Mushrooms 101

A Russula emetica Mushroom in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

A Russula emetica Mushroom (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Last week I went hiking with my sister through the back trails of her Northern Connecticut property, and what a great experience it was, just catching up on gossip while enjoying nature in all her bounty.  My sister owns almost fifty acres, and of that about a third of it is heavily wooded.  Other than walking or horseback riding on a few trails within the wooded areas, the rest remains as it has for decades.  And there is a lot of natural beauty to behold in a forest that hasn’t been “tended” to by humans.  You know how we are, we like to neaten things up, cut down some dead trees, remove hanging limbs, clear and widen paths.  Instead, this land has been left to its own devices, which has proven to be just what the environment needed.

Russula Mushroom with Gills in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Russula Mushroom’s visible gills (Photo by: Kathy Diemer)

All along the shady paths are lined with lush outcroppings of native ferns and dozens of small saplings trying to make it in the great big world.  Logs are laying about, providing safe habitats for many ground dwellers; from birds and chipmunks to the tiniest of insects.  Stones covered in moss glisten with droplets of morning dew.  A gentle breeze blows, birds fly overhead singing and chattering, and tiny animals scurry to and fro; those are the only sounds we heard . . . other than our footsteps.  As we strolled along, we came upon various outcroppings of mushrooms and couldn’t help admiring them.  In shades of pale white to bright tangerine, from tiny mounded forms to the typical toadstool shape we’re accustomed to (just waiting for a leprechaun to appear), we were amazed by their diversity.  I decided it might be fun to find out more about these unusual ornaments of the forest; how they come to exist and what purpose they serve?

Another Russula mushroom in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Russula mushroom (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Simply put, mushrooms are a product of fungus, which reproduce by dispersing spores (microscopic cells) that develop into more fungi.  The fungus is thread-like and weaves itself into soil, leaves and the moist wood of trees.  There are many types (shapes and sizes) of mushrooms; some have gills or teeth, others have pores, and some are even used medicinally.  So, what do these different forms look like?  Mushroom gills, like rows and rows of layered ruffles, are thin, papery structures that hang vertically under the cap.  The gills, called lamellae, produce spores that are dropped by the millions and scattered by wind currents.  Other mushrooms have what is known as pores, which appear as a series of small holes on the underside of the mushroom. These holes are actually the ends of tubes inside the mushroom cap where spores are generated, and eventually released into the air.  Tooth fungi hang under the mushroom mimicking fringe or mini stalactites, where spores then drop from the tips.

Edible Chicken of the Woods in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Colorful Chicken of the Woods (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

There are thousands of mushroom species, but only a few have been used, studied, and tested for medicinal purposes.  The most widely used and available medicinal mushrooms nowadays are: Agaricus, Chaga, Cordyceps, Lion’s Mane, Maitake, Reishi, Shiitake and Turkey Tail.  The common thread of medicinal mushrooms is that they have high concentrations of polysaccharides, specifically beta glucans. Beta glucans have been studied extensively and are noted for optimizing immune system functions. When combined with other compounds, beta-glucans may also provide antiviral, anti-inflamatory and anti-cancer properties as well.  When one of my Great Danes had cancer, I gave her medical mushrooms along with other treatments and diet change.  I can’t verify with certainty if they helped or not, but she lived almost a year when predicted to die within a week.

A Nibbled Bolete Mushroom in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

A nibbled Bolete ornatipes (?) Mushroom (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Here are some examples of mushrooms you might find while hiking on the trails of New England:  Mushrooms with Gills: Black Trumpet (Craterellus cornucopioides, C. cenerius, C. foetidus), Blewit (Lepista nuda), Chanterelle(Cantharellus cibarius), Small Chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis, C. ignicolor), Hedgehog (Hydnum repandum, H. umbilicatum), Meadow Mushroom (Agaricus arvensis, A campestris), Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus, P. populinus), Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera), Russula (Russula compacta, R. vesca, R. gracilis), Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus), and White Matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare).  Mushrooms with Pores: Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), Dryads Saddle (Polyporus squamosus), King Bolete (Boletus edulis), Two colored Bolete (Boletus bicolor), and Maitake (Grifola frondosa).  Other Varieties: Aborted Entoloma (Entoloma abortivum), Lobster Mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum), Morels (Morchella esculenta, M. elata), and Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea, Calvatia cyathiformis).   Medicinal Mushrooms: Artists Conk (Ganoderma applanatum), Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), Maitake (Grifola frondosa), Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae, G. lucidum) and Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).

Partially devoured Mushroom in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Partially devoured Mushroom (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Mushrooms play an important role in our native forests, actually forming relationships with other living organisms.  For example, some fungi connect with a tree’s root hairs to tap some of the glucose, in return providing minerals and moisture from the surrounding soil.  Some fungus also release beneficial hormones that stimulate tree growth, considered a form of mycorrhiza.  Saprophytic fungi serve as composters of the forest by growing in dead wood and matter, helping them to break down and decompose, thus creating a healthy habitat for life to begin anew.   However, there are some parasitic forms of fungus that can harm or kill trees and forest plant life as well.

Please use the utmost care and precaution before consuming any mushrooms you find growing wild.  Although the majority of mushrooms are not poisonous, after researching several different websites, there seems to be a broad difference of opinion as to what types are edible or not.  Personally, I choose to enjoy them visually in the forest and leave the consuming to the critters that live there.  There are plenty of great options at my local grocery store that I know are safe and delicious, so I’ll err on the side of caution here.

For those that want to explore further, I found many interesting websites with great images (, information about dozens of mushrooms growing in the New England area (David Spahr, the “Mushroom Maineiac” at: and recipes ( (*Did you know that mushrooms do not contain fat, sodium or cholesterol?)

*Please Note Because I photographed first and asked questions later, the names under the mushroom images are educated guesses from David Spahr.  Many mushrooms have to be examined from the underside, some even under a microscope, to provide a positive identification.  Please enjoy them anyway!


  1. Nice job on the mushrooms…

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