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Lobster fungus in the August forest

This awesome month of August continues to reveal news and nature happenings regularly. Each week keeps us looking for the latest changes. With sunset now at 8:20 p.m., we have an earlier darkness along with a later sunrise.

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A mushroom, probably russula, with an orange mold (Hypomyces) growing on it. Due to this bright color, the growth is called lobster fungus. (Photos by Larry Weber)
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This awesome month of August continues to reveal news and nature happenings regularly. Each week keeps us looking for the latest changes. With sunset now at 8:20 p.m., we have an earlier darkness along with a later sunrise.

The extended darkness gave us good conditions this week for the annual Perseid meteor shower. Also in the darkness, calls from crickets can be heard. These insects along with their cousins, the katydids and grasshoppers, are reaching maturity now. And as adults, they click and chirp as breeding time begins. It is now easy to see and hear them in the daytime as well.

While hiking and biking this week, I noted many raspberry bushes with plenty of ripe berries. Each day there are new ones. And nearby, I also saw that chokecherries and blackberries (more common in the southern part of the region) are getting ripe, too. The bright red berries of highbush cranberry will soon join them for more juicy treats.

But several plants caught my eye for another reason: some are holding leaves that are turning color. Perhaps the first is dogbane. These plants abound in the few feet of space near roads and trails and it seems like now yellow leaves are a regular.

A few days ago, milkweed, also common here, began to turn yellow as well. Among the trees, some birches hold yellow leaves and I've seen some reds on dogwoods and the vine Virginia creeper. The late summer wildflowers that adorn the open sites now, goldenrods, asters and sunflowers, are proliferating and it seems like I find new ones opening their blossoms each day.

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These native plants appear to be magnets for insects. Bees, wasps, flies, moths, butterflies, beetles and aphids are always among them. Myriads of insects will also attract predators. A plethora of dragonflies are here, too, as are large numbers of spiders and their webs.

The bird activity keeps us looking at this time. This week, I watched as warbler families moved through the trees and migrant shorebirds fed in the swamps and the lake's edge. Hawk Ridge began its observing of raptor migrants, telling us of the season changes.

After a couple of dry weeks, recent rains were appreciated by many of us. Not only will this precipitation help with our garden and crops, it also serves as needed moisture for the local mushrooms.

I find mushrooms and other fungi in the woods regularly from early July on each year. They begin slowly but grow to become scattered across the lawns and forest floors in late August and much of September. Despite the dryness of the first part of this month, I was able to find several kinds as I walked through the woods. Most abundant were the russulas. (In naming and describing mushrooms, we frequently need to use the Latin name. Many have no common name, so the Latin has become the common name.)

Russula are very common and also very diverse in species and color. On a recent search I found russulas that were red, yellow, brown, gray and white. (In referring to colors of mushrooms, we usually look at the cap. Under the cap are line-like structures called gills that also have color. Cap and gills are supported above the substrate by a stem that is also colored. Often, but not always, the gills and stem are the same color as the cap.)

But this group was not alone. As I walked, I saw an amanita with its yellow cap, white gills and a white stem. And at one site, I was surprised to find a rather large growth of golden chanterelles. These are often collected as a delicacy by many fungal fanciers. Right on the trail at another site, I saw the bright orange glow that told me that I had found a lobster fungus.

Anyone who has spent some time observing fungi is likely to notice that this is indeed a strange group. They grow fast, feed without use of sunlight and do some unexpected things. Such is the case of the lobster fungus.

When looking at what appears to be a single orange growth, we are really seeing two fungi: the solid material of a mushroom, usually a russula, and an orange mold covering the mushroom.

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It is not unusual to find a mold growing on other life, be it fruit, berries, vegetables or grasses. Even mold on a mushroom is not so weird, but this mold (known as Hypomycetes) is strange. The mold coats the mushroom and extends its thread-like mycelia into the white flesh below. And here is where things get unusual. Chemicals from these mycelia are able to detoxify the mushroom and can turn the non-edible russula, that is host under the mold, to become edible. This nearly unbelievable fact has made lobster fungi, so-called due to the color, a choice fungal food.

It needs to be noted that any collecting and eating of wild mushrooms should be done only with the help of an expert. Again, we see that August is awesome.

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 budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com .

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A russula mushroom as it appears without a mold growing on it.

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