeps in sometimes with a misty foggy morn, other times with buckets of rain. Days are quite pleasant; nights have definitely become cooler. Gardens are rife with fruit and vegetables. Birds are migrating, trees are turning, summer flowers are a mere memory. Listen and the woods are alive with the buzzing of insects, noisily celebrating the last of days for yet another year. Look along the forest floor and in and around the rotting leaves and crumbling stumps, you will find an infinite variety of mushrooms — red, purple green and blue — though most are creamy or white.

In the world of scientific classification, mushrooms are neither plant nor animal. They are fungi, the fruiting bodies of organisms created from a single spore that thrive on rotting vegetable matter in order to exist, for they have no chlorophyll for photosynthesis. Since ancient times, mushrooms have been collected, studied and classified primarily for edibility, for some, like chanterelles or morels, are absolutely delicious. Others, though, like many amanitas, can be quickly fatal. But wait, Caesar’s Amanita is treasured by Europeans for the frying pan, while the very white destroying angel, another amanita, is just that: death on a plate.

Although Romans and Greeks collected fungi, they did not use the word “mushroom.” Mushroom, a 15th-century term, is derived from the Anglo-French “musherun,” meaning “expand or increase rapidly” or “rise suddenly in position or rank.” How appropriate since they appear overnight just about anywhere if the conditions are right. Conditions for many: rain, rain and then plenty of warmth. Sound familiar?

Certainly if you are planning a meal around mushrooms you need a really, really good field guide or even better a trustworthy mentor who has been mushrooming for years in your area. Flip through any guide and you will see that some species are given the name “false,” like false amanita. The primary one may be edible while the lookalike is poisonous — or vice versa. Don’t ever confuse them.

I find the best field guide by far is “Mushrooms Demystified” by David Arora (1986), its more than 1,000 pages a wealth of information. This includes keys by genus and more than 2,000 entries not only with descriptions and photos but with details comparing and regularizing classification whenever possible.

In looking for updated info, I have just ordered “Mushrooms of the Northeast, A Simple Guide to Common Mushrooms” by Teresa Marrone (2016) which may be more specific to this area. We shall see.

In any mushroom guide, edibility entries for each species are more than important! I will admit now I will not collect any mushroom for the table except chanterelles. The only similar one to this species is the jack-o’-lantern, which will make you mildly ill. If, in and among your haul, one or two glow in the dark, toss them away.

Mushrooms — and I have never called them toadstools, a term I associate with folklore and fables — come in all shapes and sizes. The most common shape is the round cap on a stem like an open umbrella. Others may look like coral, fingers, parasols, smears of jelly, shelves, stools, small tables, funnels, brains, birds’ nests or stars.

Many grow in the woods and are associated with specific plant species. Birch polypores grow only on birches; poplar bracket only on poplars. Others such as meadow mushrooms and puffballs love lawns and fields.

Downed trees, stretched out along the forest floor and rotting, are often covered with bracket mushrooms like artist’s conk, turkey tail and crowded parchment. Such wonderful and visually descriptive names!

That little cup with two small balls on a small branch looks just like a miniature bird nest with two eggs. Thick dead man’s fingers creepily do appear to be blue-black fingers rising up from the leaf litter as if from a rotting corpse beneath. Last week I found small delicate white branchlet fungi: fairy fingers.

The tiny vermillion waxcap is a brilliant red, similar to the vermillion flycatcher. The ivory waxy cap is pure white and for some reason is also known as cowboy’s handkerchief. Jelly mushrooms do not look like mushrooms at all, but thick smears of jam across a branch or truck. So far I have found ochre jelly club, fan-shaped jelly-fungus, orange jelly spot and the plain white jelly.

Recently, I found many a deceiver, a lovely, smooth chestnut brown mushroom, edible and common. I gather from the description that it varies widely in coloration, hence the “deceiver.” The chestnut bolete I find under the pines is nearly the same beautiful color as the deceiver.

Many amanitas pop up here and there: blushing bride, yellow American blusher, yellow patches and blusher, all that perfect mushroom shape with varying pale yellow caps. The reddish stinky squid cropping up through a wood chip path does look like cooked squid arms and emits the odor of urine, perhaps to ensure that neither man nor beast feast upon them. This is not to be confused with its cousin, the octopus stinkhorn or stinkopus.

My favorite this year is the viscid violet cort, with amazing coloration: a very purply-lavender ‘shroom about three inches high, almost glowing in contrast to the murky brown fallen leaves.

I’m still looking for that sky-blue one I found years ago.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.