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Northland Nature: Damp conditions bring out mushrooms in August

During the summer of 2002, much of the country has suffered from a lack of rainfall. Drought conditions have ranged from slight to severe. Fortunately, the Northland has had adequate rain. Now in the late summer we see some of the results of this...

During the summer of 2002, much of the country has suffered from a lack of rainfall. Drought conditions have ranged from slight to severe.

Fortunately, the Northland has had adequate rain. Now in the late summer we see some of the results of this moisture. Both June and July recorded above normal precipitation and now, in August, we have had recent rains.

Green plants abound in the fields and roadsides with a large variety of wild flowers in bloom. At the forest edges, we also see a good crop of raspberries, pin cherries and choke cherries. But one of the best responses to the rains of summer is found deeper in the woods where a huge diversity of mushrooms proliferate.

Even if the year is dry, we still see mushrooms at this time of year, but the fungi grow better during the damp season. A walk among the decaying leaves and logs of a deciduous woods now will reveal mushrooms and other fungi of many kinds.

The most abundant ones are the Russula (unfortunately, many mushrooms are known only by their Latin or scientific names). Members of this group hold caps of red, yellow, brown or white. All have stems that break easily, like chalk. Here too, we find the red and yellow Hygrophorus or waxy caps. Lactarius, also called milk mushrooms, grow here, too. A cut on their flesh reveals a white sap; hence the name. Amanitas of white, yellow and gray stand up from the forest floor. Though dangerous to eat, they are beautiful to look at.

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One of the most sought after of this late summer growth, the chanterelles (Cantharellus) are in the woods now, too. Standing only 3 or 4 inches tall, they would be overlooked were it not for two facts: (1) Chanterelles are usually bright yellow-gold to orange (there are variations that range from gray to nearly black) and (2) chanterelles tend to grow in groups. Though it is possible to find a loner, the colorful mushrooms are usually growing on the ground in clumps of 10 or more.

Among mushrooms fanciers, the discovery of a cluster of chanterelles is a prized find. They are highly coveted and considered by many as a fungal delicacy. However, like many of the Northland mushrooms, they should be consumed only if identification is assured and even then, they are not to be eaten raw.

Typical mushrooms stick up from the ground in a growth that often resembles the shape of an umbrella. Above a vertical stem is the convex cap. While the cap top is smooth and often colorful, the underside is divided into many thin chambers known as gills. It is between these gills that the reproductive spores are produced.

As usually happens with nature, there are exceptions. Some mushrooms have no gills, and the space under the cap is full of tiny sponge-like pores. Others have tooth-like projections under the cap. Chanterelles are unique by having branching gill-like growths extending up the stem onto a flattened cap. It is rare among mushrooms that gills will branch and most do not go far down the stem. Such features make these yellow-gold mushrooms of late summer easier to recognize.

Whether we go walking in the woods now intending to gather material for a fungal foray or we just go out to see them, the mushrooms in the woods abound. If recent weather conditions continue, we're likely to see many more as summer steps into autumn.

Larry Weber is author of the "Backyard Almanac." He lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.

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