Sphaerobolus stellatus has one of the most unusual spore dispersal mechanisms: its base pops up and quickly flings a glob of spores into the air. The fungus forms tiny (no more than 3mm across) star-shaped mushrooms in mulch, which can cause problems for homeowners when the spore globs glue themselves to cars, siding, and the like. S. stellatus’s unique spore dispersal strategy has resulted in a variety of common names, including: “Artillery Fungus,” “Cannonball Fungus,” “Cannon Fungus,” “Sphere Thrower” (which is a literal translation of its Latin name), and “Shotgun Fungus.”
the coolest fungi around
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.
Fomes fomentarius is the Swiss army knife of the mushroom world: it has a variety of uses that are important in many different contexts. It is used by survivalists, fly fishermen, and even some hat makers. Although it isn’t edible, the mushroom is considered medicinal. Humans have used F. fomentarius for well over 5,000 years (more about that later) and probably much longer than that. The polypore grows from dead or dying trees and is shaped like a slightly irregular horse’s hoof. It has a variety of common names, which is not surprising when you consider its many uses. The two most widely used names are “Tinder Polypore” and “Hoof Fungus.”
Reindeer Lichens grow in northern temperate forests, boreal forests, and even in the tundra. They are highly branched, fruticose lichens that are a primary food source for reindeer (also called caribou in North America). These lichens are sometimes called “Reindeer Moss,” even though they are lichens and not moss.
Chlorociboria spp. include some of my favorite fungi. Although you don’t see their mushrooms very often, it is quite common to find pieces of wood that have been stained blue-green by Chlorociboria mycelium. This attractive and unusual coloration earned these fungi many common names, including “Green Stain Fungus,” “Blue Stain Fungus,” “Turquoise Elfcup,” and various combinations and derivatives of those. I enjoy finding the stained wood, especially during dry periods or over the winter, when mushrooms are scarce.
This mushroom certainly lives up to its name! The largest Calvatia gigantea fruiting body on record was 8ft 8in in diameter and weighed 48 pounds! Normally, the “Giant Puffball” forms mushrooms much smaller than that. However, the mushrooms routinely reach sizes of a foot across or larger. Many could easily be mistaken for abandoned soccer balls from far away.
This little brown mushroom isn’t much to look at… at least during the daytime. At night, however, the unassuming mushroom reveals its most interesting feature: it glows in the dark! Known as the “Bitter Oyster,” “Luminescent Panellus,” or “Bitter Oysterling” (if you live in Europe), Panellus stipticus looks like a small, brown oyster mushroom. A helpful feature that separates it from most other oyster-like mushrooms is that it has a tough texture.
Fungi in the genus Pilobolus grow on the dung (they are “coprophilous”) of herbivores and are well-known for their unique spore dispersal mechanism. Using highly specialized spore-bearing hyphae, the fungus can launch globs of spores up to 3m (10ft) away! Its genus name literally means “Hat Thrower,” which is also used as a common name. Another common name is “Shotgun Fungus,” but that can also be applied to Sphaerobolus spp. (FFF#122), so I recommend against using that name.
Of all the sexually transmitted infections in the world, the anther smuts are probably the most bizarre. Fungi in the genus Microbotryum infect plants in the pink family (Caryophyllaceae) as well as a few other species. When a plant infected with an anther smut tries to produce flowers, the fungus hijacks the process and forces the plant to make anther-like structures filled with fungal spores instead of pollen. The spores are primarily transmitted to new flowers by pollinators, but can also be spread by wind or splashing raindrops.
Mushrooms come in some surprising flavors. Probably the most unusual flavors are found in the group of mushrooms known as “Candy Caps.” These mushrooms taste/smell like maple syrup, butterscotch, camphor, burnt sugar, or curry. Thanks to their pleasant odors, these edible mushrooms are usually used in dessert dishes! I recently had the opportunity to taste some Candy Cap ice cream and was astounded by the intense maple syrup flavor provided by the mushrooms!