By Jill Craig
Somewhere in the forest, a round tan ball the size of a half-dollar is pushing through the leaf litter.
Encouraged by monsoonal moisture, this fungal ball’s arms open into a star. Then they expand exposing a small white pouch to the sky to welcome rain that, in turn, releases spores. These spores travel with the wind and rain until they find a suitable soil home t0 create a new community.
The ball is called an Earthstar because it looks like a star — a very small one, mind you — that’s fallen from the sky.
Earthstars are actually the fruiting body of an underground network of fungi called mycorrhizae. When conditions are ripe, the network reproduces.
Odd as it may same, this network is extremely important to the health and well-being of the forest. Basically, the roots of plants and trees have agreed to work together with mycorrhizae. The fungus, with its widespread network, attaches to roots and helps secure moisture and nutrients in the soil that plants can access. In turn, plants produce sugars via photosynthesis that travel to their roots and are absorbed by fungi. It’s a pretty good deal for both parties.
Earthstars are great fun. When you find one, take it home and try letting it dry out then re-wetting it. You can find earthstars year-round, but they’re most common after periods of moisture under stands of oak or manzanitas. Now that the earth is moistened by monsoons, it’s time to hunt.
As soon as the rains commence at the Highlands Center for Natural History, I scan the grounds for fungi.
Among the Ponderosas, I find mushrooms called Slippery Jacks. They’re chunky and yellowish and have a spongy cap that’s super slippery when wet.
The Inky Cap is particularly delightful. I’ve found loads of ’em under the Willow next to the flagpole here. I like inky caps because you can watch them change and develop over time. Inky caps grow in clusters, are rather tall, and often slender. With their irregularly edged cap draped over their stem they resemble Cousin It. Their common name is Shaggy Mane. As each day passes, the cap breaks down and creates an ink that washes away with rain. This process is a method of spore dispersal. Historically, ink from these mushrooms was used for writing.
While neither of the mushrooms are edible, they’re fascinating finds that offer a glimpse into the wonderful world of fungus in our forests.
It can be challenging to keep mushroom specimens, so it’s best to take pictures to help with identification. Snap shots of the top and bottom of the cap, the base of the stem, and where the stem and cap meet.
Books can aid mushroom identification, including some here at the Highlands Center store. You can also check out Tanelorn.Us, a great online source for local fungi identification maintained by a Northern Arizona University graduate student.
Happy mushroom hunting.
Jill Craig is education director at the Highlands Center for Natural History. She oversees all educational programming for the center and facilitates the Highlands Naturalist Volunteer Program. In her spare time, Jill can be found hiking in the Bradshaw Mountains with her two dogs and husband.