Contributed by OMS Board Member Pete Richards
My wife and I have a summer place in western Maine where we usually spend three weeks in July or August. One of our favorite activities is going on mushroom hikes. It is always interesting to see what we find there that is familiar because we see it here in Ohio, and what is different. Some hikes reward us with a taste treat – usually chanterelles, or sometimes black trumpets.
This year we are not going to Maine because of COVID-19, and there are few mushrooms around here because of the extreme dryness. This leaves me little to do as a mycophile except think about past finds, protect myself in the present, and speculate about the future.
There are good reasons to expect the mushrooms in our area of Maine to be similar to those here. The climate is not drastically different, and many of the same trees occur in both places – oaks, maples, beeches. Many of the same Russulas and Lactarius occur in both places; as do several of the Amanitas; the Sulfur Shelf Laetiporus sulphureus; and boletes like Old Man of the Woods Strobilomyces sp., several Suillus species, etc.
There are also important differences. Oberlin, where I live, is notorious for its clay soils, which are underlain by sandstones and shales. Our area of Maine is part of the older Appalachian Mountain range, an area of rocky not-quite mountains built of metamorphic and igneous rocks, often with a rather thin mantle of soil on top. The area I know best, right around our cabin, is an island, a glacial sand deposit with fine old trees, mostly white and red pines and paper birches, species which are not common around my part of Ohio. Not surprisingly, the mushrooms that I see there but not here are often ones that are associated with these trees and the rather acid soil they produce. Polypores like Fomitopsis betulina, Fomes excavatus, and Phellinus gilvus, the strange bolete Meiorganum curtisii and the fuzzy-stemmed agaricale Tapinella atromentosa are obligate saprobes or parasites of these trees. Some other species I have seen in Maine but not in Ohio are Amanita frostiana, A. jacksonii, Cortinarius semisanguineus, Hypomyces lactifluorum, and Turbinellus floccosus. Undoubtedly some of these occur some places in Ohio, but I was not looking in the right place at the right time.
Things are changing on our little island in Maine. The forest canopy is dominated by the pines and birches, but they are gradually dying and are not replacing themselves. The understory is mostly Red Maple, Red Oak, and American Beech. In 50 years, these will be the mature trees, and with the change of trees will come a change in the mushroom assemblage. The island will be much more like Ohio, both in its trees and in its mushrooms.
Ohio is also changing, and with it the rest of the Midwest and beyond. Old growth forests are rare and gradually being lost. Most striking to me is the almost complete loss of major tree species, one after another, to attacks by insects and insect-borne pathogens imported from overseas. First was the American Chestnut, felled by the Chestnut Blight (a fungus) introduced from East Asia in the first half of the 20th century. It was followed by the American Elm, victim of the Dutch Elm Disease (also a fungus, carried by elm bark beetles) in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Emerald Ash Borer has decimated populations of our many native ash species. Now we watch to see if hemlocks can survive the Hemlock Woolly Adelgids. With the loss or drastic reduction of each of these trees, mushroom species that are associated with them are also lost or made rare, though some fortunately are associated with more than one host species. Examples are the “yellow” morels and oyster mushrooms associated with elms; the Ash Bolete, Boletinellus meruloides; and Ganoderma tsugae, a polypore associated with hemlock. I found no information about fungi associated with American Chestnut, though undoubtedly there were some.
Trees and their ecosystems have evolved for hundreds of millions of years, countless species have gone extinct, and their niches havce been re-occupied by other species. But our intercontinental commerce and mobility and an insufficiently strong ecological ethic have increased the rate of extinctions far beyond what natural evolution can replace. Unfortunately, the future seems destined to be characterized by reduced diversity of all forms of life.
I had not intended this to wind up with such a negative perspective, but there it is. We must appreciate the diversity of life that we have available to experience, and preserve it as well as we can. Love your mushrooms!