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Pikes/Pines | The fungus among us — four of the mushrooms you’ll meet on Capitol Hill

Regardless of the species, mushrooms are simply captivating. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

In the last year, I’ve been building up my vegetable garden attempting to thwart capitalism, eat healthier food, and live a life more centered in place. This had me outside in all types of weather weeding, picking, and mulching. The latter in particular saw loads of wood chips, sourced from a local arborist, added to create paths, to reduce undesirable plant growth, and to build up the fertility of my beds. Along the way we had a profusion of mushrooms.

I suspect that some would have reacted with horror to see mushrooms everywhere. While I wasn’t in a place of knowledge to actively discern between potentially problematic and beneficial, I generally wasn’t worried. We are constantly surrounded by fungi. Their spores swirl through the air, they hold relationships with nearly every plant we lay eyes upon, and mostly we don’t see or worry about them. A mushroom popping up in my wood chips merely means that these chips were either a fertile medium for fungal colonies already present in the soil, or came pre-seasoned when the tree in question was chipped.

Still, mushrooms are deeply polarizing. Many of us love to eat them, for sustenance and brain altering experiences, yet we also fear that they might be dangerously poisonous or a harbinger of doom for trees or yards. Both perspectives have some validity, even if fear is not always a productive route to understanding. A perusal of the media shows these vacillating truths, epicurean delights and standard “don’t let your child or pets eat the mushrooms growing in your lawn,” along with a smattering of lost mushroom forager.

Yet, I think we’d be building a world for ourselves that was drastically more bleak if we didn’t also acknowledge the interest fungi, and mushrooms the fruiting body of a fungal species, can generate. I don’t exaggerate when I say that almost all cultures around the world had stories or active relationships with mushrooms. Humans became humans learning to use mushrooms as a part of daily life; using mushrooms to dye textiles, start fires, treat ailments, and of course feed ourselves. Both in their above ground appearance and the way they interface with the unseen world, mushrooms are the essence of fantasy, even in name: Elfin Saddles, Shaggy Manes, and Death Caps harken to Grimm fairy tales or Tolkien. A Fly Amanita mushroom may have carried Siberian mystics across planes of existence (and they kill a few people a year who eat them), but they are also visually captivating.

We don’t typically see the parts of a fungal body that inhabit the plants we live near, so those of us without advanced fungal knowledge focus on mushrooms to learn about the fungus among us. Fall is the best season to find mushrooms, October is prime, but November is still great. You can find dozens of species in a few short hours, even on the Hill (where there are observations of over 200 species logged in iNaturalist). They can also be difficult to identify, which is why mushroom foraging, while rewarding, is also very dangerous if you have not learned enough. (I myself am in this category.)

Even if you can’t eat them, mushrooms are worth enjoying and have stories to tell. What follows are a few species that are fairly easy to identify and find around the hill. In trying to identify them and others you’ll want to pay attention to their physical characteristics (are the undersides of their caps spongy or made of gills) as well as where they are growing (wood chips, grass, on a log). Mushrooms are also ephemeral bodies, put forth to reproduce by spreading spores. There are fresh, and less than fresh ones, which can pose challenges to knowing the species. Either way, a walk outside this weekend will reveal many shapes and sizes to behold.

Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus) While they might sound like a new Top 40 rapper, the shaggy scales that adorn the cap of these mushrooms give them their name. Shaggy Manes are edible but they are also easily confused with a species with the delightful colloquial “Vomiter,” but with a bit of experience telling them apart is not terribly challenging (according to texts, not my experience). When these mushrooms first rise, often in grasses and even areas of gravel (I have read stories of them pushing up asphalt), they are cylindrical but their caps expand with age as they decay into a inky mess.

(Image: CHS)

Fly Amanita (Amanita muscaria) Fly Amanitas are the archetypal image of a mushroom. Though some have eaten these mushrooms at their own peril, for food or psychoactive properties, this species should be appreciated for its beauty and left alone. They grow in soil and grasses, often in relationship with pines or birches. Like the Shaggy Mane, Amanitas have gills on the underside of their caps; a quick and dirty distinction to make between various species. Many of their genus are known for being deadly toxic and have names to match, (like Death Cap and Destroying Angel,) but there are plenty of relatives that are perfectly edible. The moniker “fly” either relates to their supposed use as a flytrap in parts of Europe or because well, they could make your mind fly upon ingestion.

Turkey-Tail (Trametes versicolor)

Mushrooms in the genus Trametes, most likely Turkey-Tail. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

If you’ve ever seen a turkey tail feather it’s not a far leap to the colors of this mushroom. Unlike the species above, Turkey-Tails grow on decaying wood as a horizontal shelf without a stem. They are polypore mushrooms, and instead of gills on their undersides they have hundreds of tiny tubes stacked together. Though edible, they are low in tastiness and are probably not worth the effort. However, they have a history of use in traditional medicines in other parts of the world. A cancer therapy treatment extracted from Turkey-Tails is used in clinics in Japan.

Witch’s Butter (Tremella mesenterica)

Witch’s Butter. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Whatever name you call them, be it Witch’s Butter, Yellow Brain, or Yellow Trembler, this mushroom is atypical and lives a markedly different life from the species above (all of which exist mostly as mycelium). They live part of their lives as single celled microorganisms similar to yeast, which then jump through a series of asexual and sexual hoops to develop their gelatinous fruiting body. I associate them with downed branches during our wet storms, because they fruit in moist conditions on decaying wood, often on Red Alders. Interestingly they parasitize the mycelium of another fungus that is a wood rotting pathogen, getting their toe hold for fruiting by stealing from distant relatives.

These are just a few of the mushroom types you might find on your next wander across Capitol Hill. There are many more. With new smartphone apps, getting an idea of what a mystery fungus is called is easier than ever. Let us know what you’ve found on your walks and explorations.


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10 months ago

I believe you are mixing up Shaggy Mane mushrooms with Shaggy Parasols… Shaggy Manes are an inky cap that grows taller than wide. They don’t really have any super close look-alike here in the PNW, much less a poisonous one, but some related species can make you ill if consumed with alcohol…

Shaggy Parasols on the other hand, Chlorophyllum olivieri and C. brunneum, have a close lookalike, Chlorophyllum molybdites, that can make you quite ill…. as far as I know C. molybdites isn’t known to occur this far north, but they will make you feel very ill if you eat them, so better safe than sorry….

Always have any mushroom you intend to eat ID’d by someone you trust.
Shaggy mane

10 months ago

Shaggy Parasol

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10 months ago

I found this in Interlaken Park. I believe it’s Strobilurus trullisatus, but I’m an amateur.

For those interested, iNaturalist is a good app for exploring your local fungi, flora, and fauna. (I’m not paid by them, just like the app.)

Strobilurus trullisatus.jpg
10 months ago

You forgot one. The gay mushroom. HahahahahaHahahahahaHahahahahaHahahahaha!