The sixth-graders at the Manhattan Country School Farm last week enjoyed a mushroom hunt with our guest expert, John Michelotti—“The Fungi Guy.” John is a walking encyclopedia of everything having to do with mushrooms and fungi. He is eloquent and entertaining as he reels off one fascinating bit of mushroom lore after another.
First he gave a brief talk on fungi, mentioning that fungi usually is decomposing dead leaves and trees. But “just because there’s death that doesn't mean it’s not supporting new life.” The fungi help create new soil, which allows plants to thrive. Fungi can also exist endophytically, within plant tissues. Or they can be mycorhyzal, living among a plant’s roots. They can exist in symbiotic relationships with plants, where the plants provide sugars for the fungi, and the fungi free nitrogen and phosphorous for the plants.
John discussed how the actual living body of the fungus is called mycelium—tiny threads that work their way into wood or leaves or soil. In a single cubic inch of soil in the northeast forest, there is one mile of mycelium. Mushrooms, though much more visible, are merely the fruit of the mycelium, the way an apple tree grows an apple—which then spreads its seeds, or in the case of fungi, its spores.
The students then followed John up a trail into the Farm’s woods, and he encouraged them to look for mushrooms in a way different from how we look at plants. He said, “Look down, look under. Look in the dark spots, the moist spots.” He also advised the students to take note of how the mushrooms grow: singly or in clusters? On what species of wood or what kind of substrate? Are its spores held by gills or tubes or teeth?
Once the students started looking, it was astonishing how many mushrooms and fungi we found in just a few hundred yards. The big spotted shelf mushroom, “Pheasant Back.” The smooth white “Artist’s Conk,” on which any scratch or pressure leaves a permanent mark. Many LBMs (little brown mushrooms) of various species. “Violet-Toothed Polypore,” which has a purplish tinge to its edges. “Jelly fungus” and “crust fungus” and “slime molds.” The eerie “Dead Man’s Fingers.” Even one species that John couldn’t immediately identify, which was temporarily named “Alien Brain.” And endless clusters of visible white mycelium anytime we peeled back the leaf litter on the forest floor.
John mentioned that there are between 1.2 million and 5 million species of fungi in the world—more than all the plant and animal species combined!
And most importantly, John told the students to always double-check and triple-check any mushroom they ever pick to find out if it is toxic.
The students (and teachers) finished the walk fairly amazed at the hidden treasure—the richness and variety of life—right at our feet, amid the woods we walk in all the time.
For more information on John Michelotti, visit https://www.catskillfungi.com.