Last Saturday 20 of us went on an ‘Ecologically-focused Mushroom Walk’ at Francis King park- an enchanting old-growth Douglas Fir forest just outside of Victoria. It was a foggy fall morning, and the recent cool rains had encouraged mushrooms to start to pop up through the leaf litter of the forest floor and on fallen trees.
Willoughby, our teacher, is a loving mycologist, gardener, kitchen wizard and educator originally from Arcata, California, now based in Vancouver, BC. He is a member of the Radical Mycology Collective, a group dedicated to sharing open-source, accessible information on the easiest and most effective means for working with fungi to increase personal, societal and ecological resilience.
I learned so much from this walk that I wanted to share some of it! I’ll share a bit about one mushroom at a time over the next few weeks. Today’s featured mushrooms are those in the Mycena family.
As soon as we stepped down the path, we found some tiny little adorable ‘Mycena’ mushrooms growing on top of the wooden railing. These are the kind of mushrooms that help you remember magic, and believe in the all that can’t be seen. (Well, that’s how I feel about them).
Mycena is a large family of small decomposer mushrooms that eat litter (ie- fallen leaves). They are characterized by a white spore print, a small conical or bell-shaped cap, and a thin fragile stem. Most are gray or brown, but a few species have brighter colors.
We saw several species within the Mycena family on the walk, most memorably, the Bleeding Mycena (Mycena haematopus) which bleeds red when bruised, and some of the bioluminescent Mycena species, known as “Fox Fire” or ‘fairy fire.’ These little mushrooms glow blue-green in the dark, and so does their mycelium in decaying wood. The glow comes from luciferase, an enzyme which emits light as it reacts. Apparently, these fungi emit enough light for you to read by, or to rub in your hair when going to a dance, and Wikipedia tells me it was used to illuminate the barometer and compass on the earliest submarine. Willougby told us that it was Foxfire that Hansel and Gretel left trails of to mark their way home through the forest, rather than breadcrumbs. That makes way more sense, as these mushrooms are common in the forest and would light up your way back. He also mentioned that Mycena comes from the ancient Greek matriarchal society. Lets learn more about that!
Decomposer mushrooms (also called “Saprotrophic”) like Mycena species break down fallen leaves, trees, and other dead plant and organic matter for food, and this helps make nutrients available for other life to use for food and thus builds soil and contributes to a vibrant soil ecosystem. This website has pretty good info on the different types of decomposer fungi you may have in your life- in your compost pile, or growing on trees in your neighborhood! http://www.the-compost-gardener.com/decomposer.html