Winter is an austere time in the western Virginia forest. There are a few evergreens—some tired ferns, occasional pines, a holly or two—but mostly everything is bare and dormant, patiently awaiting Spring. It’s now that mushrooms shine.
They seem to be in abundance everywhere, apparently oblivious to the cold and snow, running up and down dead trees and across fallen logs, which they are slowly decomposing and digesting. They are also quite photogenic—not flashy like flowers but varied in shape, size, color, texture and structure. I find them interesting in every season, but most appreciated when there’s little else to admire.
This post is devoted to mushrooms, a pleasant diversion during pandemic cabin fever, and an interesting sidelight to my year-long “Covid Ramblings” project. You won’t learn much about this vast kingdom of organisms here—I’m neither a mycologist nor a mycophagist—but perhaps I can interest you in these humble creatures as worthy subjects of photography. In viewing the following sample of their great variety from this area you might think of exploring your own neck of the woods. Not only are mushrooms lovely to contemplate, but they hold still, unlike fauna.
First, some bits of amateur taxonomy. This will be rudimentary and inexact, even though I’ve consulted with my friend John Knox, a botanist who actually knows something. (He’s not responsible for any errors that remain; those are mine alone.) But also, and alas, I’ve used the internet—and you know how reliable that is. So caveat lector. Let’s start with a large view.
Fungi are eukaryotes, cells with a membrane-bound nucleus and an outer cell membrane.
Eukaryotes are one major “domain” of life, alongside a raft of organisms such as bacteria and archaea, which are prokaryotes and lack eukaryotic features. Within the eukaryotic domain, there are many major groups or kingdoms: flora (plants), fauna (animals) and fungi are the most familiar, while the others are a dazzling array of single-celled protists [think about what life was doing those billions of years before multi-cellular organisms evolved]. If it’s visible, not an animal and isn’t green, it’s likely a fungus.
Plants produce their own food, via their chlorophyll factories, while fungi and fauna need something else to eat. Fungi are saprophytes (they live on dead organic material) and fauna can be viewed as parasites in an extended sense (they eat plants or animals). E. O. Wilson says parasites are “predators that eat prey in units of less than one,” and in that sense fungi could be considered parasites too, just that their food is long dead. But not all fungi produce mushrooms; in fact, most don’t. Mushrooms are the fleshy, spore-bearing, fruiting bodies of above-ground fungi. There are also very many microscopic fungi (like yeast, rusts and smuts), and some macroscopic ones are subterranean (like truffles). Mushrooms are basically the way many fungi propagate, analogous to a plant’s flowers and fruits, and like floral sex, it’s quite photogenic.
Mushrooms are plentiful in temperate forests in all seasons, a bit less so in the tropics, and quite a bit less so in deserts. I doubt polar iceboxes have any at all, though surely there are some species of fungi shivering there. I can’t find a scientifically-reliable source, but there appear to be over 10,000 described species in North America, while the number of undescribed species is perhaps three to five times that many. Nearly 2,000 of those species are known in the hills of western Virginia. So I have lots of local photographic material, and I’m sure the same is true for you wherever you are.
Fungi, like most parasites, both harm and help their hosts. Most plant pathologies, like rusts and smuts, mildews and wilts, are due to fungi. Likewise dry rot and other afflictions of old timbers.
All animals, including humans, suffer hundreds of fungal infections, among them ringworm, athlete’s foot, jock itch, nail infections, rashes, thrush, asthma, allergies, meningitis, histoplasmosis and aspergillosis, to name just a few. But fungal benefits are many and great, and they outweigh their insults to humans. Primarily they are the world’s great decomposers of dead organic matter—just think what a forest would look like without the patient work of fungi! They are also of inestimable benefit to plants and animals. As John Knox notes, fungi are often vital root symbiots for woody plants via mycorrhizae. For humans, fungi comprise a sizeable fraction of our microbiomes, resident primarily in our guts but also on every surface of our bodies, flourishing in intricately co-adapted mini-ecosystems with bacteria and viruses. “We depend on a vast army of microbes to stay alive: a microbiome that protects us against germs, breaks down food to release energy, and produces vitamins;” they “call the shots behind your health.” (sources: what else, the internet).
Additionally, mushrooms have medicinal uses, not only traditional (and mainly unproven) ones but also modern medical ones, such as penicillin and some cancer drugs. They yield chemicals that are used for dying natural fabrics such as wool. Some produce psilocybin or other psychoactive chemicals; they are the widely-used “magic mushrooms” currently prohibited by the US Drug Enforcement Administration but showing promise in treating depression (under medical supervision, of course!). And let us not forget food: Many mushrooms are tasty and nutritious, though I wouldn’t venture to forage for them in the forest, as some are quite toxic—and often resemble innocuous species. And then there are the staples of life: bread and beer, both reliant not upon mushrooms exactly, but upon yeasts, which are fungi.
Mushrooms have a great deal to offer photographers. Usually they are found upon dead twigs or logs, and within a natural context of plants and other fungi. These other organisms provide interesting visual contrasts. Precipitation can also help: rain glistens plants but swells and polishes mushrooms; they both look better that way, I think. Then there is snow.
Mushrooms get buried in heavier snows, but when the snowfall is lighter, or partially melted, the white crystals contrast well with fleshy darker mushrooms, though the contrast may be difficult to capture. But mushrooms also look good entirely on their own: They come in various shapes and colors, patterns and textures, sizes and clumps. While they aren’t usually as flashy or striking as flowers shamelessly flaunting their sex, mushrooms can be quite fetching in tans, browns, greys and whites, as well as some more flamboyant yellows and reds. And I find the shapes intriguing: Not only the eponymous heads of button mushrooms, with their gills underneath the cap, but also the fabulous turkey tails, in various sizes and colors, which are very common in this area. (I have an especial fondness for turkey tails.) Most mushrooms I encounter are denizens of forest floors, and when the canopy is out sunlight is diffused nicely, although I have found it’s even better when skies are overcast. Cloudy skies are almost a necessity in winter; otherwise fungal subtleties will be lost.
Mushrooms may be found in every season in this area; to show this, I’ve chosen some images from every month, all from my ramblings in 2020 except for January (2019) and the first one from September (2018), which I like for other reasons. February, September and October seem to be particularly rich months for mushrooms around here (or at least those are months in which I notice lots of them), so I’ve included several examples for each month. All the previous images were February ‘shrooms. I don’t know how to properly name or categorize these mushrooms, so I will just let the images speak for themselves.
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