They don’t get much acclaim, but I am strangely infatuated with mushrooms.
They sprout up out of dried leaves and rotting logs on the forest floor in vibrant colors of red, orange, and yellow. I crouch down low to peer at the gills beneath their silky caps and look for tiny fairies hiding in the moss below. I haven’t found one yet, but I’m fairly sure they are there, holding their breaths until I turn away.
Shelf fungus create ladders up the sides of dying trees. Their outer edges are sometimes soft, but the rest of the fungus is hard as wood. Like trees, they grow in layers, forming rings with each new year of growth. Lichen are likeable as well. They form on rocks and trees as colonies of fungus and algae living together in harmony. The fungus provides the structure, while the algae produces food though photosynthesis. Many types of lichen are actually edible if prepared correctly; the best known of these is reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina), which is eaten by both reindeer and people.
Even more interestingly, people in Sweden used to make lichen into brandy during the 1800’s and Russians made lichen into molasses. According to Green Deane, a wild-edibles expert, “You can also eat any lichen you find in the first stomach of a reindeer, but it’s messy and not too good tasting.” Lichen grow very slowly and many of the lichens you find when hiking about can be hundreds, if not thousands of years old.
The Bell Museum of Natural History estimates that there are around 9000 species of fungus in Minnesota. Their role in the ecosystem is to decompose and recycle nutrients, which in turn helps to increase soil fertility. Unlike plants, fungi lack chlorophyll so they can’t make their own food. Instead, they feed on dead and decaying organic matter. They can reproduce both sexually and asexually, by releasing spores that float on the wind or cling to the fur of a passing animal.
Earthworms are an animal that people often mislabel as decomposers, though they are actually detritivores. Worms break down large pieces of organic matter into smaller pieces, so that it is more readily available to true decomposers like fungus and bacteria. All 15 of the terrestrial earthworm species found in Minnesota are non-native, invasive species from Europe and Asia. Earthworms eat the organic duff layer that forms on the forest floor, making it hard for seedlings, ferns and wildflowers to grow. In areas heavily infested by earthworms, soil begins to erode and leach nutrients, degrading the habitat of woodland lakes and streams.
Fungus and bacteria break down organic matter to the cellular level, making nutrients available for plants to uptake. Mycorrhizae, like lichen, are symbiotic relationships that form between fungi and plants. The fungi colonize root systems, helping plants to absorb water and nutrients. In turn, the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis. Using cover crops on farmlands is one of the best ways to promote the growth of mycorrhizae and protect soil fertility. Cover crops help to prevent erosion, and also enhance nutrient cycling by taking up nitrogen and phosphorus that might otherwise leach out of the soil and into nearby waterways. Rye can be planted immediately after harvesting corn and soybeans, or seeded aerially in August while the cash crops are still growing. In addition to preventing soil from washing away during the late fall, winter, and early spring, cover crops increase in the total numbers and diversity of soil organisms, ensuring healthy, well-functioning soil.
The next time you are hiking in the woods, slow down a bit to admire the fungus, mushrooms, and lichen that abound. Inside a tiny fairy kingdom, mysteries await you – a frog prince, a bed of moss, and houses orange and red.