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Check out the ‘fun’ in fungi

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By Michele S. Byers

How many times have you bent down to check out a mushroom, only to be told, “Stop! It may be poisonous!”

New Jersey has several poisonous mushrooms and it goes without saying that you should not eat anything growing in the wild (including plant leaves, roots and berries) unless you know what you are doing.

But you don’t need to stay away from mushrooms. They are beautiful to look at and fascinating to study and photograph, as members of New Jersey Mycological Association will tell you.

The New Jersey Mycological Association is dedicated to educating the public about mushrooms and other fungi in the Garden State. The association organizes weekly “forays” – or mushroom hunts – to parks and preserves throughout this state we’re in.

“We have open forays for the public all the time,” said foray leader Jenifer “Nina” Burghardt, one of the state’s leading mushroom experts. “We’re here because we love mushrooms and we want to tell people all about them.”

Forays are not just about gathering edible mushrooms for cooking.

“That may be why some people come at first, but then they get sucked in,” Nina said.

Mycologists, she noted, are like birders in that they are excited to find and identify as many species as possible.

“It’s not because we can eat them,” she said.

In fact, she said, many state parks only allow collecting mushrooms for scientific identification and study.

Fungi are a kingdom of living organisms that includes mushrooms, yeasts, molds and mildews. They are not part of the plant kingdom. According to Nina and her husband, John, another expert, fungi are everywhere.

“Except for bacteria, they are the most numerous things on Earth,” Nina noted.

About 2,000 mushroom and fungi species have been identified in New Jersey so far, but the Burghardts think that is probably just “the tip of the iceberg.”

While plants use the energy of the sun to produce food, fungi do not have chlorophyll and must get their nutrients in other ways:

Some fungi decompose dead plant and animal matter, such as fallen leaves and trees on the ground.  Spherical puffball mushrooms are often found in yards and woods; step on them and they will release a puff of “smoke” made of spores that grow new mushrooms.

Other fungi live on the roots of trees and bring water and minerals from the soil into rootlets. In return, the host tree supplies the fungus with sugars, vitamins and other substances.

“Without fungi (in tree roots), trees would probably die because they wouldn’t get enough moisture,” Nina said.

Many of these “mycorrhizal” fungi are specific to the type of tree in whose roots they live.

Parasitic fungi can kill their animal or plant hosts. “Honey mushrooms” grow in thick bunches, often on dying tree trunks.

Another fungus, known as the “zombie ant” fungus, infects ants and releases chemicals into their brains that change their behavior. For instance, the fungus may make ants climb out to the end of a tree branch, a place they wouldn’t normally venture, where they die and release fungus spores.

Interested in learning more about mushrooms and fungi? Go on a foray with the New Jersey Mycological Association.

During a typical foray, foragers collect mushrooms and bring them to a meeting place where experts help with identification. Budding mycologists are encouraged to write the names of the mushrooms on cards, then take photos of their finds next to the cards to help them ID mushrooms in the field.

Any fungi that cannot be identified on site are taken home by experts, who may study them under a microscope or conduct chemical tests. The New Jersey Mycological Association keeps annual inventories of all mushroom and fungi species found.

Upcoming forays in August and September include trips to Stephens State Park in Hackettstown, Teetertown Ravine/Crystal Springs preserves in Lebanon Township, Stokes State Forest in Branchville, Thompson/Helmetta County Park in Jamesburg and Cattus Island County Park in Toms River. There’s also a “Fungus Fest” on Sept. 23 at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morristown.

To learn more about how to put the “fun” in fungi, visit the New Jersey Mycological Association website at www.njmyco.org

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

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