When I hike with friends, they become attentive to the forest floor and fallen logs because they want to be a part of the myco-excitement. Some friends have stumbled across patches of chanterelles and called me over to see their findings. They didn’t know what they were looking at, but the bright orange color and the sheer number of fruiting bodies was enough for them to call me to the scene. Overflowing with excitement, I tell them “Great find!” and I collect/take pictures of the mushrooms and move on. Other times, my friends exclaim, “Phil, your going to want to see this…” and I skip across the forest floor like a gleeful man-sized gnome to find a branch covered in the most common fungus of them all; Trametes versicolor, aka the turkey tail fungus. This deflating feeling I experience when I’m called to view Trametes species isn’t because I don’t appreciate the fungus. Actually, it has a special place in my heart, being the first species I properly identified nearly ten years ago. This disappointment is just a figment of the species success. It ferociously competes for a wide array of woody substrates, and has incredible enzymatic potential. In every part of the world I’ve traveled to I have located it, so the excitement of finding it is sadly gone. The species featured in today’s edition of Fungi Friday will most definitely excite me to my core, while not stirring any emotion in people who live in the Pacific Northwest.
Caulorhiza umbonatais an exceedingly common mushroom in the Pacific Northwest that grows from the organic layer beneath redwoods called duff. Opposite to the people who live in these regions, I cannot wait to find them! I just bought airplane tickets to see these ancient forests for the first time. For one week in January, I’ll be exploring California’s nature. I’m starting my journey in San Francisco where I’ll rent a car. I’ll drive East and spend a few nights in Yosemite National Park. Back to San Francisco, I’ll meet my wife who got off work to join me. She couldn’t fathom missing out on this experience! We’ll then explore the coastal redwoods of the Muir woods. Here, we may find the Caulorhiza umbonata, also known as the rooting redwood mushroom.
The species doesn’t look to robust when you first look at it. Many specimens stands just a few inches above the forest floor, with some extending about eight inches. Like the entire field of mycology in general, its majority lies beneath the soil’s surface. Its stipe turns into a long, tapered, taproot-like structure that can extend easily more than 10 centimeters. With a saprophytic lifestyle, this fungus breaks down organic matter by utilizing the mélange of enzymes it has evolved over the past several millions of years. Overtime, this slightly acidic layer of duff gets transformed into sugars and other smaller molecules that become available to the surrounding biota.
I once thought that these ancient coastal redwood forests would be fungal hotspots. Though this is probably true, the fungi that actually pair with these mammoth plants are arbuscular mycorrhizae and cannot be seen with the naked eye. Here, saprophytic fungi don’t have the easiest time acquiring carbohydrates from dead woody debris because the actual wood redwoods produce is extremely decay resistant. Given their extremely long lives, this makes perfect sense. A plant that lives more than 2,000 years must protect itself from parasitic fungi with resins packed with anti-fungal properties. Once these trees finally die, those resins are still denying fungal colonization for generations. You will find many more fruiting bodies in mixed woods that include Douglas fir and tanoak, since these trees form mycorrhizal relationships with fungi that actually form mushrooms, and because they produce wood that is much more easily colonized by parasites and saprotrophs.
Similar to stumbling upon some turkey tails, Caulorhiza umbonata may be a bore to mycophiles living in the Pacific Northwest. It really starts to show itself in January, so I have a really great chance of finding it, and I couldn’t be more excited! Not only for finding this particular fungus, but being amongst some of the largest species ever to evolve on Earth. Who would have thought that vascular plants ever reach this magnitude? Their very presence should remind us all of how important conservation is. One single species may be the base of a future, ecologically important phylogeny we can’t even comprehend.
If any Forest Floor Narrative fans living near San Francisco are available the January 8th-11th please email me to possibly meet up and go on a forest foray. If you can’t, still email me about any natural sights, adventures, and good restaurants not to miss out on. Thanks!!!