If the spirit of Halloween were a mushroom, it would be Omphalotus illudens. This agaric is commonly known as the “Jack-O-Lantern mushroom” for a few good reasons. First, it is bright orange, like the pumpkins that decorate doorsteps all over the United States in October. Not only is the cap orange, but so are the gills, the stipe, and the interior. Second, the mushroom’s gills glow in the dark, especially when they are young and fresh. Furthermore, the mushroom often has a sweet smell and is poisonous. Nothing says Halloween like something that is orange, glows in the dark, smells sweet, and has a sinister side.
Welcome back to creepy fungus month! I’m starting off this month with a mushroom that has a creepy name but is always fun to find: The Witch’s Hat. Hygrocybe conica gets its common name from the conic shape of its cap, its orange to red color, and its tendency to bruise strongly black. Actually, this last feature is probably the most important; when the mushrooms turn completely black they really do look like tiny hats for witches! The Witch’s Hat grows on the ground in a variety of habitats and mycologists are not sure what its ecological role is.
Entoloma abortivum is a fascinating mushroom. The mushroom produces two forms of fruitbody: an agaric form that is an umbrella-like gilled mushroom and a “carpophoroid” (mycology-speak for “aborted”) form that looks like an oddly-shaped puffball. Both of these forms are usually found near honey mushrooms (Armillaria spp.) or in places honey mushrooms are known to grow. It turns out that E. abortivum is parasitic or partially parasitic on honey mushrooms; the aborted forms are actually the mycelium of E. abortivum attacking Armillaria mushrooms. Both the agaric and aborted forms are edible, although you need to be cautious when collecting Entoloma species.
Armillaria tabescens, the “Ringless Honey Mushroom,” is out in force in my area, a sure sign that summer is drawing to a close. Field guides often note that A. tabescens is the easiest honey mushroom to identify. That is true, but it relies on you accurately identifying it as a honey mushroom. Honey mushrooms (Armillaria spp.) are typically medium-sized to large agarics that grow in dense clusters, have a partial veil that leaves a ring, produce thick black rhizomorphs, and fruit from dead or dying wood. Of those features, the only one A. tabescens displays reliably is dense clustered growth. This makes it very difficult to identify if you’re unfamiliar with honey mushrooms. Fortunately, there are not many large mushrooms that grow in dense clusters, so it’s always worth checking the Armillaria section of your field guide when you find some.
Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca is a bright orange mushroom that appears on rotting wood and forest debris in the summer and fall. It is not a particularly interesting mushroom on its own, but it is worth knowing to make sure you don’t confuse it with other orange mushrooms like golden chanterelles. H. aurantiaca is called the “False Chanterelle” precisely for that reason; if you’re not paying attention, it would be easy to drop one of these into your chanterelle collection.
Many mushrooms like growing in mulch, but none enjoy that life more than Stropharia rugosoannulata. Commonly known as “the Wine Cap” or “the King Stropharia,” S. rugosoannulata is easily recognized by its habitat and wine-red cap – at least when young. The mushrooms quickly lose their color, so identifying older mushrooms hinges on other features, like the cogwheeled ring and dark purplish spore print. This mushroom is considered edible; mushroom hunters often collect and eat the Wine Cap and some even cultivate it.
Coprinellus micaceus, commonly known as “The Mica Cap” or “The Glistening Inkcap” is one of the rare inky caps (FFF#177) that is easy to identify. These medium-sized mushrooms appear in dense clusters on dead wood and feature brown caps coated with a distinctive dusting of salt-like or mica-like granules (hence the scientific and common names). Mica Caps are beautiful when young, since the shiny granules make it look like fairy dust was lightly sprinkled over the mushrooms. The unique combination of size, habitat, and fairy dust makes C. micaceus instantly recognizable.
So, is it an agaric or a bolete? At first glance, the answer seems obvious: it clearly has gills and therefore must be an agaric. However, if you spend enough time around mushrooms you might get a kind of uncanny valley feeling about this mushroom; its coloration, its stature, the way its cap looks somewhat puffy, the way the cap cracks as it dries out, and other subtleties just don’t look quite right for an agaric. When you ignore the gills, the mushroom looks for all the world like a bolete! Phylloporus rhodoxanthus, commonly called “the Gilled Bolete,” is actually closely related to the boletes and evolved gills independently of the true agaric lineages.
The gilled mushrooms, informally referred to as ‘agarics,’ are the type of mushroom with which we are most familiar. The most common edible mushrooms (white/button/portabella mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, and shiitake mushrooms), Amanita muscaria – the most recognizable mushroom in the world and the inspiration for almost all mushroom art – and the ‘magic mushrooms’ are all gilled mushrooms. All these mushrooms share one feature: vertical plates of spore-producing tissue stacked under a sterile cap.
Cortinarius contains umbrella-like agaric mushrooms that are mycorrhizal, have a brown spore print, and produce a cobweb-like partial veil. It is the largest mushroom genus on Earth, with over two thousand species crammed into it. While the genus itself is fairly easy to recognize, identifying anything down to species is next to impossible. Most of the species listed in field guides are actually species groups and the field guide descriptions apply to a handful of closely related species.