Michael Hopping: Seeing Fungi

A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the CarolinasToday we welcome a guest post from Michael Hopping, who along with Alan E. Bessette and Arleen R. Bessette, is co-author of A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas:  A Southern Gateways Guide, just published by UNC Press.

Mushrooms in the wild present an enticing challenge: some are delicious, others are deadly, and still others take on almost unbelievable forms. A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas introduces 650 mushrooms found in the Carolinas–more than 50 of them appearing in a field guide for the first time–using clear language and color photographs to reveal their unique features.

A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Seeing Fungi

The things I grew up knowing about fungi wouldn’t crowd a postcard. Yeast is an ingredient of various foodstuffs. Don’t eat toadstools or moldy leftovers. Medical school added factoids about fungal disease and the origin of antibiotics. Mushrooms seldom registered in my consciousness. I overlooked them at every opportunity and developed the common malady of functional mushroom blindness.

Then one April afternoon a neighbor and I took a walk in the woods. I saw leaf litter underfoot. She saw morels. Soon I was seeing them too. Wild culinary delicacies, right here, right now, free for the picking. What else had I been missing? I resolved to pay attention and find out. Mushrooms started to appear in a variety of shapes, colors, and forms that amazed me seven years ago and still does today. It’s a delight that the Bessettes and I hope to convey with A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas.

Science is undergoing its own mycological awakening. Until the 1970s fungi were understood as nonconformist plants. Robert Whittaker’s heretical suggestion to the contrary was validated by the rise of molecular mycology. Fungi deserved a taxonomic kingdom of their own. It also became apparent that visible characteristics long used to infer relationships between species could be misleading. Berkeley’s Polypore, which appears as a cabbage-sized rosette at the foot of an oak tree, has the standard issue polypore fertile surface: tubes and pores. But genetic studies revealed it to be a member of the Russulales, an “anything goes” order far removed from most of its supposed relatives.

Nor is the body plan of a mushroom-producing fungus analagous to that of a flowering plant. The mushroom proper is just a reproductive act, usually brief, staged by an enduring network of tiny threads called a mycelium. Apart from reproduction, mycelia live unobtrusively in soil, wood, or another food source. We’re learning more about what they do in there. Mycelial creatures have cellular engines that burn sugar, as do ours and those of plants. Green plants manufacture their own sugar. Animals and mycelia are forced to import it. Many fungi opt for recycling, scavenging sugar from the dead. Others parasitize live and unwilling hosts. A third alternative is mycorrhizal partnership. Mycorrhizal species enter into mutually beneficial relations with the roots of sugar producers, trading away water and minerals in return for the sweet stuff.

Critical ecological roles are coming into focus. Once upon a time lignin, the organic polymer that puts the wood in wood, was not biodegradable. Forest debris compressed into seams of coal. That situation persisted until the end of the Carboniferous Period, around 300 million years ago, when mycelia cracked the lignin problem. Coal deposition ceased thanks to the ancestors of fungal recyclers such as Turkey Tail, Shiitake, and Oyster mushrooms. Trees now rot all the way down to humus. Recyclers have other talents as well. Oyster mycelia digest organic pollutants, absorb heavy metals, filter E. coli from water, and even prey on unwary nematode worms.

Mycorrhizal fungi are no less important to ecosystems. Mushroom producers create nodular trading posts on the feeder roots of one or more plant partners. Non-mushroom producers are sometimes allowed more intimate access. They burrow inside the roots and set up shop there. Both types import sugar for themselves but have also been shown to transfer it from tree to tree. What additional communitarian services might fungal intermediaries provide? To paraphrase Jeff Lebowski, is it possible that the rug that really ties the woods together is mycelial? Whether or not this is figuratively the case, it is literally true for healthy soils. Mycorrhizal fungi in the non-mushroom producing order Glomerales secrete glomalin, a glue that binds soil particles, improving tilth, and is credited with a list of other plant-friendly qualities. Research findings like these have broad, practical implications.

It’s an exciting time to be interested in mushrooms at any level. New species are still being discovered in the Carolinas on a regular basis. We’ve only scratched the surface of mycelial behavior. But before any of that, the diversity of the mushrooms amongst us remains as fantastic as ever. All it takes to discover their world is an awakened eye and curious frame of mind.


Michael W. Hopping, a retired physician and author, is a principal mushroom identifier for the Asheville Mushroom Club.