They appear spontaneously, or it appears to emerge from the mulch, rise in a single spot on the lawn, or burst like little marshmallows from between the paving stones. But there is a complicated master plan at work, just not one that most gardeners are privy to.
What are the mushrooms in our gardens trying to tell us – and would you be surprised to find out that it is mostly good news?
"Without the mushrooms we would have no soil, at least not as we know it now," said John Michelotti of Catskill Fungi in Big Indian, NY, a family farm on land bought by his great-great-grandfather where Mr. Michelotti spent the summers his childhood. "Your filamentous subterranean mycelia are critical to the nutrient cycle and balance of our soils, plants, microbial life and ecosystems as a whole."
Today, Mr. Michelotti leads guided mushroom walks, teaches mushroom growing and medicinal mushroom classes at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere, and produces mushroom health extracts – in between occasional calls to identify mushrooms in his role as a poison control volunteer. In every interaction he tries to encourage an openness to the admittedly strange world of mushrooms.
Instead of getting into the fight, he suggests that we let a sense of intrigue develop and ask what the mushroom is and what it is doing. And maybe at some point we will go further and actively cultivate some as gardening helpers. (There's a bonus: certain hard-working species are edible.)
Mushrooms serve various critical ecosystem roles. The sap-proof species act as strong decomposers: oyster mushrooms, for example, work on recycling a dead tree.
Mycorrhizal fungi help plants build resilience and resistance to pathogens. In a symbiotic partnership, they move water and promote nutrients and micronutrients and make these resources available to plant roots. Around 92 percent of plant families rely on such services, according to the North American Mycological Association.
In return, Michelotti flows up to a third of the energy that plants gain through photosynthesis into feeding simple sugars to the mushrooms in the first place. "
Ready to see the upcoming gardening season as a progressive mushroom walk in the back yard – and maybe photograph and record (instead of fighting) the mushrooms you encounter?
New ones will appear soon. But even now you may come across the soiled, spore-filled remains of a stump ball outcrop (Lycoperdon pyriforme) on a log or wood chip mulch, or you may find staple mushrooms on a tree stump. Or maybe at some point you will discover some of the following.
Oddball eruptions on the lawn
When he works at the Catskill Fungi stand in the Hudson Valley or at the farmers markets in the Catskill region, Michelotti is an unofficial mushroom ambassador. (However, with his signature Myko humor, he prefers to introduce himself as "the funny guy".)
"People come up to me and ask," I have these mushrooms in my lawn – how do I get rid of them? "He said." And when you search for 'lawn mushrooms' online, it's about how to kill them. "
His message, always patiently conveyed: "Can we perhaps take a closer look at what the mushrooms are doing here?"
Fungi – the fruit or reproductive bodies of mushrooms – are not a disease, but a sign of health, he explains. They point out that beneath the grass, "your soil works with giant networks of mycelial mats and trillions of microscopic organisms that work together to help break down organic matter to provide nutrients to plants."
His questioners may have seen some thin-stemmed, pointy little conocybe apala, mushrooms that come and go quickly, often unnoticed. Or has something more emphatic just broken out? From late summer to autumn, soccer-like giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) are the headliners.
"Check out the Fantastic Fungi movie if you really want to appreciate the puffballs in your lawn," said Michelotti, who starred in the documentary – and a favorite puffball piccata recipe.
Again: enough with the extermination efforts. First, you can't eradicate them – most of the mushrooms' life is invisible, underground, and continues even after the fruiting bodies are removed. And "if you pick them and throw them somewhere or mow them, you are actually helping spread their spores," said Michelotti.
More magic mushrooms (no, not this kind)
Um, who's playing ring out around the jaws? One of the most beautiful mycological sights is a fairy ring: mushrooms grow in a circular pattern, often around a tree. The tree species can be helpful in identifying the fungi. Such mycorrhizal relationships are often specific. The ring can return and even expand in the following years.
"When you see a fairy ring, the mushrooms that appear bear fruit on the outer edge of the underground mycelial network," said Michelotti, referring to the hidden network of filaments or hyphae. "You may notice that the lawn there is lush, darker green, and vibrant."
If you're really lucky, you can win a front row seat for melting mushrooms, the ink cap, or the shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus). On the lawn or in disturbed areas like the edges of a dirt road, the liquefying gills and caps lead us to the best mushroom vocabulary of all: deliquesce.
As the mushrooms automatically digest, black spores that are not carried into the air sound what remains – a very different kind of reproductive show than that of the giant puffball, whose spore cloud emits billions of spores.
And shaggy manes are one of many types that can form a fairy ring. Imagine that.
Mushrooms in the mulch
Mulched areas are a favorite of many decomposer species, including the charming bird's nest mushrooms (including Cyathus and Crucibulum). The bird's nest is named after its small cup-like fruiting bodies (nests or peridia) that are filled with tiny eggs (peridioles).
Phallic, sometimes gaudy mushrooms such as elegant stinkhorns (Mutinus elegans) and Ravenel's stinkhorn (Phallus ravenelii) stand in stark contrast to the mulch in Battery Park and other parks in New York City.
"You smell like a garbage truck," said Michelotti. "But flies flock there, and the sticky spore slime gets on your feet." Wherever the insects land afterwards, these spores are distributed.
"These gross ones really appeal to people – and hit the wow factor," he added.
Next, with our eyes turned up, we could spy out shelf or bracket mushrooms growing on trees. Or maybe mushrooms that are more curved down, like an animal's hoof, called conks. These powerful recyclers process dead and dying wood, but most did not cause the tree to die.
Cultivating edible garden helpers
Growing edible mushrooms – by inoculating tree trunks with shiitake spawn or growing oyster mushrooms in coffee grounds on the kitchen counter – has grown in popularity.
Although we are already growing mushrooms unintentionally on our farms, Mr. Michelotti nudges us to deliberately cultivate delicious workhorses such as the wine cap king Stropharia (Stropharia rugosoannulata) in mulched paths or beds. The annual almond agaricus can be grown in ready-made compost in addition to pumpkin vines, or you can inoculate a compost heap or an undisturbed garden bed with bubbles (clitocybe).
Spawning springs such as Field & Forest Products and Mushroom Mountain offer an extensive selection with detailed instructions on each species.
Increase your appreciation for mushrooms
Mr Michelotti's message is consistent: "The best thing you can do with mushrooms is to accept them, enjoy them and appreciate what they do." Remember your floor does.
He is a self-taught mycologist, as is his mentor, Gary Lincoff, who died in 2018. Known as the author of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, Mr. Lincoff has taught at the New York Botanical Garden for more than 40 years. In a project that ran from 2010 until his death, he registered more than 100 species there, each of which otherwise lived unannounced in this first-class plant collection.
Mr. Michelotti became interested in mushrooms through cooking and then foraging. It was Mr. Lincoff who chaired the first event he attended and Mr. Michelotti encourages each of us to take a guided walk or attend a local club meeting. (There is a club directory on the North American Mycological Association website.)
If you need more encouragement, Michael Kuo's Mushroom Expert website is a go-to place as well as the classic books Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets and Mushrooms of the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada “” Posted by Timothy J. Baroni. Doug Bentings "In Search of Mycotopy: Citizen Science, Mushroom Fanatics, and the Untapped Potential of Mushrooms" was recently published. And if you prefer memoir-style mycological inspiration, try Long Litt Woon's "The Walk Through the Woods: About Mushrooms and Sorrow."
Mr. Michelotti's guided walks are less "is it edible?" as mushrooms 101. It deals with the connection of nature through mushroom morphology, ecological roles, mushrooms in history and in current medicine and science. And he always finds something to add a dose of the “wow” factor.
A few years ago he was supposed to take a walk in the woods that he had never visited before. "Don't you want to come early to find the good places?" The organizer asked him. No, he replied, there was no need to plan a route in advance.
"I like to be surprised," he said. "And there is always something."
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden and a book of the same name.
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