About thirty minutes north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Ned Smith Center for Nature & Art sits on over 500 acres of protected forest land with the Wiconisco Creek, a tributary to the Susquehanna River, running through it. The Center offers a variety of educational programs about nature, art and conservation. But on this crisp day in October, I was meeting up with Jerry Hassinger, a volunteer at the center and a noted mushroom hunter, to see what kinds of wood-eating fungi we could find.
Often overlooked, wood-eating fungi are a key component of what keeps a forest ecosystem healthy and functioning properly. Forest land acts like a sponge, absorbing air pollution, trapping polluted runoff before it reaches waterways and stabilizing the soil while providing a habitat for a diverse group of critters. Keeping forests healthy leads to clean waterways, which in turn helps protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay.
Hassinger is a regular volunteer at the Center and has written, photographed and spoken about the importance and beauty of fungi for most of his life. His passion for fungi and background in environmental science was immediately apparent upon my arrival, when he handed me a folder containing a piece of photo paper with beautiful images of fungi we were likely to see on our hunt that day. Each photo was neatly numbered and labeled with the common name and the page number where I could look it up in his edition of the National Audubon Field Guide. Hassinger, formerly with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, humbly considers himself a “fungi enthusiast”—not an expert.
The rest of our mushroom hunting party consisted of Beth Sanders, Director of Education for the Center, and Santino Lauricella, Environmental Educator for the Center. We set off at an appropriately slow clip, looking for what I assumed would be small, ground-dwelling fungi. Hassinger said he uses looking for fungi as an excuse to hike slowly along trails, “I just crossed the eighty year mark, so I don’t walk fast.” He did, however, scramble up a few slopes and down into the creek bed with more agility than I did.
In the few miles we covered, we saw more shapes, textures and sizes of fungi than I ever expected would exist. I learned about white cheese fungus, so-named because it looks like the wet crumbles of goat cheese; ceramic parchment, which covers entire fallen trunks in small, light brown segments resembling tiles; and pear-shaped puffballs that expelled a dusty brown cloud when squeezed. We also saw false turkey tails, deadly galorina, bearded tooth and hen of the woods.
A forest ecosystem is constantly regenerating, and wood-eating fungi play a major role in recycling fallen trees. They digest the dead wood and release nutrients from the bark back into the soil, supporting new growth and reducing fuel available for forest fires.
“Beth!” Hassinger shouted across a clearing as he tromped through the leaves off trail to point out our next mushroom find. “This next one is going to blow your mind.”
From a distance, I could make out an off-white mass that protruded from the bottom of a tree about a few hundred yards from the trail. Hassinger bounded over to it, obviously excited to show us this particular specimen that was about the size of a kid’s basketball. Long, white, hair-like structures covered the rounded form to make it look more like a mythical woodland creature than a mushroom.
Hassinger said it had survived for over a month already and that this fruiting body was just the visible part of what was probably a much larger web of mycelium. Mycelium is a network of millions of microscopic threads that attaches to roots and logs and grows through the soil, sometimes for miles. It forms mutually beneficial relationships: effectively expanding the reach of tree and plant root systems, protecting against some pathogens and providing minerals and water to the roots as it takes sugars produced during photosynthesis. Even more astounding is that mycelium acts as a kind of communication system for the forest. If a tree is attacked by insects, the mycelium will produce a chemical making it less desirable to eat. That chemical works its way through the network of roots and mycelium to other trees of the same species, prompting them to produce that same chemical and ward off the attack.
Walking through the forest with Hassinger, I gained a new insight on just how much is happening all at once, on so many different levels of the forest. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find when you take the time to look closely.
Text, images and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page