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I recently received this sturdy Helleborus from a client’s garden (thanks, Franklin!) and planted it in a pot with some 50/50 ultra-compost / cheap planting mix blend. Today there are these sweet little cup fungi at the base.

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Cup fungi are in the division Ascomycota of the fungi, an ancient lineage containing about 230 species. The spores are released from the inside surface of the cup, either by the splashing of water drops or by airflow across the top opening.

I have not seen this kind of cup fungus before, so it is new (to me!) in my gardens. I’m not even going to try to identify it. Fungi in general, and especially the Ascomycota, can be difficult to pin down, often requiring a good microscope to look at the shapes of the spore-bearing structures.

It’s always such a pleasure to find fungi fruiting bodies among the plants. Judging from their location right at the base of the new plant, these probably came in with it. I happily welcome them!

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When I lifted up the tarp covering the compost, there they were! Sweet little mushrooms, delicate and ephemeral, poking up between fruit peels, strips of newsprint, and already-decayed material. What a nice surprise this morning!

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130510-0836Dainty little fruiting bodies, rising up out of sweet-smelling decay. These are almost certainly some species of Coprinus mushrooms. Much too small and thin-fleshed to eat, if these are actually Coprinus they are nonetheless edible, as are all Coprinus mushrooms, as long as they are consumed before their caps begin to dissolve.

Most Coprinus mushrooms dissolve into a black liquid after they have fruited. That’s one of their distinguishing characteristics, and why they are often called “inky caps.” At right, you can see how the caps of the mushrooms have begun to turn into an inky  liquid. Not very appetizing, but a valuable adaptive trait, since the liquid carries many spores right back into the rich medium underneath the shroom. Like other mushrooms, inky caps also release their spores into the air.

These mushrooms are probably tropical in origin, which may be one reason I have not been able to identify their exact species. Many of the small inky caps frequently found in compost piles and also in greenhouses actually originated in the deep, wet, warm, richly nutrient-laden depths of tropical rain forests. No doubt they find the warm, wet compost most inviting.

130510-0838Everywhere there were masses of fuzzy white hyphae, the actual body of the fungus. In many places, the hyphae were clumping into tiny white mushroom primordia, like the one at left, just emerging near a chunk of shiny-knobby avocado peel visible at the upper right of the picture.

In order to give these tiny newborn shrooms some room to grow and preserve a warm, moist atmosphere, I carefully placed a few plastic milk crates on top of the compost and pulled the tarp back over it. I didn’t want to crush the little fungi. It was the decent thing to do!

Many kinds of Coprinus also have scaly caps or stems. This morning’s delightful little compost lovers show gorgeous fractal scales on the caps. Why do they have scales? Maybe the scales somehow help disperse the spore-bearing inky liquid.

Maybe they are there just to look pretty?

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After another unexpectedly extended break from blogging, we are back with the conclusion of the Great Big Mushroom walk that happened after a very wet storm last December. Enjoy!

( You can also check out the previous installment of this story, or pop back to the first post in the series.)

At long last, the journey nearing its end, there appeared a grove of pine trees.

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Among the english ivy lurked one of the most curious mushrooms of all. Purple-black, brain-like knots of convoluted flesh, perched on industrial corrugated towers.

This is almost certainly the fluted black helvella (Helvella lacunosa) or one of its closely related cousins. All of these are edible and actually quite excellent, but here’s the catch: members of a closely related group called false morels (Gyromitra spp.) look very similar and can be quite poisonous. They even grow in almost exactly the same places, at the same times of year.

In this case, the corrugated stems and the almost purple-black caps are pretty good identifiers of the edible H. lacunosa. But beware! Gyromitra can be deadly. If you are not an accomplished mycologist, collecting wild fungi to eat can be a deadly diversion. Don’t!

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It’s quite clear that these black-capped mini-brain fungi are intimately associated with the trees. Their underground hyphae mingle with the trees’ roots, exchanging materials of mutual benefit, including but not limited to minerals and certain special molecules from the fungus, and sugars and vitamins from the plants.

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Also among the ivy, two slippery-slidey, ooey gooey yellow melters with identical circular pocks. Did some hungry critter make those holes?

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A composition of brown and green among yellow gingko leaves.

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If I hadn’t looked back I would not have noticed the massive humped cluster of brown-shouldered mega-shrooms (almost certainly not their real name!).

What a presentation! Pushing up the pine needles, pushing against each other. So full of life!

By now I was really ready to get home. Fortunately, home was just two blocks away. I didn’t expect to see many more fungi. But right there, mere meters from home, was this cute little scene of ivy and two kinds of fungi.

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Within a few hours, this tiny scene was gone forever. Days later, all the mushrooms shown in this series of posts had decayed into unrecognizeable blobs, or into nothing visible at all. Ephemeral beauties!

We return to the amazing mushroom walk that happened after a recent Great Big Rain…

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I wandered around under the trees in a daze, happily entranced by the glories nestled among the deep, soft leaves. Every step brought new wonders!

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A super-delicate little shroom. Compare it to the size of the two seedlings. You can see the gills through the cap. It has a scallop-edged ring around the stem.

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Another tiny micro-dome. This one has fabulous fractal fur.

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Above: A contender for favorite photo of this fungi-adventure. The visual space is divided up very artistically. You can see them in different stages of development. The mushrooms themselves are amazingly handsome!

I am pretty sure these brown-scaled beauties are Lepiota rachodes – which are deliciously edible – but I would definitely check the books before having any for dinner.

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A pair of fluorescent shrooms caught in an intimate embrace. These are either Boletus or Suillus, both of which are pore-fungi (no gills). The underside shows the spongy-looking pores where the spores drop.

There are dozens of kinds of orange-red-yellow pore fungi that look a lot like this. All of them are mycorrhizal fungi that exist in mutually beneficial relationship with tree roots. Some are edible, some are poisonous. Do not eat!

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Here is an aging Boletus, falling over in the late stages of decay. The white layer is actually a different kind of fungus, a mold that is the primary decay organism in this case.

Kind of picturesque, no? But wait, let’s go around and look at the cap…

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Mom Nature outdoes herself at every turn.

Next: a tiny jelly bean

Are you tired of mushrooms yet?

You’re kidding, right?

We continue the amazing mushroom walk that happened after a Great Big Rain not so long ago …

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For a while, no new shrooms showed up. I looked in all the usual places, like this rich, red leaf litter beneath a north-facing wall. I wonder what cool critters live under there?

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No mushrooms here, but wow, what a cool composition of rock, moss, and organic debris!

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It was not until after I passed the school that the grove of trees in front of SRI became visible. On the left side of the street, an old, open forest of different kinds of trees, and under them, an unbroken stretch of mature, relatively undisturbed leaf litter.

Just barely visible in far left background of the photo above, a tiny row of white dots at the base of a tree. What do you suppose those are? Between here and there, there was much to see.

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Possibly my favorite fungus in this adventure. Dark, ear-like folds with prominent gills, and of course! The obligatory fungus fly, reddish brown, perched daintily on the edge of a cap.

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A pale yellow, wavy-edged wonder and gosh darn if there isn’t another fungus fly!

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A perfect dome, with a delicate translucent edge. No fly this time.

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Who could resist photographing these three little charmers?

Next: more forest floor charmers

We continue our mycological meanderings with the first Boletus encountered…

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It was in a moist, low place among live oak litter. Accompanying it, from the lower right: a seedling of petty spurge, a very tiny winter cress in the shadow of an excellent rotting branch, and an unknown plant at the top.

Boletes have pores underneath instead of gills. The spores float down vertical tubes and out into the air. The caps often have a felty, rough look and decay in wonderful, artistic ways. Many of them turn blue or green when they are bruised. That does not necessarily mean that they are (or aren’t) poisonous!

Something seemed to be glowing in the shadows…

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The photo above does not adequately convey the way the bright white rims of these three stood out. Naturally, there is the seemingly obligatory fungus fly.

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At the base of a tree with beautiful rain-enhanced bark, this neat row of big fleshy mushrooms with wavy caps.

Suddenly… mushroom pay dirt! In a front yard under a very sick, almost completely dead oak tree, an amazing outcrop of fungi.

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At first it seemed like there might be several different kinds, but then the forms merged together: this could all be Armillaria mellea, the honey mushroom, commonly seen emerging from dead or dying wood of many different kinds.

While this fungus might not have been the original reason why the old oak tree is dying, it is certainly making it happen a whole lot faster.

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This young clump emerged from the base of a multi-branched stump. Definitely lignicolous (taking its nutrients from wood). In the lower right of the photo, green leaves of delicate winter cress, closely related to Arabidopsis thaliana, the miniature rock-cress that is so popular among genetic researchers.

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Another sweet young clump, nestled among delightful micro-flora of the forest floor, also emerging from dead oak stems.

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An older clump, fully expanded and just beginning to decay, probably coming from an underground oak root. Note the tasteful white narcissus.

Next: Jackpot!

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After our recent rainy spell I had the opportunity to walk home from a client’s house through a wonderful section of Menlo Park with no sidewalks and lots of old-ish, interesting small ecosystems to explore.

Above is a great example, a front yard with various zones of shrubs and wild-looking areas. Beautiful, no? This comes very close to being a true deep nature garden.

There were many wonderful photos that offered themselves in that diffuse, after-the-storm lighting. They will fuel great future blog posts.

This particular sequence is about the amazing fungi (and two slime molds) that manifested along the way.

This will require several posts, or maybe a few more…

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Above: This was the first one that popped out at me. Mushrooms that get their nutrients from wood are called “lignicolous” and this one certainly is. It’s coming right out of the bark of an old oak tree.

Mushrooms are notoriously hard to identify, which is one reason why it’s such a bad idea to try to collect them yourself for food. There are a few obvious ones like the shaggy mane and the meadow mushroom, but people get in trouble all the time.

Some of these shrooms I can identify right away, some I can pinpoint with some research, and some will forever remain unnamed. Such is the lore of fungi.

What kind is this oak-eating mini-jewel? It’s what we call an “LBM” or “little brown mushroom.” Might be an Armillaria, but its surface looks too rough.

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Scouting eyes soon picked out the next catch, a waxy, wet looking yellow beauty in the deep shade under some old live oaks. See the acorns in the back?

Right there on top, another special find! A fungus fly, magically materialized out of nowhere just to sit serenely atop this amazing shroom.

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Deep in the dark recesses under a huge mass of mixed oak, laurel, and ailanthus: A noble temple of the fungi, fully expanded, shedding millions of spores into the moist air.

The upper right dark spot on the cap is — you guessed it, a fungus fly.

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Beneath a laurel tree was this trio of white parasols. One of them has tilted, probably from its own weight in the soft leaf litter.

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This beautiful domed shroom emerged under a live oak among struggling Vinca and wild strawberry. The striations around the rim reflect the gills underneath. The stem is surrounded by a veil of thin tissue.

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We end this segment with a distinctive purple jewel. If I am right, it’s a blewitt, which is frequently seen around here, especially in the coastal hills.

What a beautiful purple being!

Next: Boletus