Northland Nature: Discovering a sulphur shelf fungusIt took until after the middle of June, approaching the summer solstice time, but the deciduous woods of the Northland has finally reached full leafing of all the trees. Even those slow to respond have greened as well.
It took until after the middle of June, approaching the summer solstice time, but the deciduous woods of the Northland has finally reached full leafing of all the trees. Even those slow to respond have greened as well.
The woods are now shady and we are at a transition time. Earlier, after the snowmelt and before the trees leafed out, the sunlight penetrated to the forest floor and the short-lived spring wildflowers bloomed in abundance. It was delightful to walk amongst large numbers of hepatica, bloodroot, spring beauty, trout-lilies, bellworts and trilliums.
But their brief blooming season passed on.
They are now replaced by a group of plants that tolerate the shade; with leaves and flowers, they do well in the shadows. On a recent woods walk,
I noted several of these plants of the darker scene.
Most abundant is the yellow-flowering clintonia (blue-bead lily or corn lily) followed closely behind by wild lily of the valley, starflower, Solomon’s Seal, bane-berry and bunchberry.
Less common, but very well known are the yellow and pink ladyslipper orchids. They thrive in the secluded sites, but their flowering time is also limited. Nearby, the non-flowering ferns flourish in thick growths. They will last throughout the summer.
The botany bouquets are moving from the woods to the open spaces at this time, and soon daisies, buttercups, hawkweeds and lupines will light up the fields and roadsides.
This week, I also saw a few plants of the woods edge: false Solomon’s Seal and meadow rue. And in the wetlands, the yellow pond lilies and white water arum (water calla) are now flowering. June continues to unfold as we emerge into the new season.
But I thought that the greatest discovery of my walking in the shady woods was not a wildflower. On the side of a dead oak stump, I found a large growth of sulphur shelf fungus.
When it comes to fungi, most of us think of mushrooms and we are not likely to have an image of a huge beautiful colorful growth. Sulphur shelf is a fungus and, though related to the typical mushrooms seen in the yard, it grows quite differently. Instead of reaching up from the ground or a downed log, this growth sticks out like a shelf from a tree, stump or trunk.
And it dazzles and impresses the passerby with colors of yellow, orange and almost red. (The name “sulphur shelf” refers to the yellow color and the shelving growth pattern.)
Threadlike structures called hyphae and mycelia within the wood have been here for a long time, often years. Now, in the right conditions, probably the rain and warmth of the last several days, they put forth another growth beyond the wood and bark. This part emerging with such a delightful color pattern is a reproductive phase.
Like a mushroom, this fungal display holds the new batch of reproductive spores. Like mushrooms, this fleshy material can be broken off, destroyed, or collected and eaten without hurting the life of the
fungus. The colors are amazing and they can’t help but demand our
But why the sulphur shelf has such a pattern (or colors in mushrooms) seems to be of no use to the fungus itself.
In the Northland, the mushroom season is typically in the late summer. It is after the middle of this warm season that they are most numerous and diverse. This sulphur shelf that I found, along with another one on a tree called oyster fungus, is early and tells of more to come.
Shelf fungi are very common in the region. Most stick out from trees and logs in a solid wood-like consistency that may linger for years. Not so with the sulphur shelf. The flesh is softer and in a couple of weeks will have faded and fallen, unless gathered and eaten by fungal foragers.
Also known as “chicken of the woods,” this large fungus is a prized find by those who feed on wild fungi. A large batch of this fungus can be taken to be eaten immediately or chopped and dried for use later.
Whether we eat it or just like to look at it, the sulphur shelf is a fantastic fungal find now in the summer woods.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.