Finally! A Blog About Mushrooms!

A Pheasant Back (AKA Dryad’s Saddle) and several specimens of Artist’s Conk adorn our mantel.

I’m into mushrooms right now. Like, I think about them all the time. It’s weird, I’m weird, it’s fine.

I’m not sure I can pinpoint a specific reason as to why I’m into fungus. What I do know is that several years ago in 2015, I was camping with my family at Sugar River Forest Preserve in northern Illinois. It was early July and we stumbled upon some beautiful, colorful mushrooms including the emetic Russula, sometimes called Red Russula.

My kids (then aged 10, 8, 6 and 5) and I found the bright red “button” on the forest floor beneath some oak trees. Enchanting!

A young emetic Russula. They start off bright red, but fade with time. The mushroom to the right is an “old” Russula. Note how the cap turns upward and creates a miniature “bowl” as it ages.

The same day we spotted the Russula, we found a Yellow-orange Fly Agaric beneath a stand of white pine trees. It was practically glowing! We were mesmerized.

A Yellow-orange Fly Agaric bursts through a bed of white pine needles in July.

That was 2015. I wasn’t able to identify those mushrooms until *this fall.* Pathetic. I remember Googling “Illinois mushrooms” and hundreds – if not thousands – of mushroom pictures populated my screen. Nothing seemed to match the fungi we found so I gave up. That’s right, I quit. I broke up with mushrooms!

But several months ago, things changed. I “discovered” Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve in northern Illinois. It is exceptionally quiet and filled with flora and fauna, including an abundance of mushrooms! I go there at least once a week to settle my mind and listen to the earth and I am happy to report that mushrooms and I are together again.

I am also happy to report that my Googling skills have improved since 2015. Case in point, I found this poster from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ website and it is a useful tool for newbie shroom-chasers. I have also checked out a couple mushroom identification books from the local library and follow various mycologists and mushroom hunters on social media.

I am a beginner, by no means an expert, but I have “met” many wonderful mushrooms this fall and am eager to introduce some of them to you!

Meet Dryad’s Saddle, named so because it looks like a saddle for a woodland fairy. According to Merriam’s Dictionary, a dryad (noun) is a spirit that lives in the forest. According to me, they are all over Sugar River Alder and I hope you visit it.

Dryad’s Saddle is also called a Pheasant Back. Whatever you call it, they grow on living or dead deciduous trees.

I found this stack of Dryad’s Saddle at Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve in November.

The cap (or “seat”) of the Dryad’s Saddle can grow up to twelve inches across and turns black as it ages. Until then, its feather-like pattern is marvelous to observe. Young Dryad’s Saddles are edible, but they become tough and inedible with age.

It’s hard to imagine a mushroom more adorable than one named for a fairy’s saddle, but there is. Enter the Giant Puffball. Autumn 2021 was an excellent year for these spectacular spheres.

These mushrooms can grow up to three feet wide and, when they are young, are pure white inside. Slicing into them is sight that is so lovely to behold! I’m telling you, their interior is a very pure white, somehow more pure and enchanting than fresh snow.

But they are not just lovely to look at! When they are young, they are edible and loaded with nutrition. However, once they start to decay, do not eat! Blechhh! And while we’re on the subject, please don’t eat any mushrooms unless you are 100% positive it is safe to do so.

This Giant Puffball was slightly smaller than a volleyball, but some grow up to three feet wide.

Decaying Giant Puffball. This was the size of a kid’s backpack. The inside is a mushy yellow-green color and no longer edible.
Common Puffballs are a miniature version of Giant Puffballs. These cuties have stems (Giants don’t) and grow in groups from the ground.

But this blog isn’t a puff piece for Puffballs! Turkey Tail mushrooms deserve some glory, too!

If you have ever seen a male turkey fan his feathers, then you will probably appreciate these little guys. They look like miniature versions of a Tom in full display. They are very common and grow on dead or decaying wood.

Turkey Tail grows in our backyard in Rockford. They emerge every spring on the dead tree stumps we use as tables.
This aging, drying Turkey Tail is from Kishwaukee Gorge North in November.
This specimen (above, greenish) of False Turkey Tail was found at Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve in October.

Turkey Tail grows in abundance, but there are many lookalikes out there. If you aren’t sure your Turkey Tail is real, flip it over and look for the pores.

“True” Turkey Tail have yellowish-white pores. False Turkey Tail are smooth.
The undersides of False Turkey Tail are buff and you can’t see their pores.

If you are tired of reading about Turkey Tails – and pores – remember this: The world is your Oyster Mushroom! This striking, easy-to-identify, gill-ty pleasure of a mushroom grows throughout North America all year round. I hope to find a fresh one emerging from a tree after a snowfall this winter. It’s good to have goals.

Oyster Mushrooms always grow from deciduous wood. Find them on living trees, dying trees, dead trees, stumps, logs or a root. Though this one appears to be growing from the ground, but I assure you it is attached to a tree root.
The edible Oyster Mushroom has dense, white flesh, distinctive gills and a stubby stem.
These Oyster Mushrooms (above) are past their prime. Though still edible, they are pretty dry. If you cook them they will have a tough, leathery consistency.

A couple weeks ago, I came home from a hike and showed my son Sam (now 14) some pretty mushrooms I found. He perked up and said he knew a place that had more mushrooms and insisted we go as quickly as possible. He threw on a pair of his dad’s Crocs and we went to Rockford University, sort of. Sam has never been one to stay on the path and that day was no exception so he immediately went into the bramble in the “circle” behind the theater.

Sam foraging for Artist’s Conks and Pheasant Backs / Dryad’s Saddles.

Within minutes he not only found Pheasant Backs but several Artist’s Conks! It was so exciting!

These Pheasant Backs / Dryad’s Saddles were as big as an adult’s outstretched palm.
Two Artist Conk’s and one Pheasant Back.
Check out the pore structure of the Pheasant Back.

Sam also found Fringed Polypore at nearby Aldeen Park. These inedible mushrooms grow in the spring, but are present all year round. Because our specimens are old and drying up, you can’t see their fringe namesake but you can get a good idea of their structure.

Fringed Polypore on a dead log.

Though the old mushroom may not look like much from the top, check out their bottom!

Behold the beautiful pore structure of a polypore!

You’ve probably noticed that all our specimens (besides the emetic Russula and the Yellow-orange Fly Agaric) have been gathered this fall. That’s because I am brand new to collecting, studying and identifying them. Now that I know Sam has a natural talent for foraging, I am confident he will lead me to many more mushrooms. In other words, expect more mushroom content from me.

Until then, I have some “old” photos of the Yellow Morel. I want to share them now so we know what to look for in 2022. These popular edibles emerge in the woods every spring. We have never harvested them, but always enjoy seeing them. This spring I plan to harvest them.

Yellow Morels have ridges that are paler than the pits. We found this one at Nygren Wetland in May.

Yellow Morels are the most common and popular morels in northern Illinois. Find them under dead or dying elms and living ash.

We spotted this Yellow Morel after a heavy rain at Kilbuck Bluffs Forest Preserve in May.

As I wrap up this blog, I’ll leave you with two more mushroom photos. The first is the very common Tan to Grayish Mycena, also called Clustered Bonnet. These grow in abundance on decaying hardwood and are not edible, but are delicate and fun to find.

Clustered Bonnets grows from decayed hardwood.

My final photograph sums up what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving. Sam found this turkey-shaped Artist’s Conk and I love it. I have so much to be thankful for, truly, but this year, I am especially thankful for mushrooms and the fact that I have a son who loves them as much as I do, if not more.

Thanks for reading. Let me know about your mushroom adventures in the comments section! -Connie

Happy Thanksgiving! Do you see the “turkey?”

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