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The red mushrooms of the forest floor

A bright red Hygrocybe (waxy-cap mushroom) pokes up from the forest floor on a September day. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
The Hygrocybe mushroom has a red cap, but note the yellowish gills and stem. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

Continuing the pattern of June, July and August, September began by being warmer and wetter than normal. It is not unusual to be wet during the first half of this cooling month that takes us into autumn and the waning of our rainy season. But when we got two thunderstorms with rainfall of about 1 inch each ("heavy" rainfall is more than 0.30 inches of rain per hour) along with another in late August, this was more than expected. And like all weather happenings in nature, it brings on responses.

With the woods being wet and the temperature a mild 60 degrees, I wander off among the trees for a September look around. Under these conditions at this time of year, I expect to see quite a growth of mushrooms and other fungi. As always, I note that plenty more is happening as I enter the forest. Warblers of several species are passing by. This morning, in the yard, I watched a brown creeper, a flicker and a blue jay; likely all are migrants, too. A wood peewee and a couple of vireos give song to this time of season. I hear a Cooper's hawk call from the woods. I think it nested here and maybe it is responding to the barred owls that called a bit earlier. A chipmunk scampers about, filling its den with cold-weather snacks. The doe that I saw an hour ago was with its fawn, almost completely devoid of spots. My walk will be mostly looking down and I note a wood frog and a toad hopping out of the way; and a gray tree frog calls.

The time of woodland wildflowers is long past, but I still see colors, some quite bright. Leaves of red maples, dogwoods and sumacs have fallen, giving splotches of this color to the ground. A bit more orange, but still colorful, are those of the bigtooth aspen. But there are other colors here, too. Berries of false Solomon's seal, rose twisted-stalk and Canada mayflower are all ripe now and by being bright red, they catch the attention of hungry birds and mammals.

But I'm here to search for fungi, so I keep looking. Thanks to the recent weather, I am not disappointed in what I find.

Among the non-mushroom fungi, I locate clusters of puffballs on downed logs. Here, too, is some coral fungi and on the ground, a look-alike, not really related, called false coral. And there is plenty of shelf fungi stretching out from the nearby trees, including a waning sulphur shelf. Mushrooms abound in this setting and I quickly see many kinds. When seeing these growths, we usually see the top, called a cap. When looking closer, we'll note slits under the cap known as gills, helping with reproduction (not breathing). These are supported by stems. They are a highly diverse group and colors vary greatly. Unfortunately mushrooms are often known only by their Latin, or scientific, names.

Within my mushroom fungal finds this morning are white Amanita, white, brown and red Russula, gray Marasmius, brown Mycena with its pointed cap and white Lactarius (so-called because they bleed a white latex substance and are sometimes called milk mushrooms). Here, too, are gold Chanterelles. And on a fallen birch log, I locate clumps of brown scaly-cap Pholiotas, always a delight in the autumn woods.

Several kinds of boletes (mushrooms that have pores under the cap instead of gills) are scattered in the region. They range from gray to brown to reddish. But there are more reds and what really catches my eye is the deep and bright colors of another group of small mushrooms, the Hygrocybe.

These mushrooms never grow more than a couple of inches tall and are a regular part of the fall forest fungi. They are very diverse with the colors of the caps, stem and gills. While walking I found Hygrocybe that are bright red with yellowish gills and stems. Others are orange, yellow and gold. Though not seen on my walk, they can also be of a green cap. Hygrocybe, formerly called Hygrophorus, are also known as waxy-cap mushrooms. This label comes from the characteristic fungus flesh feeling like wax when squeezed between our fingers.

Picking or cutting a mushroom does not hurt the whole organism. The part that we see above ground, often an umbrella shape, is only its reproduction part with ripe spores (something like seeds) forming between the gills under the cap. The bulk of mushroom is underground in the form of threads called hyphae or mycelia. These remain alive here. It has been said that picking a mushroom is like picking an apple from a tree.

We don't need to pick or eat mushrooms to enjoy them in the September forests; they are just plain interesting to look at. And from the looks of things, we will have plenty more to see in coming weeks. The mushroom season stretches well into autumn. Whether brightly colored or not, I expect many more great fall forest fungal finds.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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