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Northland Nature: Despite the dryness, some mushrooms are in the woods

The early days of September have been following the pattern of July and August by being warmer and drier than normal. After a damp and cool late spring and early summer, we have switched into the opposite for the last two months.

Young pholiota mushrooms
A cluster of young pholiota mushrooms grows on a dead birch. (Larry Weber photo)

The early days of September have been following the pattern of July and August by being warmer and drier than normal. After a damp and cool late spring and early summer, we have switched into the opposite for the last two months.

It appears as though the arid conditions were staved off long enough so that much of what was growing in the first half has been able to persist into the latter half, though not entirely as expected.

Gardens and crops have been able to produce. The berry picking of strawberries and blueberries has been well. I've noticed good crops of choke-cherries, highbush cranberries and hawthorns hanging from the trees.

And our apples are getting ripe and tasty, though a bit smaller than usual. Backyard red oaks and sugar maples are attracting plenty of squirrel attention with the huge numbers of acorns and seeds.

Wildflowers of the roadsides and fields have lit up the days of late summer. Sunflowers, goldenrods and asters continue their fragrant blossoms into mid-September. Plants are flowering well and appear to be coping with the present weather conditions.

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Others have not been on the scene as expected.

Usually a walk in the woods during the first half of September is done in the presence of abundant fungi. It is easy on these September strolls to find a dozen species of mushrooms with plenty of the non-mushroom fungi here as well.

And so when I went for a fungal-finding walk in the forest last week, my discoveries were limited.

During wet conditions, mushrooms quickly appear in the woods at many locations, but go far beyond this site, to be found in yards as well. But when the weather has been dry, the search can be more difficult.

The yard is devoid of these little mushrooms of various colors that I usually find here at this time. Not one was seen in the lawn and with the grass growing slow in the heat and dryness, I would have been able to see them if they were here.

The woods, however, has more to offer fungi. With shade, dead leaves littering the ground and plenty of dead logs, fungi would do well here. Even though these conditions give the needed nutrition for the unique life of fungi, I found few as I walked.

On a downed log, I located some ball-shaped puffballs with bushy coral fungi nearby. A couple of newly developed shelf fungi were growing on stumps. And twice, I found two species of Russula, one red, one white, sticking up from the forest soil.

But thanks to another mushroom that was growing in thick clusters on several stumps and logs, I was not disappointed.

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On several downed birch logs and dead birch stumps, I found groups of a brown kind of mushroom known as pholiota. (Mushrooms and other fungi are often known only by their scientific names, some of which have also become the common names. Russula and Amanita are two examples of this.)

With rough stems and caps holding numerous scales and bumps, they are sometimes called scaly cap mushrooms. Despite the scaly appearance, they may have a slimy feel to them.

Mushrooms can grow isolated or in groups in soil. Others are in clusters that appear on a stump of a tree or on a downed log. These groupings are mostly connected at the base and picking them at this site can be a way of gathering the whole cluster.

Pholiotas are common in the local woods and I don't think that I have ever seen a late summer without these hardy mushrooms. Sometimes they'll persist far into the fall, an addition to the October woods. Perhaps by grouping as a cluster on a downed log or stump, they are able to get the needed moisture during a dry time.

Like most other mushrooms, gills grow in slits under the caps, above the stem. Spores form in between the gills and when mature, they fall out. In such a packed growing space as these clusters, spores drop onto other mushroom caps and reveal their color, a rusty brown. Spore colors are a help to identifying mushrooms.

We may be getting more precipitation in the coming weeks and the woods could still respond with thick growths of mushrooms.

But for now, during these dry times, I'm glad to have found clusters of pholiota on logs and stumps of birch.

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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