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The peculiar shapes of mushrooms

sulcate sunhead, a parasol-shaped mushroom on the side of a palm stem. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Published May 20, 2023 in the McAllen Monitor

Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist

Mushrooms grow when specific environmental conditions line up, like the Rio Grande Valley’s recent mixture of moisture, humidity, shade, and cloudy weather and when a habitat has a lot of rich organic matter in the soil.

Around 10,000 species of mushrooms can be found in Texas and while many are edible, so many more of them are poisonous. Mushroom identification is a peculiar process because mushroom shapes aren’t necessarily consistent for one reason or another and their appearances change during stages of growth and decomposition; they may not exactly fit a photo likeness in books or online fungi identification sites.

This is an article about some of the fun fungi that can be found and admired in a residential yard, it is not about edible mushrooms; as a caution, experts at Texas A&M say, “unless you have had extensive training, the only safe place to gather mushrooms is the grocery store.”

Fungi have scientific names, and many have common names just like botanical species, like the Candolleomyces candolleanus, commonly called pale brittlestem. Mushrooms huddled together like a tiny elf village around rotting tree stumps are likely to be pale brittlestem. They are commonly found in North America and throughout Europe. The coloring varies from white, to grey-brown to tan and golden brown.

A Pale Brittlestem colony populates the ground near a citrus tree. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Another clustering-type fungus is scaly ink cap, Coprinopsis variegate. Their gills are initially white then turn black when mature and dissolve into a black ink. They also like rotting hardwood.

Scaly Ink Caps in the grass. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Simply put, mushrooms are the above-ground fruiting bodies of huge fungal masses that live unseen and undetected below ground – until conditions promote their emergence.

Most fungi are beneficial decomposers that break down dead and decaying organic matter, like tree stumps and old roots. Generally, fungi do not damage lawns and nearly always indicate healthy soil. Most lawn mushrooms disappear quickly, leaving no trace once conditions dry up.

Instead of producing seeds, mushrooms have spores which disperse with the wind. If they land in suitable locations, new fungi will eventually grow once conditions are right again. The below ground workings of these fungi are called mycelium, which is a root-like structure of a fungus that consists of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae (the branching filaments that make up the mycelium). These fungal colonies are found in and on soil and many other substrates.

Hairy hexagonia, Hexagonia hydnoides, is an example of a shelf fungus that grows on tree trunks and dead and decaying stumps. It is dark brown and stiff. It can become quite large; it does not disappear when conditions change.

Hairy Hexagonia in the grass where a tree once grew. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

A rather delightful fungal growth discovered splitting through the stem cells of a Mexican fan palm like an orange sun umbrella was identified as sulcate sunhead, Heliocybe sulcate. It is found from the Rocky Mountains southward into Mexico; it likes unusual substrates.

Gill side of Sulcate Sunhead. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Cap side of a Sulcate Sunhead. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

A broad, fan- or oyster-shaped fungi can span nearly 12 inches and exhibit an enormous variety of shapes, making it difficult to identify accurately to species, like a huge one found near a tree stump after the recent rains.

The cap side of a fan-shaped, large fungi. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The gills of a large, fan-shaped fungi. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

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