This morning when I was walking Willow, I spied my first fresh mushroom of the season! I was so excited…until I took a closer look and realized it was a wine cork. In my defense, it was raining and my glasses were a little wet. I was disappointed, but not terribly so. It can’t stay cold forever. The earth is warming up and the mushrooms will be here soon!
When Angelo got home from school, he mentioned something about his “digital journal.” He keeps a daily diary for school. I did not know this! I asked if I could read it. He said I could. He started it in September and the last entry is today. It was riveting!
He had an entry in there about being backed into a corner by some bullies during science class. He wrote about how much he loves chess, cross country and track. He wrote about how much he likes skating “even though I’m bad at it.” He wrote about his goals. He had entries in there about reading at night, running with Fern on the weekends and making movies with Sam. He wrote about how much Jesse travels for work, how much he likes Roblox, The One and Only Ivan and The Grinch. He described our front yard as “bland” and how he wasn’t quiet during a “silent hike.” He wrote about how much he adores his oldest sister. The whole thing: freakin’ gold!
But back to my morning mushroom mishap. I noticed that he wrote about me in November.
“My mom is obsessed with mushrooms,” he wrote. “It’s strange.”
Oh. Well, note to self.
Angelo gave me permission to write about this and has approved this blog. Before I sign off, I want to say one more thing. It’s a freakin’ gift to be able to read your kid’s journal. Feeling very grateful.
Thanks for reading my Angelo-approved blog. -Connie
My 15-year-old son Sam and I went mushrooming today for the first time since December. Neither of us were expecting much but we wanted to get a jump on the season, and some fresh air. We went to Aldeen Park, a city park in the center of Rockford. I followed Sam as he led me several yards off the trail.
“I think I see wood ear,” he said as he took off.
“Really?” I shouted after him. “Are you sure?!”
Sure enough, he had found several of the species. He’s found them before and brought them back to me, but this is the first time I have seen them on the tree. This little guy was “born” last fall, but is still very soft.
It’s really quite a joy to find these little guys. Their scientific name is Auricularia auricula and it’s just a joyful little fungus. Below is the same wood ear, turned inside out. It flips just as easily as a dog ear.
The instant Sam turned the specimen “inside out” the fungus stopped being a mushroom and “became” the ear of a mythical animal. It looked and felt like the inside of a mysterious ear and we both felt like we were invading its privacy. Sam closed it up and we kept hiking. It’s been several years since I felt this way but there are times when I am convinced the woods want to be alone.
We didn’t stay much longer but we did stop to check on our old pal the artist conk. We wanted to see if he grew from the last time we saw him in November. And he did! It’s pretty amazing how he just hides in plain sight getting bigger every day, kind of like someone else I know.
Hey, it’s another late night (and short) blog. Thanks for reading and remember to watch what you say in the woods. You never know who’s listening. -Connie
Good morning from Rockford. It’s snowing. It’s March and the earth is warming up so the “downy flake” won’t stick around long. But it’ll be here long enough to brighten up the brown.
Spring snow always brings a pale blue light with it and I must warn you: I’m dangerously close to writing a nature poem. But I won’t do that to you because it would be too literal.
Morning, Noon & Night
Snow is falling
yeast is rising
dough is balling
Ice is forming
clothes are folding
Wind is shifting
Kids are eating
Dog is waiting
Clouds are moving
Heads are resting
Stars are glowing
Night is covering
Instead, I’ll just tell you I’m serving homemade mushroom pizzas for dinner. We love mushrooms over here.
But yesterday I was reading A Promised Land by Barack Obama and he referred to a time he was treated like a mushroom. He wrote that he was “fed shit and kept in the dark.”
Boy, I hate when somebody I admire makes disparaging remarks about something I love. I have enormous respect for Barack Obama and feel a strong sense of loyalty to him but am I supposed to dislike mushrooms now? Because that’s asking too much. I’m dangerously close to writing a poem about feeling conflicted. But I won’t do that because it would be too sad.
However, I will tell you I find it oddly comforting and reassuring that even the former president has been “fed shit and kept in the dark.” I thought that only happened to me. I’m dangerously close to writing a poem about how Barack and I are soulmates.
Instead of that, since I have poetry on my mind, I think I’ll leave you with a poem about women’s rights by Sylvia Plath. You’ll never guess the title.
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam
Acquire the air
Nobody sees us
Stops us, betrays us
The small grains make room
Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles
The leafy bedding
Even the paving
Our hammers, our rams
Earless and eyeless
Widen the crannies
Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water
On crumbs of shadow
Little or nothing
So many of us!
So many of us!
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek
We are edible
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves
Our kind multiplies
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth
Our foot's in the door
Thanks for reading my blog and, more importantly, the poem by Sylvia Plath. Now if you’ll excuse me, I better get back to the kitchen. Those mushrooms aren’t going to cook themselves. -Connie
I live in Rockford, Illinois with my husband, our four children and pets. It’s neither a small town nor a suburb. It’s a big town or, if you prefer, a small city. And it really spreads out: It has an area of approximately 65 square miles and a population of @150,000 of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
For perspective, Chicago (pop: 2.71 million) has 234 square miles. Minneapolis (pop: @420,000) has 59 square miles. I include those two cities because I am very familiar with both and love them dearly. But I live in Rockford and am eager to share the beautiful and free places that make it so special. Here’s where we hiked in 2021:
Aldeen Park / Rockford University. If you want to get a quick, rugged two miles in, Aldeen is a city park that has a great trail system replete with a creek, dam, prairie, bluffs, hills and lots of deer.
Aldeen also connects with the local university, which offers several unexpected moments of nature.
Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve. A family favorite. Spectacular views of the Kishwaukee River, lovely trails that connect with several other preserves, lots of biodiversity throughout the system and the “springs” are always a delight, no matter the season,
It’s easy to get a quick three miles at Blackhawk but you can track several more if that is your intention. Mushroom hunters: I found old, decaying chicken-of-the-woods and oysters here in December. I hope to harvest some fresh choice edibles in the spring, summer and fall!
Colored Sands Forest Preserve. Terrific prairie, lovely woods, nice view of the Kish. A busy thoroughfare for birds and bird banders so be mindful of the mist nets. Easy to get a quick two miles here. With a little ingenuity, you’ll track 10 miles because it connects with Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve. Wear bright colors during hunting season because hunters are out on nearby private properties. Speaking of bright, check out this Northern Cinnabar Polypore I found at Colored Sands on Christmas Eve:
Deer Run Forest Preserve. Fern and I love it here. The trails go on for miles and take you through woods, by prairies and right up-and-into the Kishwaukee River. Easy to get a quick three miles in, but if you want more, you’ll track at least six. Hiking in the winter is delightful, but I can’t wait until the spring so I can forage for mushrooms here. I don’t want to give away too much, but if you see this tree in the spring, summer or fall, you are probably steps aways from several species of choice mushrooms! Hint: not a chicken, but a ______ of-the-woods!
Funderburg Forest Preserve. Go there in May to check out the spectacular meadows. You will see unique shades of green in May. You can cover a lot of miles here, but it’s not my favorite. While most trails are inherently uneven, the trails around the cornfields can be ankle-twisters, not to mention boring. And I noticed there were a lot of horse flies particularly in the deepest sections of the woods all summer long. This is one of those places I wanted (and repeatedly tried) to unconditionally love, but I only recommend it as a place to see cool shades of green in the month of May:
Kishwaukee Gorge North. If you’re going for miles, you’ll have to repeat the course, but the gorge is great and the workout going up and down is intense and fun. Lovely views of the Kishwaukee River and lots of mushrooms!
Macktown Forest Preserve. Sort of small so park at the entrance to get your steps in. This place features lovely trails through a hardwood forest, nice views of the Rock River, an interesting cemetery where Hononegah is buried and educational signage about the history, native plants and more. But be careful. There is weirdness lurking in the woods:
Oak Ridge Forest Preserve. Unique structure and vibe. I always see something unusual here. Almost feels like you’re in the South. It starts by the Kishwaukee River then dips in and out of the forest.
Rock Cut State Park. Located in Loves Park, this park features a beautiful forest, lovely lakes, camping and delightful trails. Once a year we rent a pedal boat and head out on Pierce Lake. It is especially fun to go early in the morning when it is quiet and misty.
Russell Woods Forest Preserve. In DeKalb County. Lovely views of the Kishwaukee River, nice trails, peaceful prairie and a nearby farm. Oh, and it has this sledding hill!
Severson Dells Nature Preserve. A family staple, easy to get in four quick miles. Interesting trails, lovely bluffs, an inviting creek and a pond that is teeming with life. Visit the woods in the evening to hear and see owls. Get an extra mile in by circling the prairie. Highly recommend the dells but avoid if it recently rained because it gets muddy and slippery.
Seward Bluffs Nature Preserve. One of the perks of hiking in the winter is that you will see things you wouldn’t necessarily see during the warmer months when everything is in “bloom.” Case in point: This dead, decaying tree 50 feet off of mile marker 20 is loaded with the biggest artists’ conks we have ever seen!
I am certain we would not have seen these conks if the leaves were still on the trees. But there’s more to this preserve than behemoth mushrooms. Seward Bluffs has bluffs (duh), a river, campsites and lovely winding trails.
Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve. Hands down my favorite forest preserve in Winnebago County. Exceptionally quiet, tremendous biodiversity, lots of long trails. Terrific prairie, woods, trails and creek. Wear bright colors in November / during hunting season.
Bonus Trails and Camping
The two “bonus trails” are in Minnesota and the campsites are at Rock Island State Park (not Rock Cut in Loves Park or Rock Island, one of Illinois’ quad cities) in Wisconsin’s Door County.
I’m including the Minnesota trails because even though I no longer live in Minneapolis, I still cherish these natural areas and visit them whenever I am the Land of 10,000 Lakes. And I’m including Rock Island State Park because it offers outstanding rustic camping sites on Lake Michigan or Green Bay and their trails are lovely and rugged.
Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge. Near the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. The trails seem to go on forever. Years ago, when I worked in Bloomington, I used to come here on my lunch hour, so it’s possible to get a quick, satisfying 30-minute hike here. But I recommend carving out at least three hours so you can explore beyond the usual two-to-four miles.
Quaking Bog in Minneapolis. Located in the heart of the city and home to a beautiful, mysterious bog and several tamarack trees. If you get your fill of sphagnum moss, the bog quickly connects to Eloise Butler Garden, Theo Wirth pathways, more city trails and interesting neighborhoods. This was my “go-to” nature place when I lived in Minneapolis and it’s the first place I visit whenever I go back.
What are your favorite places to hike? I hope you consider adding a northern Illinois trail to your list. Winnebago County alone has 44 forest preserves and even though we’ve lived in Rockford for 13 years, we still haven’t visited every single one which brings me to my new year’s resolution: Visit more trails!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Within minutes he not only found Pheasant Backs but several Artist’s Conks! It was so exciting!
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.
Though the old mushroom may not look like much from the top, check out their bottom!
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 are the most common and popular morels in northern Illinois. Find them under dead or dying elms and living ash.
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