Mushroom Aging

Though official mushroom spring is coming to an end, the forest floor is still covered in mushrooms. On a walk with a fellow forest land steward recently, we were identifying a verity of fungi in her woodlands and began a discussion on aging a mushroom. We saw a string of Helvella lacunosa at different states of decomposition in a row. For a moment, my friend thought they were different kinds, because the aging had turned the older mushroom into a completely different color and texture. It left me wondering how many people are often confused by this transformation, and think there are several different kinds of mushroom, when really, it’s just slow decomposition causing chemical change.

I’ve taken a series of photos here all at the same time in the same area of EEC forest. Clitocybe is an excellent type of mushroom to observe in this exercise, as it tends to bloom in the same area at different times, is a common woodland fungi, and has very diverse stages of decomposition. This genus of mushroom is in the family Tricholomataceae of the order Agaricales (gilled mushrooms). These are important steps to identifying the fungi you’re curious about. Even with photos and many good references to compare to, my guess at Clitocybe could still be wrong. My second guess would be Tricholoma, but the gills do run down the stem.

As the mushroom ages, its cap edges begin to turn upward, and the whole mushroom starts to darken. Color is not the best way to identify mushroom age, unless you know the species right off the bat. It’s also a very good idea to confirm you are looking at the same species throughout your observations. Because of the common habitat shared by many mushrooms, you’ll often see a verity of species in one area. Even in the pictures of this study, there are other species in the background. Often, the size of a mushroom continues to expand, but it will also usually be melting at the same time, as seen in the picture below.

The flesh of a mushroom is the best way to judge mushroom age- as they become softer/slimier as they begin to decompose. This is due to the high water content of the fungi. Not all mushrooms melt, but in the order Agaricales, all fleshy gilled mushrooms decompose from solid into liquid. They usually turn darker with age, and in this study, the changes are clear. You’ll not always have the chance to see the same mushroom at different stages as you walk through the woods, but if you have an eye on one at the edge of your walk to the car, or from your seat on the porch, take a few days to track the fungi as it grows. The excitement of watching a mushroom evolve is a great journey in nature’s cycle of life.

One more note on aging- sometimes, a mushroom has been predated upon, or shredded by wildlife moving through on a trail. The picture above shows this damage, which is not directly related to the aging process. The flesh on the fungi above is still relatively firm, though the color is darkening. These mushrooms are not melting, but tattered from a battering. You also see slugs, flies, and larva munching on mushrooms, and hastening their demise. Some mushrooms will bruise when touched, and that marking can aid in aging a mushroom too.

The identification adventure in mycology can become very frustrating, but the more time you spend observing mushrooms, the more familiar they become. It helps to follow through with keying out your species, so take that next step when you leave the field and pick up a field guide or spend some time browsing images on the web. The internet is no sure bet, but you can get ideas there, and broaden your search. By keying out your mushroom, you may not get an exact match, but you’ll have some idea of order or family. This is sometimes as far as you may go- and that’s ok, it’s learning!

These Trees

These trees whisper
billowing j branches
tall masts listing
pantomime forest
recalling giant majesty

Breath stirs these trees
into dancing children
reveling on their parents’ ashes
quaking together,
witnessing another massacre

In these trees, dreaming visions
under embroidered canopy
rich vegetation, cultivated fertility
supportive mycology
(can’t say enough about mushrooms)

These trees, looming crown
deep roots bind reality
reflect long term stability
glimpse old growth eternity

Big Picture

In our quest to be good stewards of place during out lifetime, we must take time to look at the big picture growing on around us. Sometimes the hard work we put in to protect a space can have a much larger impact, especially for those living down stream. EEC Forest Stewardship is at the beginning of Weiss Creek, less than a mile from the start of this salmon bearing stream. There is already a strong invasion of Japanese knot-weed, but our overall water quality is great. By the time this stream reaches The Snoqualmie River, about nine winding miles down between Novelty and Stillwater Hill, there is some sediment in the water, and a growing wetland has formed.

Weiss Creek is important fish habitat, but also feeds a crucial wildlife sanctuary to the south of rout 203, a very active highway between Monroe (Rt. 2) and Fall City (I-90). This buffer of wetland is called Stillwater Natural Area. It plays host to part of the Snoqualmie Trail, a well used walking, biking, and riding path in the river valley. Snovalley Tilth, a local community farmers’ network, has an experimental farming project for young farmers to the north (right in the picture below) of the mouth of Weiss Creek. This area is also where the salmon are spawning.

The actions of people living up stream will determine the long term viability of both the wildlife, and agricultural viability in the valley. Only properties in red along Weiss Creek, pictured below, have long lasting protections for the wetlands and stream habitats on their properties. There are some county, state, and federal protections all land owners are subject to, but the oversight is minimal. This lack of attention allows for great abuse of the landscape, and much of the time, the damage is caused in ignorance. Clearing logs from the creek, allowing horses and cattle into the stream as part of pasture use, and even clearing a hillside above to open up a view, all these actions have detrimental consequences for Weiss Creek, and those living down stream.

You might not think your single action has much effect, but the detriment adds up, especially in fast developing landscapes, like The Snoqualmie Valley. During flood season, seasonal runoff from the surrounding hillsides has become toxic due to spreading housing developments and heavy traffic on small two lane roads running both sides of The Snoqualmie River, up into the nearby ridges. All the above ground crops on picturesque farms across this historical agriculture valley are contaminated when flood waters come. Laws passed a few years ago to prohibit the sale of flood contaminated crops in Snoqualmie Valley. The contamination in the water comes from all the new development. Every individual home owner flushing bleach cleaning products, machine solvents, and a cascade of endless consumer goods which are not biodegradable pollute our watershed, and the problem is growing as fast as the housing projects.

Careless practices regarding the natural world will haunt humanity for generations to come. You may not think your one act will cause great harm, but the little pricks add up. These tires were recently dumped into The Stillwater Naturalist area where Weiss Creek empties into The Snoqualmie River. Someone didn’t want to pay the $5/tire disposal cost to have the tires “recycled”. A lot of people in rural places just bury them or use them as embankment holds. The problem with this is slow, long term leaching of hazardous chemicals into the environment. This is why tier dealers ask you to bring in your old ones to be “recycled”. I use “” because the recycling usually puts the chemical rubber from the tiers right back out into the environment in a shredded form, accelerating chemical pollution.

A few links which explain tire toxicity-

Mother nature has provided us with a lot of bio-technology to help clean up our experimental industrial hazards, but we have to want to utilize them, and become wiser about pollution. Mushrooms can neutralize almost any harmful chemical, it just takes time. Organic chemistry is amazing, and our quest to find coal and oil, could evolve very easily into a quest for closed loop organic composting and biodegradable fuel sources. There is a lot of new technology forming around a greener planet, but our old habits die hard.

Mushroom Spring

It’s that time again here in The Pacific Northwest, the time when it’s wet and cool enough for fungus to abound. The woods are fruiting with a ground treasure like no other, so get out there and start looking around. Many mushrooms are edible, but few are easy to identify, so safety is a number one concern. Don’t pick what you don’t know- a brave mushroomer is a dead one. With that in mind, have a look at some wild friends, edible or not, that I’ve been finding in my local forests.

Chantrelles are the most widely known edible mushroom here in Western Washington, with good reason- there are few look a likes to confuse it with, and the taste is excellent. Chantrelles are golden yellow, and have veins rather than gills. They come out in the fall (mostly) and grow on mossy soil under Douglas fir stands. A great place to go hunting is forest land with 30-60 year old stands. Look on the north facing slopes, where salal and Oregon grape thrive. Keep a sharp eye out in the green mosses, and look carefully, sometimes the golden treasures are partially buried by the thick duff.

When you harvest chantrelles, please cut them at the stem or tear them from their base, keeping the bottom part in the ground with the mycelium to prevent disruption of the shroom cycle. If you pull out the “root” of the chantrelle with the fruit, you take away future blooms and upset the delicate lace of hyphae (little white hairs) in the soil. I’ve seen great flushes disappear in areas where the ground is severely disturbed by bad pickers who rush. If you are a beginner and not sure of how to harvest sustainably, seek guidance from a veteran picker.

Medicinal mushrooms are also a great find in the woods. Our native Reishi is a Ganoderma verity which has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. They are very rare, so when I found this perfect specimen, I left it. It’s often better to leave a mushroom untouched, especially the woody ones growing on logs. The red belted conch is another great example of polypore fungus which should be left alone. These mushrooms can be very medicinal, but it takes special preparation to ensure the medicine comes out, and most people do not know the proper steps. It takes a long time for many of these wood eating species to establish, so let them be.

Sometimes I’ll find a new species I’ve not identified before and get excited. I make sure there are several of them around before I pick one- if it’s the only one, I leave it alone to reproduce. If it’s one of a crowd, I’ll select a medium sized one to study, and take a few pictures. Often, I never follow through at home with my field guides, but sometimes, especially when I am writing these blogs, I’ll pull out the books and get cracking. This is the best way to explore new species, and rather than experimenting with a fork, it is best to use field guides or find an expert- someone who is an established mycologist with a lot of experience. (I am not one)

This specimen is a Lactarius of some kind. I can guess L. rubrilactus, but without closer inspection (spore print) and a lot more study, this mushroom will remain a mystery for now. Sorting into a family is sometimes more than enough to get a basic understanding. Families are diverse, and in the mushroom kingdom, families are often changing and evolving as we learn more about the DNA structure of mushrooms. You’ll often hear me in the woods talking about “nice looking Russulas”. This is a HUGE family with many species, most of which are not edible, but the general family is easy to recognize with a few key characteristics.

nice looking russula
  1. Russula are chalky, and shatter like safety glass when you throw them against a tree trunk.
  2. The russula are generally spicy on the tongue, warning of their inedible nature.

Now, should you go out and put all mushrooms on your tongue to test for spicy flavor? No! And without an expert to show you, don’t taste any mushroom you don’t know. However- if you put a little mushroom on your tongue and then spit it out, you are not going to die. BUT- don’t test mushrooms outside the russula family and don’t test at all if you are unclear on russulas. See why most mushroomers are hesitant to share info and broadly discuss mushrooming? It can be a nightmare of what ifs. So, unless you are out with an expert- someone who had been mushrooming a long time and hopefully has a degree in mycology, don’t get brave and start assuming, you will end up very sick or dead in the long run by experimenting on your own.

Sometimes I run across a real beauty and fall in love. This Cortinarius violaceus is a rare find in any woods across North America. The purple color is so striking on the forest floor, and the texture of that cap is mesmerizing. There were two in this forest, and I picked one only because I really wanted to get the full understanding of its profile. I chose the more mature of the two because it was open and after picking it, I could lay the open cap back down on the ground to keep putting out spores. Next time I see this guy in the woods, I can look and know without having to pick. That’s the great learning journey. Later, on a walk with a qualified mycologist, I was informed that this species is also edible, but I have not had a chance to find more to try. Next year for sure!

Remember that all mushrooms have something to teach you, and there is an endless verity out on the landscape to find and enjoy. I recommend picking to identify, then putting all your samples into the compost, or better yet, back onto the landscape where you found them. If you are hunting for food and medicine, go with an expert and learn safely. I have a great passion for mycology, but I only eat a few species from the wild. These species have been carefully studied, and have been shown to me by professionals first. If I am unsure, I DO NOT EAT. Remember to wash you hands after handling mushrooms too. Having a healthy fear of fungus is not a bad thing, but also appreciate and enjoy the vast diversity of this amazing forest friend and learn what you can.

On a personal note, I found my first lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum) this Fall. It was a great triumph, because lobsters are rare, and short lived. I have been shown older specimens in the past, but they were mushy and worm ridden. What’s so special about lactifluorum? Well, the lobster mushroom is not a mushroom at all, but a different kind of parasitic fungi from the family Ascomycota. The lobster grew over another mushroom, consuming it. In Western Washington, lactifluorum does not “borrow” any toxic species, but might in other regions so learn locally. On this day, the lobster was a loner, hidden well under needles and ferns. The flesh was hard, like an actual lobster shell, with little worm sign. I was elated, and able to carry this treasured find to a dinner that evening with good friends. It’s always a pleasure to share such special forest prizes with others. Gratitude for the forest and all it’s bounty- and thank you fungi!

Bird’s Eye View

Greenbelt of Weiss Creek runs down center frame, flowing E to W (bottom left corner to top center), landscape stretches L to R (S to N)

With the gift of drone technology, EEC Forest Stewardship was able to capture a great bird’s eye view of the forest from above. Our modest collection of young 60 year groves and two large clearings at either end of the property reflect a landscape in slow recovery. The forest looks relatively healthy, considering the continued drought facing much of the west. Our western hemlocks suffer the most from a lack of deep watering, meaning we get heavy downpours instead of slow seep continuous rains that were, up until the past decade, a common occurrence in our temperate rain-forest. In response, the landscape has been altered in a few major places to help slow runoff from these heavy rains.

Human habitat- established infrastructure, high impact, cultivation space

Our most altered part of the landscape is in zone one, or the area inhabited by humans. Five people live full time in this area, with room for up to 8. We seasonally host some travelers who drop by for a month or two in the summers, and occasionally host a WWOOFer or student at a local wilderness school. In this part of the landscape you will see large earth works projects like the pond and swales, most of which deal directly with water flow and retention. We also have two shop spaces and the animal housing, including a chicken coop, two covered stall areas for goats and sheep, and grain room. The large blue square in the upper part of the picture above, is a 20,000 gallon cistern. This pillow tank allows us to flood irrigate our swales to water a young orchard planted in the fall of 2018.

Fields and groves, patches of new forest and fast growing giants

The view from above also offers a great perspective of our rotational grazing work around the property. Katahdin sheep graze field and forest after we move our goats through on tethers. The sheep are important grazers, really working on the grasses we have established in clearings around the landscape. In the picture above, you can clearly see the brown areas of short cropped pasture, versus the greener, lush parts of the pasture which has not yet been grazed down. In the bottom right corner of the right clearing, there is a larger patch of green that is completely fenced in to keep out all the livestock. It has been recently planted with young trees, including an oak grove, and deciduous trees like big leaf maple and hazel. We don’t invite sheep into this enclosure to protect the young trees and native under-story we are also establishing, like blue huckleberry.

orchard left, coops and stalls below (top center)

Forests mark the boundary between an active human habitat and the wilder forests at EEC Forest Stewardship. Further south, past the animal shelters, you enter a world of towering giants, leading down to a hidden stream which hosts spawning salmon in the fall. Here there is a great wetland setback, creating habitat for wildlife and native forest. EEC Forest Stewardship hosts a CREP grant, which allows cost sharing with our local conservation agencies in our efforts to restore the canopy of green. Without habitat, our beloved old growth will never return. Even on small acreage parcels, 5 acre plots, can have a forest stewardship plan and tended native forest restoration. If everyone stewarding land would plant a few trees, we’d have a much better chance for forest in the long run, and still have plenty of room for fields and orchards.

“back 40”, left frame (E) is untouched reforestation from the 70s with intact under-story

Our back field, the southern most part of the landscape, and furthest from the main settlement of human activity, still hosts habitation. A lone wall tent has stood for two years, hosting a rather talented and experienced naturalist who loves living quite off the grid. I appreciate his presence in this far away part of the land, because he keeps an eye on the space and deters predators from predating my sheep and goats. This field will remain partially open, but in the most southern boundary of the land, we’ve established a grove of (grafted) chestnuts. This is a future food forest in action. There are also a few ponderosa pines establishing too. The bare patch across the fence on my neighbor’s land is a sign of great disturbance. It also illustrates a clear departure from restorative stewardship into chaotic sandbox for off road toys. There could be some serious sediment runoff from his land next fall. This runoff would clog our salmon stream with loose dirt, which in tern, can kill salmon eggs and endangered fresh water muscles.

Land stretches L to R (N to S), Weiss Creek greenbelt runs top R to bottom center (SE to W)

With the responsibility of land stewardship, comes a great moral maze full of naturalist idealism and harsh organic truth; every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Our good intentions may not serve the greater ecological recovery in the short term, but further on down the road, every tree planted will be one step closer to rebuilding a greater canopy.

Forest Regeneration

tree nursery (fenced)

A large part of the long term vision at EEC Forest Stewardship, involves regenerative growth. For our old growth forest to reach it’s potential, we have to reinstate a lot of biomass to fulfill the nutrient needs of the ever growing trees. This biomass includes a lot of under-story, and of course, the establishment of new trees. Some of the root stalk and native plants on the land were bought- through local conservation district plant sales, nurseries, and even wild specimens from the edge of logging roads. Often, when new plants are acquired, they go right into the soil upon the land where they are intended to grow long term, but sometimes, plants arrive in too vulnerable a state to be haphazardly thrown into an active landscape. By active, I mean deer browsed and rabbit feasted areas of regeneration. The plant predators of western Washington are fierce.

black-tail deer, notorious plant predator

The regeneration of a forest takes many human generations to create, and new plants and trees should be added throughout stewardship. Keeping young plants protected over a manageable space, a few acres, is relatively doable with some sturdy fencing, but very young trees are a pain to protect individually, especially if they can be contained within a small plot when small, and later replanted in a larger, less protected space as they mature and grow larger. Once a tree is over five feet tall, it can usually fend off deer. Elk would be another matter, but for now, at least in this lifetime, elk are not expected to repopulate this immediate vicinity, but they once did call this hillside home.

willow hides a native crab apple

In some areas of the land, tree islands house and hide small young trees. This method of planting a younger tree near a larger, especially bushy plant that the deer prefer, can be enough protection. However, this method does not work very well in the further reaches of the land where people do not usually go. In those areas, trees must be fenced. Ground covers and smaller shrubs usually do establish more easily on the landscape, so long as they are placed within an established forest cover. Most under-story plants will not establish well in exposed soil, preferring the shade of canopy to thrive and grow.

trees in the garden

Even young trees, like the coveted chestnut, need shade and protection when young. I keep my seedlings in the veggie garden, along with some fruit tree root stock, oaks, and mulberries. I’ve learned not to plant faster growing plants like river birch or twin berry in the garden (even after I convinced myself it was just for one year). I’m still struggling with a few tenacious tenants like Cascadian Hops and Nootka rose. I do root up comfrey every year, and the classic weeds like wild lettuce and herb Robert still find their way in, but sufficient weeding keeps them in check. Some starts take more care when young, and the gardens close to the house offer excellent over-site.

Within the restoration areas of EEC Forest Stewardship, many patches of blackberry can be found. Many are eaten back by forest goats who work 24 hrs a day consuming the vegetation, but blackberry can still take over a clearing in one season, as this thick mat of first year regrowth shows- the roots are still established, and unless we keep cutting it back, the bramble will return. However, if a tree is planted, it’s eventual shade will knock back the blackberry with canopy, and since canopy is the goal, trees are a must. A nursery tree can be transplanted into the blackberry at 3-5 years of established growth. The replanted growth must then be taken out of goat maintenance, meaning all blackberry must be hand cut till the trees establish a canopy, which takes many years.

To fast track forest regeneration, we use already established canopy along the edges of young third growth trees to help younger trees re-establish. In more open areas, entire clearings are replanted, after most of the blackberry has been removed by heavy livestock browsing. If a large number of trees can be established in a protected clearing, including a thick replanting of under-story cover, like vine maple, hazel, and twin-berry helps keep out the unwanted bramble and encourages a good biomass for the future forest. By cultivating young plants, we ensure the longevity of the ecosystem for generations to come.

Hedge Edge

4 year old hedge

Edge space is the most happening part of any ecosystem, hosting the most diversity and transition. A multitude of plants and animals use edge space; plants take advantage of the light, having open space to grow into, and animals like the thick shelter offered by low lying shrubs and dense briar. Most transition zones happen where forests meet clearings, but can also occur where land meets water, or any major topographic and/or ecosystem change happens upon a landscape. At these edges, a forester can grow the most biomass, and should take care in selecting a good hedge where they can.

Hedges are cultivated edges, usually creating a boundary between fields, or a field to forest transition. Sometimes they include rock walls, or split fence backing, especially when newly established. In the picture above, our young hedge is backed by pallet fencing, which is a great barrier to livestock, as well as the ever invading blackberry. All the hedge plants have an orange tag, and most are mulched with cardboard. This is the fourth year of this hedges growth, and we’re still adding new plantings. The oldest trees will be pleachered this winter, encouraging abundant new shoots to thicken the hedge, as well as laying the trees to encourage horizontal growth. .

Back in the home garden, a nursery of young trees awaits transplanting into the hedge this winter. Mulberry, birch, and twin berry are along some species selected as good hedge species. Red alder and vine maple are two examples of native plants which are good hedge material. Other ground species like twin flower, comfrey, yarrow, and day lilly are great companions.

tree islands

Some parts of the land at EEC Forest Stewardship are being reclaimed from pasture into tree islands. Above is an example of two islands close together, one established with cypress and spruce cultivars, while the one in the foreground is comprised of native willow and crabapple. These micro-habitats are not an intact forest, or hedge, but they do provide that crucial transition zone, offering more edge space within a larger pasture. Within the shade of a few trees, under-story can thrive with teaming diversity. In these islands you can find iris, thimble berry, carrot, dock, clover, sweet pea, rose, and more. Wildflowers often come in around these edge spaces in early spring. It’s a great pollination station too.

Cultivating nursery space for future hedge plantings is important, not just for the cultivation of species to plant into the hedges, but also as a way to save money. Instead of buying expensive potted trees and shrubs, you can order root stock, and also take cuttings and re-rootings from already established plants in your forest. Just remember to keep track of these plants and make sure they eventually find a place in the planned hedges. The Douglas fir in this tree nursery is getting almost too big to replant. The red oak behind it will stay where it was initially put in, which also means eventually, this tree nursery will be overtaken by an oak. By then, we’ll hopefully have enough established plantings on the landscape to negate the need for a set aside nursery bed.