A foray into fall fungi

Post by Brett Peto

Until recently, I haven’t given mushroom (much room) in my head to the Fungi kingdom. It’s been an admitted blindspot in my nature knowledge for too long. I’m taking some steps to correct this, though. Reading books such as Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. Looking for fungi in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois and other natural areas. Taking photos of the ones I find and doing my best to identify them.

There’s still much I don’t know—apologies for any errors in advance—but I can claim to know a bit more now than I did at the start of 2021. With fall being possibly the best time to spot some fungi, I thought I’d write about some common species you might discover in the preserves.

Some slugs feasting on fungi. Photo © Helena Keller.
Some slugs feasting on fungi. Photo © Helena Keller.

Some fungi facts might help set the table. Examples of fungi include yeasts, molds and mushrooms. They’re eukaryotes, meaning they have well-organized cells complete with a nucleus and organelles. Unlike plants, their cell walls contain a substance called chitin, also found in the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans.

The building block of a fungus is the hypha (plural hyphae), a small tube that contains one or more cells. When hyphae connect and gather in great numbers, they form a network called a mycelium (plural mycelia). What we often notice above-ground this time of year are structures called fruiting bodies. As a method of reproduction, fruiting bodies release trillions of spores, which can each germinate into a new fungus and can be thought of as somewhat analogous to plant seeds.

Despite this, fungi are more closely related to animals than plants, though scientists lumped them in with the plant kingdom as recently as the 1960s. This in-between state—not quite animal, not quite plant, “supple, with a fleshy resistance”—leads many people to feel vaguely unsettled by fungi. It’s like only partly recognizing yourself in a mirror.

Do fungi photosynthesize as plants do? No, and they don’t actively track down prey and digest it internally as animals do, either. Rather, a fungus’ hyphae secrete chemicals called exoenzymes that break down organic matter surrounding them. The fungus then absorbs the nutrients that are released. Fungi are the only organisms on Earth which can effectively process lignin—an extremely tough component of plant cell walls.

These traits make fungi strong decomposers, releasing nutrients from dead organisms to free them up for themselves and other lifeforms. When a tree falls in a forest, it does make a sound, but it wouldn’t decay very fast without fungi around to dismantle it. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine plants and animals existing in their current forms today without fungi, since nutrients would be much harder to “unlock.”

The Fungi kingdom is so diverse that estimates of the number of species are diverse themselves, ranging from 500,000 to one trillion. A 2021 study published in the scientific journal Microbiology Spectrum pegs the number of Fungi species in the world somewhere between 2.2 and 3.8 million. However many fungi friends there are, scientists have discovered and described only about 120,000 species, perhaps just 3 to 8 percent of the total.

It’s moments like these when nature inspires both awe and humility. Flip through any field guide to mushrooms and you’ll see astonishing varieties of shapes, colors, sizes and textures. (I’m partial to puffballs, polypores and coral-like mushrooms myself.) Then consider that we literally don’t know the half of what’s out there. It makes a walk through the woods this time of year feel like a special expedition into partly charted wilderness.

So, here are 10 fungi species you may encounter locally. Many of these photos are supplied by my colleagues, Executive Assistant Helena Keller and Restoration Ecologist Ken Klick, both fungi aficionados themselves. There’s fungus among us, indeed!

One note of caution: fall is a wonderful time to spot fungi growing. But it’s never a good time to remove them from the preserves. Poaching and foraging are illegal. Those discovered doing so may be subject to fines according to the poached item(s). Let’s all do our part to keep these species in the preserves where they belong.

The turkey-tail (Trametes versicolor) is a small polypore usually found growing on dead deciduous wood from May through December. Photo © Ken Klick.
The turkey-tail (Trametes versicolor) is a small polypore usually found growing on dead deciduous wood from May through December. Photo © Ken Klick.
The white coral (Ramariopsis kunzei) is a visually interesting species best identified by its vertical branched structure, white color and fragile flesh. Photo © Ken Klick.
The white coral (Ramariopsis kunzei) is a visually interesting species best identified by its vertical branched structure, white color and fragile flesh. Photo © Ken Klick.
The giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) is a perennial fall favorite in the preserves. It's a huge, smooth, white sphere typically measuring 8-20" in diameter. The puffball is found growing singly or in fairy rings in open woods and pastures. When white within, it's an edible species—though remember that collection of any natural material in the preserves is prohibited. Pictured: Joanna Klick. Photo © Ken Klick.
The giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) is a perennial fall favorite. It’s a huge, smooth, white sphere typically measuring 8-20″ in diameter. The puffball is found growing singly or in “fairy rings” in open woods and pastures. Photo © Ken Klick.
The chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) is a bracket fungus that grows on the trunks and branches of many tree species, including oaks, beeches, plums and willows. The fungus can sometimes act as a parasite. By the time mushrooms appear, it's likely the host tree has been invaded by thousands of mycelia. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) is a bracket fungus that grows on the trunks and branches of many tree species, including oaks, beeches, plums and willows. The fungus can act as a parasite. By the time mushrooms appear, it’s likely the host tree has been invaded by thousands of mycelia. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) is sometimes mistaken for fallen leaves. It's visible from September-November on the ground at the base of oak and other deciduous trees. You can typically find hen of the woods in the same place year after year, growing in clusters 10-20" wide. Photo © Helena Keller.
The hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) is sometimes mistaken for fallen leaves. It’s visible from September-November on the ground at the base of oak and other deciduous trees. You can typically find hen of the woods in the same place year after year, growing in clusters 10-20″ wide. Photo © Helena Keller.
The jack-o'-lantern (Omphalotus illudens) is bioluminescent and glows green at night. It's also toxic, causing cramps, vomiting and diarrhea upon ingestion. The mushroom is usually found clustered at the base of tree trunks and stumps, or on the buried roots of deciduous trees. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The jack-o’-lantern (Omphalotus illudens) is bioluminescent and glows green at night. It’s also toxic, causing cramps, vomiting and diarrhea upon ingestion. The mushroom is usually found clustered at the base of tree trunks and stumps, or on the buried roots of deciduous trees. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The wood-ear (Auricularia auricula), also called the tree-ear, is indeed ear-shaped—true to its name. Also true to its name, the species grows on coniferous and deciduous wood from May-June and September-December. The flesh is thin and rubbery. Stock photo.
The wood-ear (Auricularia auricula), also called the tree-ear, is indeed ear-shaped. The species grows on coniferous and deciduous wood from May-June and September-December. The flesh is thin and rubbery. Stock photo.
The common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) is widely distributed in North America and can be seen from July-October. The white, round mushroom features detachable, conical spines and grows singly or in clusters in open woods and along roads. Photo © Helena Keller.
The common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) is widely distributed in North America and can be seen from July-October. The white, round mushroom features detachable, conical spines and grows singly or in clusters in open woods and along roads. Photo © Helena Keller.
The little nest polypore (Poronidulus conchifer) is frequently mistaken for a cup fungus or a bird's nest fungus early on in its life cycle. Oddly, the mushroom eventually develops a cap as an extension of its cup. This species grows on dead elm branches and other deciduous wood, visible from June-November. Photo © Helena Keller.
The little nest polypore (Poronidulus conchifer) is frequently mistaken for a cup fungus or a bird’s nest fungus early on in its life cycle. Oddly, the mushroom eventually develops a cap as an extension of its cup. This species grows on dead elm branches and other deciduous wood, visible from June-November. Photo © Helena Keller.
The oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) gives off a somewhat pleasant, hard-to-describe odor. It grows in shelf-like clusters on many deciduous trees. The color of the cap varies from white to gray to brown depending upon the season. Stock photo.
The oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) gives off a somewhat pleasant, hard-to-describe odor. It grows in shelf-like clusters on many types of deciduous trees. The color of the cap varies from white to gray to brown depending upon the season. Stock photo.

Bringing back the buzz

Post by Jen Berlinghof

All summer long, swaths of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) quake in the presence of thousands of native bumble bee wings beating away. These pollination dynamos use a technique called buzz pollination, vibrating their bodies to trigger nearby flowers to release pollen. At the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, a similar buzz of excitement arrived in summer 2020 when staff spotted the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) at Greenbelt in North Chicago.

Fast forward to summer 2021. The hum continues to reverberate after multiple sightings of this keystone species were documented across the county from Flint Creek to Wadsworth Savanna in Wadsworth. While summer’s the height of hive activity, the shoulder seasons—usually defined as May, June, September and October—might be key to the success of the rusty patched bumble bee. This is partly due to the timing, or phenology, of the species’ lifecycle. It’s one of the first bees to emerge in spring and the last to enter hibernation in fall.

A worker, or male, rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) sits atop mountain mint. Photo © Dan Mullen.
A rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) sits atop mountain mint. Photo © Dan Mullen.
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A thousand-mile journey on two-inch wings

Post by Jen Berlinghof

I’ve spent many days this summer living the “lake life,” from the sandy dunes of the Great Lakes to the cattail-studded coves of inland waters. The waterways found within the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois have been especially rewarding. Each shoreline has provided unique glimpses of wildlife, including an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) diving full throttle to catch a fish at dawn, and a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) pouncing on prey hidden among the beach grass at dusk.

Also present at every waterway this summer has been the jewel-hued, common green darner dragonfly (Anax junius). These ubiquitous insects effortlessly nab multitudes of mosquitoes on the wing. While the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) reigns in our minds when it comes to insect migrations, recent research reveals the green darner takes a multi-generational, miles-long journey of its own each year.

Common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) are found in the forest preserves. Stock photo.
Common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) are found in the forest preserves. Stock photo.
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What’s wrong with this picture?

Editor’s note: hey readers, Brett Peto here. This month, guest author Pati Vitt, Manager of Restoration Ecology at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, returns with the third part of her series about our research project to restore 180 acres of former farmland within Grant Woods Forest Preserve in Ingleside using a climate-adapted, regionally sourced native seed mix.

This past winter, we planted 800 pounds of native grass seed from southern Illinois and Kentucky in the project area. The goal was (and still is) to help us understand whether we should source native seeds from further south to make our future restoration projects more resilient to climate change.

Unfortunately, as you can probably tell from the photo below, even the best-laid plans can go awry. And so they did, when an unseasonable early drought struck. Pati will pick it up from here.

The author's boot atop a drought-parched patch of soil at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The author’s boot atop a drought-parched patch of soil at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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Become a community scientist

Post by Jen Berlinghof

While the past year and a half has kept many of us mostly at home, nature in our backyards and beyond has provided a balm for these trying times. General use of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois is trending 30% higher in 2021 than a typical pre-pandemic year. And in 2020, there was an astounding 70% surge in visitation. The number of folks delving into home gardening and backyard birding has skyrocketed as well, making headlines by leaving store shelves bare of birdseed and bird feeders. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified our desire to connect to nature closer to home, and it has created space and time for local, daily observations. All of this translates to an environment ripe for community science, also called citizen science.

Community scientists flip over a cover board during a BioBlitz event held at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest in 2008. Photo © Carol Freeman.
Community scientists flip over a cover board during a BioBlitz event held at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest in 2008. Photo © Carol Freeman.
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A native garden to call your own

Guest post by Eileen Davis

What is your earliest gardening memory? Was it planting a seed in a paper cup at school, and watching it sprout and grow on the classroom windowsill? Perhaps you gathered dandelion flowers and presented your mom with a beautiful, yellow bouquet. Or did you rake up a giant pile of leaves to jump in on a crisp fall day? You might even have visited the native garden at Independence Grove in Libertyville, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

My earliest gardening memory is helping my aunt and uncle in their garden. I was only about four or five years old, but I clearly remember the prickly feeling of the cucumber vines scratching my forearm as I helped pull weeds. No matter the memory, we are all doing the same thing—tending to our little piece of the Earth. It’s something humans have done for thousands and thousands of years. We are and always have been dependent on our environment for survival.

The author's daughters playing in a backyard leaf pile. Photo © Eileen Davis.
The author’s daughters playing in a backyard leaf pile. Photo © Eileen Davis.
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The cunning of cowbirds

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Bird migration is well underway, and the nesting season is upon us at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. I watched last week as an American robin (Turdus migratorius) plucked dried grasses from the yard, nudging them into place with her beak and wings, readying her cup-shaped nest for the azure eggs that are synonymous with spring. From the nearby American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) tree, I heard the gurgling chatter of a flock of brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater).

I thought about how while the robin might’ve seemed completely absorbed in her nest building, she was probably wearily listening to the cowbirds, too. Brown-headed cowbirds are North America’s most common avian brood parasite, forgoing nest building altogether. Instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of more than 200 other species of birds, leaving the incubation and rearing of their young to these unwitting foster parents.

A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) spotted at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Photo © Phil Hauck.
A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) spotted at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Photo © Phil Hauck.
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The curious courtship of the American woodcock

Post by Jen Berlinghof

March is the demarcation of spring. This new season is brewing now as snowmelt percolates through the thick mats of leaves on the forest floor into swollen creeks. Sap is rising in the sugar maples (Acer saccharum), with its promise of sweetness after a harsh winter. The purple, mottled crowns of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) peek out of the thawing mud, surging toward the sun. And the quiet of winter is replaced with the cacophony of western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) accompanied by the “peent” and “whir” of American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a curious species to study. Stock photo.
The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a curious species to study. Stock photo.
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On the path to recovery

Editor’s note: hello readers, Brett Peto here. Guest author Pati Vitt, Manager of Restoration Ecology at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, is back with the second of her three-part series about our research project to restore 180 acres of former farmland within Grant Woods Forest Preserve using a climate-adapted, regionally sourced native seed mix.

An aerial view of the 180-acre research project area at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
An aerial view of the 180-acre research project area at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
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Flicking through the Flickr pool

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Post by Brett Peto

You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been a long year. In a pandemic, separated from routines, sometimes days go slow but months go fast, and vice versa. There are fewer anchors around which to pin our schedules like so many pieces of laundry on a clothesline. Some people have started baking homemade bread, assembling model kits, binging movies and podcasts, devouring piles of books, or playing long-distance board games over Zoom. Our strategies may vary, but I think it’s helpful to have as many coping mechanisms as we can gather this year.

One adopted or continued by many folks is spending more time outdoors. Whether in yards, neighborhoods, parks, or the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, people are discovering or rediscovering the value of nature, even as the thermometer dips. Fresh air; sunshine; wide horizons; the sounds of wind in trees and water over rocks; birds and squirrels and foxes living their private lives; the calm curiosity to find out where a trail goes and the confidence that it’s designed to go somewhere.

"Ice Ice Baby." Photo © Michelle Wendling.
“Ice Ice Baby.” Photo © Michelle Wendling.
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