When many of us think about soil, we are quick to associate it with little (or big) plants growing up out of its brown earthy goodness. But plants are not the only organisms living in soil, which is filled with a large amount of biodiversity, including insects, micro-invertebrates, bacteria, and of course, fungi!
The forests of SW Pennsylvania are home to a super diverse array of fungi species!
Fungi are incredibly fascinating and I’m always excited when I see them growing alongside the plants in the parks. Not only is it another cool thing to appreciate out in nature, but fungi are often an indicator of healthy soil! Although mushrooms can be truly stunning, these are just the fruiting bodies of fungi. The majority of the life and biomass of a fungus is spent underground and out of sight!
Some fungi produce tough root-like structures known as rhizomorphs to transfer nutrients over long distances, often these can be found beneath the bark of dead and declining trees.
Did you know that there are two main categories of fungi?
The first is Saprophytic fungi, which consume dead and decaying material in the environment, such as fallen leaves, standing dead trees, and animal poop. These fungi are an important part of the ecosystem because they help to cycle nutrients back into the soil where plants and other organisms can use them for new growth. The majority of fungus species known to science are saprophytic fungi.
Mycorrhizal fungi use a different strategy and survive by working in partnership with plant roots in the soil. This diverse group of fungi can grow either inside the plant roots (endomycorrhizal) or in structures externally attached to the roots (ectomycorrhizal). The details of this symbiotic partnership vary from fungus to fungus. Some species help the plant by increasing the surface area of their roots, while others can access soil nutrients that would be otherwise inaccessible to plant roots; in return, fungi receive carbohydrates that only plants can make through photosynthesis!
These white and fuzzy root-like structures are actually mycorrhizae, a symbiotic structure made of both plant and fungal material!
Although mutualistic symbioses are heartwarming examples of nature working together, the natural world isn’t always so friendly. Some fungi are parasitic and steal nutrients from plants without providing anything in return. Some parasitic fungi will even take over and consume the mushrooms of other fungi!
While these slime molds are not actually part of the fungi kingdom, they are still a crazy cool example of parasitic competition! The slime mold pictured here is happily consuming some of last season’s leaves.
Last summer, I was startled and delighted to find this “Dead man’s fingers” fungus up in a garden in Emerald View Park. I’m pretty sure I gasped audibly when I first saw them reaching up through the weeds I was pulling.
These dead man’s fingers mushrooms (Xylaria polymorpha) often startle me when I first notice them – they can really look like little zombie fingers digging their way out of the soil!
One fungus that I’m always happy to see are these “Bird’s nest fungi.” These tiny fungi are only about the size of a pencil eraser, but they are quite common and can be found growing on woodchips or coarse mulch if you’re looking closely. There are several different varieties of this fungus, but I think they’re all pretty darn cute!
Bird’s nest fungus (Nidulariaceae sp.) happily growing on last season’s mulch. Species of this genus can be differentiated in part by the numbers of ‘eggs’ in each nest!
This spring I’ve been finding a lot of this wild-looking cup fungi in the freshly mulched gardens. The young fruiting bodies almost look like brains pushing up out of the mulch, and while they lose their brain-like appearance as they get older, I’d say they’re still pretty funky fungi!
This spring I found a several interesting cup fungi (Peziza sp.) growing out of freshly spread garden mulch! I hadn’t seen these ones before, but appreciate the diversity they bring to our gardens.
While fungi are certainly are fascinating and beautiful, they are also mysterious and complicated organisms. Scientists still have a lot to learn about this complex kingdom of life, and although they do have some incredible adaptations, fungi also struggle with environmental stressors like pollution, invasive species, and climate change. I could write and enthuse about fungi for far too long, so, for now, I’ll just leave you with a few more photos, and hopes that you can spot some of these freaky and friendly fungi out while you’re out exploring the parks!
Pheasant Back or Dryad Saddle mushrooms (G. spp) can often be found growing on old stumps or fallen logs. This one had collected a lot of condensation on its underside after a long night of rain.
Fungi are resilient and adaptable – once you start looking you might be surprised by the many places you can find them growing!