CEDAR TOWN — After constant monsoons, many southern Utah residents have encountered all manner of creatures, including scorpions and sun spiders. But in the mountains, an entirely different form of life clings to the rough bark of trees or sprouts from the dark, rich soil: fungi.
September is National Mushroom Month, the Forest Service said in a Facebook post. And Jacqualine Grant of Southern Utah University said it was a “spectacular” time for mushroom viewing.
“If people like mushrooms, this has been the absolute best year in the last 11 years that I’ve come here to see mushrooms,” said Grant, an associate professor in the university’s geosciences department.
Rain seeps through the soil, reaching the thread-like hyphae called mycelium which make up most of the organism – fungi are its fruits.
If one looked under an old stump or log, one might see mycelial filaments, seeking to break down old wood or form new connections with plants, Grant said.
Mushrooms wait for the perfect conditions to grow fruit, like a flower, said Ashley Simon, president of the Mushroom Society of Utah. Mushrooms can go years without fruiting and then become abundant under the right circumstances.
When it’s dry, mushrooms are less common, but once the mushrooms get that “good hit of humidity,” Grant said they can start fruiting within 24 to 48 hours.
Additionally, they fruit once temperatures cool to spread their spores before winter.
Mushrooms can typically be seen in Utah from May until the first hard frost, Simon said. Once the leaves turn brown and fall and the grass begins to die, it’s probably too cold.
When hunting mushrooms, Grant said it was essential never to eat a mushroom unless it could be positively identified by an experienced person.
While many mushrooms are edible and “taste great”, others contain deadly poisons that can “wipe out your liver function”.
“It’s really, really important to know what you have in your hand before you eat it,” she said.
Wide wooden canvas
There are three broad categories of fungi: mycorrhizal, decaying or “death-loving,” and parasitic, Simon said.
The organisms are “active almost all the time” underground, Grant said. Mycorrhizal fungi form “intimate relationships with plants, especially trees, by colonizing their roots.
The fungus provides nutrients and water to the tree in exchange for the sugar the tree produces through photosynthesis, which the fungus cannot do on its own. Instead, the fungi get food from the environment “like we do,” Simon said.
A “good clue” that a fungus is mycorrhizal is if it is seen growing in the ground like porcini mushrooms, aspen boletus or fly agaric, as it does not grow on wood or digest it , said Simon.
When fungi link multiple trees together, plants can chemically communicate underground through a mycorrhizal network, Grant said.
This network is colloquially known as the “Wood Wide Web”. According to Science Focus, plants can also share nutrients and water through the network.
Mushrooms in Southern Utah
There are several thousand species of mushrooms in Utah, according to Wild About Utah.
In wetter years, it’s not uncommon to see aspen boletes, which are porous mushrooms that form a partnership with their namesake trees. Grant said the flesh of these mushrooms reacts to pressure and if a person were to draw a line on its underside, the yellow surface would turn blue.
Shaggy-maned, or ink-cap, mushrooms can be seen along roadsides because they prefer open environments and can emerge through rocky surfaces, Grant said. However, these mushrooms are short-lived, as they begin to turn into dark blue or black slime to shed their spores soon after fruiting.
The red-headed white-spotted fly agaric is common throughout the northern hemisphere and can be found throughout Utah. It is considered the most “successful” species of its genus, Grant said.
A related fungus, Death’s Cap has also spread west and Simon thinks she may have located one in northern Utah. She shared images of the specimen on iNaturalist and dried it for DNA sequencing, which will be needed for confirmation.
Once a mushroom has been identified as edible, all mushrooms must also be cooked before eating, Simon said. Their cell walls are made up of the chemical compound chitin, which is also found in insect nails and exoskeletons.
“You don’t really get nutrients from eating raw mushrooms,” she said. “And many of them can make you sick because the heat from cooking helps inactivate light toxins.”
For example, morels can make a person sick if ingested raw, Simon said.
Although there are only three known deadly mushrooms in Utah, the toxins vary by species. Simon suggests saving some of the mushrooms that have been eaten so they can be identified later if unwanted symptoms appear, such as stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea.
“We definitely don’t recommend going out and eating mushrooms randomly,” she added.
People interested in mushroom picking should use multiple guides or websites for mushroom identification, as cross-referencing for species confirmation is essential, Simon said. Different guides take different approaches.
The Mushroom Society of Utah has suggested resources here.
Novices can also connect with more experienced foragers, either by working with a mentor or joining an online community, Simon said.
Those interested can join the Mushroom Society of Utah on Facebook or join their citizen science project on iNaturalist, titled Northern Utah Funga, which aims to “document fungal biodiversity for science and conservation.” Although the project focuses on northern Utah, they also accepted submissions from people in southern Utah.
In addition, spectators and potential gatherers must obtain a map and the appropriate permits from the Dixie National Forest.
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