A Few Mushroom Decomposers

May 3, 2023

This cool and moist week has me thinking about mushrooms and fungi, important members of every ecological community. Luckily, there are still plenty of them out there to photograph and enjoy before the summer heat. There are different definitions for decomposers but this one from the Biologyonline.com website is clear and concise: “Decomposers are the critical component of the food chain in the ecosystem responsible for the breaking down of the organic and nutrient matter of the dead, thus recycling the organic matter and making it available to the ecosystem.” There are many types of decomposers, but I will just be talking about mushrooms which are the most familiar type of fungus. Here in Mendocino County, we are fortunate to have a plethora of different species of fungi. Mushrooms can display a variety of beautiful colors, like the Amanita muscaria, which is a poisonous mushroom that has a beautiful red cap with white snow-like dots on it. This species is commonly found on the coast but has not been found on the Mitigation Lands. I am not a mycologist, or ‘mushroom expert;’ it is a difficult field but there are some common mushrooms that anyone can learn.

The study of mushrooms is called mycology and general mushroom identification uses morphological characteristics such as the color of the mushroom, size, the presence or absence of the volva or universal veil, the stem or stipe, ring, scales, and more. Learning the parts that make up a mushroom and careful observation is important. Using your senses like smell and touch can also help with identification. Remember that a mushroom is only the reproductive part of a fungus, and most of that fungus lives under the ground in the form of a group of filaments or hyphae called mycelium. It is so wonderful to look at a mushroom and realize that what is above ground is just a fraction of the whole organism. In terms of eating wild mushrooms, it is important to remember that there are some mushrooms that have chemical constituents that cause death in humans. Many of these mushrooms that are harmful to humans can be digested safely by wild animals without harm. Observing a squirrel eating a wild mushroom does not mean it isn’t harmful to humans and the same goes for watching a bird eating a mushroom, as birds can eat many poisonous plants and fungi that we cannot.

As the weather has warmed a little the last two weeks and we have had moisture each day the fungi are popping out on old piles of manure left from the cows and on dead and decaying woody debris. Their forms are diverse and beautiful. Fungi play an important role in the decomposition of plant matter by freeing up nutrients for the trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants growing by the foot right now on the Mitigation Lands.