The light shines through the branches and casts illuminated streaks on the surface of the Lakeshore Path. The nature preserve is quiet and still as the wildlife prepares for the winter transition. Beautiful trees thrive, reaching to the sky.
Today, however, researcher and plant pathologist Jessie Glaeser has her eyes on the ground. Glaeser researches fungi for the United States Department of Forestry and leads the Center for Forest Mycology Research. She has a careful eye trained to spot fungi on fallen and rotting trees.
On this cool, crisp autumn day, the hunt for fungi may be more of a foray. This is an ancient European term for pillaging that is now used to mean a walk collecting fungi and mushrooms. The combination of recent freezing temperatures and lack of rain have reduced the moisture, which the fungi need to truly thrive.
“Fungi always need water to grow,” Glaeser says. “That’s like the key point.”
However, in no time, Glaeser manages to identify a variety of unique fungi species. Pocket knife in hand, she wastes no time kneeling in the dirt to overturn a rotting log.
Using the sharp tool she marks the areas of the fallen tree afflicted by the fungi. There are two distinct colors that make up most fungi.
The white rot appears bleached, while the brown rot blends in with the dirt.
It quickly becomes quite apparent that there are many different types of fungi.
There are mushrooms with distinct “gill-like” structures and others with spongy pores.
Glaeser makes use of the small magnifying glass dangling around her neck next to the trusty compass to identify the pores too small for the unaided eye.
Perhaps the most important distinction for mushrooms and fungi is which ones are edible, and which ones will send an individual to the hospital.
Most wild mushrooms and fungi may not only be poisonous, but also covered in bacteria. “It’s not [that it’s] really poisonous,” Glaeser says. “It’s just not edible.” She drives home edible mushrooms with a story.
Legend has it, a group of graduate students in Korea—“It may have been Alaska,” Karen Nakasone adds as the experts recall the tale—collected mushrooms. They misidentified them and ended up with hospital-worthy stomach aches.
U.S. Forest Service experts Karen Nakasone and Beatriz Ortiz-Santana join Glaeser.
Together, the three women encompass the entire fungi knowledge of the forest.
Nakasone notes that even though most fungi are brown and white, they can be found in brilliant colors such as violet and even green.
She focuses on differentiating fungi by the color of the spores release for reproduction.
“This could be a brown spore,” Nakasone says. “You can tell sometimes if you just turn it over.” Turning over many fungi reveals their true color. Walking through the forest, most notice the stunning wildflowers and commanding trees. Glaeser is fascinated by the thriving ecosystem of fungi decaying the foliage right below her feet.