Northland Nature: Shelf fungi grow among falling foliage
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, 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 via Katie Rohman at email@example.com.
Trees demand our attention during this outstanding month of October. Beginning these 31 days as fully-foliated plants, they undergo quite a change when dropping all their foliage that has been on the branches for five months. This leaf drop takes place during this month. Leaves are falling every day, but the big amount of defoliation is a phenomenon of about mid-month.
But it is not just leaves falling that we note. Before they depart to join the litter of the forest floor, they light up the surroundings with bright delightful colors. Indeed, early October may be considered the most colorful time of the year in the Northland. The reds of earlier times persist for a while, but then are replaced by the abundant yellows during the first half of the month.
Tamaracks in swamps and a few others will hold colors, almost until the end. Walking at this time is an amazing experience. But it is possible to “not see the forest because of the trees.”
Much more is happening in the autumn woods. This is also the time of migration. Probably the biggest variety of sparrows to be seen during the whole year is early October. Blue jays, thrushes, blackbirds, kinglets and lingering warblers are here, too.
At night, I saw whet owls come by as well. But I find that October days are often good times to see forest fungi. Mushrooms are most prolific earlier in the season when they grow quickly in ample moisture and temperature. But there are those that remain until now. I have often walked in October and found scaly cap (Pholiota), honey mushroom (Armillaria), Entoloma, waxy cap (Hygrocybe, Russula and Mycena on or near the forest floor.
Nearby yards may have shaggy mane (Coprinus), meadow mushroom (Agaricus), Amanita and maybe rings of Marasmius and Lepista. The woods is also where we can find a plethora of puffballs. And with the leaf drop, fungi on tree trunks are easier to see. Shelf fungi or brackets of turkeytails, artist fungus and horse’ hoofs can be found now.
Such fungi differ from mushrooms by being tougher flesh and lasting longer (often for years). Though we expect to find these shelf fungi sticking out from the sides of trees and logs, I recently found one among the grasses in the yard.
Right there on the lawn under a white pine tree was the growth appearing much like that of a shelf or bracket. With a light outline and concentric circles that darkened towards the center, this tough fungus was about a foot and a half in diameter. Though not on the tree trunk, it was part of the tree.
Most likely, this “shelf fungus on the ground” was getting nutrition from roots of the nearby pine. Soft material on the surface accounted for the name of velvet-top fungus (Phaeolus schweinitzii). It is one of many kinds of brackets that are known as polypores, a reference to the many tiny holes on the underside where the spores are produced and released.
The flesh is very tough and persistent. When most mushrooms fade in days, this polypore will linger for weeks. The flesh is too hard to be consumed, but the fungus is gathered by some as a source of a natural dye. With proper treatment, green, brown and yellow dyes can be formed. That is why this ground-growing fungus is also called Dyer’s polypore or Dye-maker’s polypore.
October gives us much to see in the trees, but beneath them, there is also growth happening as seen in this polypore. Soon much of the ground will be covered by the fallen leaves.