As the nights grow still and crisp with the north wind, I sense the change in the air. Restless and inspired in the morning, I go walkabout into the Trent Nature Sanctuary forest—in search of adventure. The deep forest lures me into its secret places, cloaked in the colours and scents of early fall. I breathe in the pungent smells of soil, moss, and decaying leaves. The forest is already preparing for winter. Squirrels scamper through the understory, drunk on acorns. And I crawl the forest floor, drunk on saprotrophs and detrivores.
I’m on the hunt for macro-fungi—mushrooms, in particular. The fruiting bodies of fungi.
Fall is their season, when they reveal themselves and emerge—pushing themselves up through loam, litter and tissue of fallen logs—to fulfill the vernal cycle of change. It’s invigorating—if not a bit painful for my aging knees and elbows—as I discover more and more kinds of fungal fruiting bodies: from my initial discovery of one mushroom at the base of a tree to the many peaking through the forest litter around me. At each turn I spot bold red caps in front of me then demure green, lurking brown, shy orange, and sublime gold mushrooms to my left and right. Large and tiny—with caps of smooth and slimy to shaggy and scaly—the mushrooms celebrate great diversity in microcosm.
So, I don’t mind the sore knees; I’m in a kind of ecstasy. I’m witnessing one of Nature’s wonders in her seasonal cycle as she ‘Ouroboros-like’ undergoes a kind of creative-destruction: living to die and dying to live…
Armed with my Canon Rebel EOS Xs and mini-tripod, robust outer clothing, and an adventurous spirit, I venture forth to document my mushroom heaven. On hand and knee. More often recumbent. Head resting on the ground and breathing in the living forest floor as all my senses adjust to a microcosmic world.
Fungi in the Forest Ecosystem
George Barron, author of Mushrooms of Ontario and Eastern Canada, tells us that fungi comprise 90% of living matter in the soil. Active growing fungi outweigh all other soil organisms by a factor of almost 10 to 1. Hard to believe? There is so much more to fungus than the eye can behold. Fungi reign supreme in the forest soils and decaying matter. Their biomass (the living material of fungi) includes two major components and a number of minor ones. The two major ones in forests are: 1. mycorrhizal fungi (which help the tree live) and 2. wood-decaying fungi (which help the tree die).
- Mycorrhizae are the fungus roots of trees in a mutually symbiotic relationship that literally helps the tree feed on nutrients and water in the soil. Mycorrhyza literally means “fungus root.” According to Barron, hundreds of thousands of kilometers of fungal threads (Hyphae) are associated with the roots of a tree. These mycorrhizae feed the tree with the nutrients and water essential to its growth. The fungus gets those nutrients by growing through the soil and coating every soil particle. The mycelium connects different individuals in the forest—like birch with fir and works like the Internet with nodes and links. In exchange, the tree gives the fungus food in the form of sugars that it manufactures through photosynthesis in its leaves. UBC forest ecologist Suzanne Simard and others have demonstrated that hub or mother trees act as nodes to nurture hundreds of their young saplings and send their excess carbon through the mycorrhizal network to the understory seedlings. Simard has shown that trees have a social life within a community and talk to one another through this vast network of mycorrhizae.
“Forests aren’t simply collections of trees” says Simard. “They are complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees to allow them to communicate, and provide avenues for feedback and adaptation. This makes the forest resilient through many hub trees and overlapping networks.” The mycorrhizae are a vast communication network of the forest.
- Wood-Decaying Fungi are saprobic (feeding on dead or decaying organic matter) and they fulfill the role of biodegradation; wood-decaying fungi recycle energy from decaying living matter and help cycle carbon. Barron tells us that wood-destroying fungi are able to “penetrate the hardest wood and enzymatically digest its constituents (lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose).” This helps return the carbon to the atmosphere to cycle back into living matter. As the wood rots, bound up nutrients and minerals are released and further transformed by bacteria and other saprophytes into a form that forest plants and trees can take up. It is the Ouroboros, destroying to create.
Most wood-decaying fungi belong to the Ascomycota (sac fungi) and the Basidiomyota (coral fungi, tooth fungi, bracket fungi, boletes, gill fungi, puffballs, and jelly fungi).
Life Cycle of a Mushroom
When there’s enough moisture and food, the mushroom spore germinates and grows into a branching network of cylindrical fungal threads called hyphae. A hypha travels through the soil and organic matter in search of food and when it meets another compatible hypha, they fuse to create a fertile mycelium. The developing mycelium expands, breaking down organic matter and absorbing nutrients from the surroundings. As it expands, the mycelium also encounters competitors and predators, which it repels through protective enzymes and compounds, acting as the mushroom’s immune system. Some of these include polysaccharides, glycoproteins, ergosterols, triterpenoids and other myco-nutrients. When moisture conditions are right (usually in fall and winter) the mushroom hypha produces a fruiting body—the mushroom—which produces spores, the sexual reproduction phase of the mushroom life cycle. Gill plates hang down from the underside of the mushroom cap where spore mother cells (basidia) are produced by the fertile layer (hymenium) that covers the surface of the gill. Spores then release and carry in the wind to new sites for colonization.
Photographing the Mushroom
Equipment: I use a Canon EOS Rebel Xs, a digital and versatile camera with a Canon 58 mm zoom lens (EF-S, 18-55 mm capability). The lens allows me to get quite close to an object with great focus. I have in the past just used the camera as a point-and-shoot, given the often high quality image easily achieved through a balanced automatic system. But for this kind of close-up photography, most often in a forest setting (where the flash often defaulted even at the 800 ISO setting), I needed more control over focus, higher f-stops for more depth of field and a sharper less pixilated image, with slower exposure for a richer denser image. In low light conditions, the automatic ISO often defaults to 800, which tends to create a more grainy image. In automatic mode, the flash also tends to kick in during low light in the forest; the result is an image that lacks true colour, often with horrible light dispersion and poor depth-of-field.
I manually set the camera on 200 ISO to achieve higher resolution and richer more vibrant colours (akin to using Kodachrome 64 film in a non-digital camera). I then set the camera on ‘aperture-priority’ to control the f-stops, which I wanted to be higher (for increased depth-of-field). This enabled me to acquire a more information-dense image, one that more accurately showed the light and colours with incredible resolution and sharpness. Of course, doing that meant that I had to shoot with slow exposure times (from a fraction of a second to several seconds), which worked so long as I had my mini-tripod and a very steady set up. I’m still waiting for my cable-release (in the mail), which will further help against camera shake.
Environment: To get the best images, I had to get intimate with my subjects and the environment they were in. This meant getting on the ground, literally. I purposely dressed in clothing and footwear that I could get dirty, because to take shots of a mushroom on the ground, I had to be right there on the ground. I was often kneeling or lying on the ground—cheek touching duff and inhaling the smell of loam and moss—as I set up the shot and manually focused on the mushroom.
The World of Mushrooms
When you get down to the level of the microcosm, magic reveals itself in so many forms. Head to the ground, my eyes became a magic lens into the tiny world of the forest floor. I peeked below a mushroom cap to see its underskirt of gills or pores and witnessed its secrets. I spotted nuts, seeds, needles, cedar bits, and other biological debris that carpet the vast forest floor.
In a yellow-birch / cedar forest by the water, I found dense colonies of small white to tan-coloured puffballs bearing tiny spines. Most occupied the rotting birch logs. These pear-shaped puffballs are called Lycoperdon pyriforme.
Driven by an urchin child’s memory, I found a mature puffball (one with an open pore at the top) and poked it with my finger, releasing to my glee a yellow cloud of spores. Early taxonomists obviously associated the clouds with flatulence, because the genus Lycoperdon means “wolf fart.” Most puffballs are mycorrhizal and manufacture their spores inside, rather than on the outside on gills or tube structures. Their outer cover is called a peridinium and when a rain drop punctures it–or a probing finger–a tiny pore opens and releases a cloud of spores.
In the larger swamp cedar forest, I also discovered the larger white pestle-shaped puffball (Calvatia excipuliformis) and its more mature form, which looked papery, brownish-red and caved-in as if someone had stepped on it.
In the swamp forest, I chanced upon—literally stumbled upon—a colony of Collared Earthstars (Geastrum triplex) in an “alleyway” between two rotting and moss-covered cedar logs, amid a grove of yellow birch. I had just crawled over one decaying cedar log to photograph its mosses when I came eye-to head with one. Then another. And then many others.
I saw every stage of Earthstar over the course of my visits: the early stage looks like a tear-drop shaped cocoa-dusted truffle, pushing itself out of the duff. The outer layer (exoperidium) cracks open and splits into several arms that spread out and down, lifting the spherical spore sac. The outer layer further splits around the perimeter of the spore sac to form a ‘collar’ around the base of the spore sac. These outer layers will later dry up into ochre-coloured patterned “rays” around the paper-like smooth spore sac (peridinium). The open pore (peristome) at the top of the peridinium is a small pointed beak that resembles a blue-grey fuzzy puckering mouth. When I poked one mature spore sac with an open pore, the ‘mouth’ released a blue-brown cloud of spores. Earthstars are used medicinally by indigenous peoples. The Blackfoot call them ka-ka-toos, meaning “fallen stars,” which—according to legend—are an indication of supernatural events.
I also saw a fungus growing on another fungus. The pin mold or bonnet mold (Spinellus fusiger) is a parasitic zygomycete that grows mostly on the Mycena mushroom. When it’s infected, Mycologist Tom Volk describes it as a “punk rock Mycena,” with aerial filaments spreading out ending in dark pin-head-like spores.
Eating Mushrooms & The Giant Puffball
I don’t eat wild mushrooms.
While some can be very tasty, many are poisonous and toxic. And I can’t tell the difference. I am not an expert forager or mushroom authority and it’s too risky. Mushroom toxins vary from stomach-upsetting to life-threatening. For instance, amatotoxins, found in Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa), Death Cap (Amanita phalloides), and Deadly Galerina (Galerina autumnalis) are cyclopeptides that destroy liver and kidney functions. Amatoxins inhibit the enzymes necessary for the production of RNA, meaning that cells can’t synthesize new proteins. They concentrate in the liver, which ends up pretty well digesting itself. The toxin is sneaky. Initial symptoms 8-12 hours after consumption can be mild; but after a lull of a few days, more severe life-threatening symptoms hit—like the second wave of COVID. Survival rate is only 50%. Treatment includes liver transplant, hemodialysis and decontamination–all nasty and iffy. The Ontario Poison Centre has already received over two hundred mushroom-related poisonings in 2020—and the mushroom foraging season has just begun.
During a walk one day through past the local meadow into a small cedar grove, we chanced upon a large white globe resting in the duff by a cedar tree. It looked like a soccer ball. My naturalist friend Merridy Cox recognized it right away as the Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea) and convinced me to partake in a tasty meal of it. I hesitated as we gazed down at the giant, nestled by the base of the tree. But I had confidence in Merridy and in no time, I’d easily pried the giant from its ‘nest’ on the cedar forest floor. It was about eight to ten inches across and surprisingly light but solid. Aside from a bit of dirt at the bottom, it was a gorgeous and startling white colour. Feeling inordinately guilty and excited, I put the puffball into a bag and we brought our prize to Merridy’s place to prepare.
Merridy washed it and peeled it then cut it into ‘steaks’ to be fried and later to be made into an incredibly delicious mushroom soup. Merridy fried the puffball ‘steaks’ (dipped in flour) in butter and oil (from the sausages I’d fried) along with a bit of salt and pepper. We then had it with sausages and eggs. It had the consistency of eggplant and tasted between a mushroom and an eggplant. A delicate wonderful taste and texture. I’d highly recommend it.
Making Cream of Giant Puffball Soup
This recipe and soup is a prize.
I was stunned at how delicious this soup was. Using the easy recipe for Cream of Giant Puffball Soup from Josehf Murchison on Instructables Cooking, we first gathered and prepared all our ingredients. This included getting out the butter and homemade chicken broth, peeling and dicing the puffball ‘meat’, dicing fresh onion and celery, chopping fresh chives and parsley, then collecting remaining spices (salt, pepper, dried thyme), and flour. The recipe and instructions are below. It took us about half an hour to prepare everything and twenty-five minutes to make the soup.
I have not had many mushroom soups (in restaurants and houses) that beat this one. Creamy, smooth, with a mild yet distinctively-voiced flavour, this mushroom soup and recipe is deliciously balanced. The added ingredients serve as chorus to the subtle yet assertive mushroom aria.
Mycologist Lawrence Millman tells us that traditional cultures all over the world have used puffballs as hemostatic agents. Chitosan, a component in their cell walls, bonds with red blood cells and helps clotting to stop bleeding. To do this, the puffball must be mature and sporulating; if it’s firm, it won’t have any effect. “This means that an edible puffball isn’t a medicinal puffball.”
Recipe for Cream of Giant Puffball Soup
Here’s Josehf Murchison’s recipe for Cream of Giant Puffball Soup:
“a good puffball is firm like a melon and if you tap it, it makes a thump just like a melon. When you cut it open the meat should be a solid white, dry to the touch, with no indication of gills…If the puffball is even slightly soft it has gone to spore and the insides be become dark and wet. If you eat a puffball that has gone to spore it will cause you intestinal distress.”
1 Giant Puffball Skinned and Diced
2 cups diced onion.
2 cups diced celery.
6 tablespoons butter
8 cups (2 liters) chicken broth (I used my own as well as store purchased).
½ teaspoon dried thyme.
1 teaspoon salt.
1 teaspoon ground black pepper.
1 teaspoon dried chives (I used fresh).
1 teaspoon dried parsley (I used fresh).
2 cups (1/2 liter) Crème Fraîche or Heavy Cream
6 tablespoons All-purpose Flour
Preparation Directions (prep time 30 min.; cooking time 25 min):
- Melt 3 tablespoons butter in medium sized stock pot, and sauté onion and celery until tender
- Add 8 cups (2 liters) chicken broth and let simmer while you prepare the puffball
- Skin the puffball; this is easy, the outer skin of the puffball peels off just like a banana
- Then slice and dice the puffball to your hearts content
- Add the diced puffball to the broth, cover and simmer for 10 minutes
- After simmering for 10 minutes the puffball should be cooked and the pieces of puffball should not be floating
- Using a hand blender I puree the soup right in the cooking pot
- In small saucepan, over medium-heat melt 3 tablespoons butter, stir in flour and add milk. Stir until thick and bubbly, and add to soup
- Season with salt, pepper, chives, parsley and thyme
Foragers can find the giant puffball in meadows, fields, on the banks of streams and forests in the late summer to autumn. It’s common in temperate areas throughout the world.
Barron, George. 2014. “Mushrooms of Ontario and Eastern Canada.” Partners Publishing, Edmonton. 336pp.
Millman, Lawrence. 2019. “Fungipedia” Princeton University Press. 177pp.
Project Noah. 2020. “Collared Earthstar”
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.