Armillaria

A walk through my absolutely favorite woodland seems reminiscent of walking through a primary forest that has never been logged. Of course, this one has been, but it was probably before logging was taken out of the hands of the men who once cared for trees they cut – so it has recovered. Hunting and motorized four-wheel vehicles are not allowed here. A narrow pine-strewn path follows a meandering river. Sweet, rich moist soil and decaying detritus sprout all kinds of plants; orchids and other wildflowers, ferns, partridgeberry, wintergreen, princess pine, ground cedar, witch hazel, and hobblebush, to mention just a few. This myriad of ground covers and young deciduous and conifer saplings all work together to create a healthy understory. Towering white pines, hemlock, balsam, hardwoods, including very old birches, shade the ground beneath my feet. The scent of the forest is intoxicating. 

Spying so many mushrooms reminds me of Forest Scientist Suzanne Simard’s words in “Finding the Mother Tree” about how the “mushroom is the visible tip of something deep and elaborate like a thick lace tablecloth knit into the forest floor.” 

My fascination grows – what are these mushrooms telling me about underground networking? Who is helping whom? In this place, there are many hub or mother trees (male and female) who weave the whole forest together above and below ground along with the fungi that live at their roots, transferring water, carbon, phosphorus, etc. to all the other older trees, tender young saplings, understory plants, and ground covers. Here I find the first signs of fall color – rose-tinted hobblebush and blushing swamp maples – creeping partridge berry in three stages – leaves, lime green berries, and those who have turned crimson. Brilliant emerald green mosses cover windblown tree stumps, decomposing trees that died naturally. Every rotting trunk has become a new micro–forest. 

The complexity of the underground network of a forest left alone to care for itself becomes so real to me as I walk through trying to identify individual mushrooms, and hopefully to discover which are in a beneficial (symbiotic) mycorrhizal or saprophytic (decaying) relationship with some or all the trees.

Sounds easy? Not so! This untouched forest is so healthy and so full of such a multitude of species that it’s often impossible to tell what relationship these fruiting fungi might have with their neighbors!

I spy an edible Purple Russula.  I learned from my research that this mushroom has a mycorrhizal relationship with hardwood trees. I peer overhead. The swaying leaves of beech, oak, ash, and maple trees surround me. Is there one tree in particular that is favored? Underground these fungi are exchanging water, carbon, sugar, phosphorous, and other nutrients with some or all of these trees.

Such mystery surrounds me!  I spy some bright yellow fingers – Golden spindles (a coral fungus) attached to rotting wood. These are saprophytic; they help the wood to decay, creating rich new soil in the process. They also apparently have a penchant for oaks.

A bit further on I see more. After digging under a thick mossy carpet to find the decaying wood I am baffled. No wood. Just moss. Golden spindles also love moss and moist earth. I notice the same thing with the small brilliant orange mushrooms. Some of the Vermillion waxy caps seem to be growing out of decaying wood, some spring out of the moss. Later, researching these fruiting bodies to clear up my confusion, I learn that both are saprophytic and can also have a mycorrhizal relationship with moss.

All of the Amanita’s I saw like Yellow Patches, Amanita muscaria, and the Death angel seemed to be growing independently. I expose the bulb that is hidden underground, noting the veil of one of the Death angels, wondering why people are poisoned by this mushroom – it is so easy to identify them. All have veils and or bulbs. Even the little ‘puffballs’ when sliced, expose a hidden stalk that identifies the species as deadly. Most of the mushrooms in this family are mycorrhizal; they are in partnership with the trees under which they grow.

In areas where the sun gets in, blow-downs have created space for new growth. Young hemlocks are thriving in the late afternoon sun. Further on, in the darker dappled thick woods, I see bear signs everywhere, thankful that here at least, the animals cannot be shot. On days like this, I make it a habit to stop at some point on the trail and return by exactly the same route so I don’t miss any mushrooms. When we reverse directions, I am thrilled to see that a bear has followed the dogs and me on our walk. After we had moved on, this animal dug up more of the ground in the places where I had been poking around looking for mycelial networking. We never actually saw the bear but s/he certainly saw us! It is a wonderful feeling to know that the bear felt no fear. Apparently, Ursine curiosity matches my own! 

 

The most surprising find is a cluster of mushrooms growing out of a dead maple. I recognize them from my research on forest pathogens. In some instances, Armillaria mellea (generic name for about 129 species), also called the Honey mushroom, can also act as a saprophyte. I suspected that this was probably the case here since no surrounding trees or plants seem to be negatively affected. Armillaria also fruits around the base of some trees in September or October and is often gathered as a choice edible. Last year when I had a spruce cut, the Honey mushroom made a brief appearance; this year not a sign of it, and the area around the stump is bursting with new growth  – ferns, and conifers as well as mosses. Obviously, here Armillaria is acting as a saprophyte. 

What’s most fascinating to me is that this pathogen can also behave very aggressively, using its thick black rhizomorphs to gird and strangle roots, killing all trees in its path in as little as a week! However, losses are heaviest in sustainably managed forests and in plantations seeded with one non –native tree species. Most Armillaria species have a saprophytic lifestyle, which contributes to the decomposition of organic material. They become pathogenic when environmental conditions are ripe for infection. Some species even have a mycorrhizal relationship with orchids, others bioluminesce!  

I had also learned from Suzanne that birch trees – alive or decaying – offer some natural protection against this pathogen, acting as a neutralizing factor and slowing the spread of Armillaria when it becomes a root disease. I had already noted that this particular forest had very old birch trees which seemed to be thriving.  

This is where we see that nature does a wonderful job keeping her forests in balance as long as they are left alone. Today, we know from the extensive field research that has been done that creating plantations comprised of a single species of tree guarantees that the trees will be weaker and more prone to disease because the forest is out of balance. Suzanne Simard’s field studies prove conclusively that forests collaborate more than they compete. Forests are whole, behaving as one living organism. Yet birches that could stay the spread of Armillaria for example, along with all other trees/plants are routinely sprayed with herbicides to rid a plantation of its competitors in the ‘free to grow’ forestry program. I leave it to the reader to conclude why this ground-breaking research continues to be ignored by the public and foresters alike. It is frightening to recognize that in this time of climate chaos, when we so desperately need to change our industrial logging practices, that forestry practices remain exactly the same as they were 40 years ago… 

I am captivated by what’s under my feet and can imagine something of the complexity of these underground networks that connect every plant sapling and tree to its neighbor, but seeing the actual mushrooms anchors me to the reality of this complexity in a way that my imagination or my research cannot … the sense of wholeness that I experience spurs me on to take the deepest pleasure from every forest walk, to give thanks for, and to advocate for every forest everywhere – above and below.

Forests can literally help save our lives in this time of Climate Change, providing us with clean water and air, storing carbon both above and below ground, but first, we must save them from “the logging machine,” that greed-driven corporate structure that has taken logging away from those who once cut trees in the forests they loved sustainably, turning this industry into the massive killing machine it has become.

Forests like this one could also teach us so much about how to live if we acknowledged their sentience, and took the time to learn a little about forest complexity. Nature is amazingly fluid and adaptable, reflecting what happens when all organisms have learned to cooperate for the good of all. A walk through this forest also mirrors back to me that these complex relationships are reflections of the earth’s wholeness – the Ground of Our Being, including my own. 

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