Nature Talks - pic1

Turkey tail mushrooms get their name from their coloring, stripes and fanned edges, which make them look like a tom turkey fanning out its tail during mating season.

I WAS FORTUNATE to go on a group “mushroom walk” recently with Rick Van de Poll, practicing amateur mycologist and president of the Northeast Mycological Foundation. Inspired by a backyard forest full of wildly interesting mushrooms as well as dozens of pictures of gorgeous mushrooms posted on Facebook by my sister-in-law over a summer in the New York woods, I was determined to learn more about mushrooms beyond their apparent beauty and ubiquity. And I did.

The first thing I learned was that there is an awful lot to learn about mushrooms/fungus. I quickly went to my fallback position when I find myself in an overwhelming educational environment: If I can come away with remembering (i.e., “learning” in my book) anywhere from one to maybe three things, it will have been well worth it.

The second thing I learned was that Mr. Van de Poll knows a LOT about mushrooms. I took a few notes but quickly succumbed to the realization that I would be better off just listening and observing and not writing. And being OK with the fact that this was going to be an overview for me.

Mushrooms work in mysterious ways. Quoting the only mushroom field guide I have — “The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms” (which our guide indicated is still a great field guide although some scientific classification has changed a bit since its publication) — “Mycorrhizal mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with plants, usually either trees or shrubs,” extracting nutrients they need while helping the plant expand its root system. Our guide feels that mycorrhizae are so important to the earth that without them we would not be here.

We ran across a birch tree with a large splotch of black bumpy growth on it that was explained to be “chaga” (Inonotus obliquus). Chaga is thought to have medicinal benefits. According to a website devoted to chaga, it “is the only mushroom to contain low pH Betulinic Acid which directly targets cancer cells, which are primarily low pH in structure. Also clinically proven to have anti-tumor and tumor reducing benefits … Betulin is now being studied as a chemotherapeutic agent.” On a simpler level, chaga apparently makes good tea. But like everything, even “natural” products, it can interfere with some medications and since human studies have not been done there is no way to know for sure how different people respond to what dosage and how safe it is. (That is my little “fair warning” although I suspect many people have been drinking chaga tea for decades with no ill, and perhaps even positive effects.)

But the one mushroom I came away very intrigued by that day is the so-called turkey tail. They are found throughout North America. The field guide seems to use every adjective to describe them — “rosettes, semicircular, kidney- to spoon-shaped, flat to wavy. They have no stalk and are found in groups on dead trees, mostly deciduous but also confiners.” They are striped and have wavy edges so when held up with the fanned part at the top, they look like the tail of a tom turkey showing off during mating season.

The thing that really made me remember this fungus was when our guide explained that you can make paper out of turkey tail. I have yet to find a specific recipe but it is the basic process of pulverizing them in a blender to make a pulp, making a slurry with water, and then squeezing all of the water out with the fiber left in a form/mold.

My goal from my mushroom walk is to collect enough turkey tail this fall to make a sheet of paper over the winter. And then write to someone using the paper.

Birds, chipmunks and caterpillars

Several people have inquired over the past few weeks as to where all the birds have gone. I have no specific answer except the standard one, that the woods is full of food at the moment so those birds that do not migrate are enjoying nature’s bounty and don’t need to rely on our feeders right now.

I do feel confident of one thing — the chipmunks that we were all wondering about this spring have made their appearance. There is a chippy that sits in the one bird feeder I put out (and bring in at night) this time of year and stuffs her cheeks with sunflower seeds. How she fits those fat cheeks through the crack between the granite front steps is a mystery to me. She drives our little Puerto Rican rescue dog (think yellow lab in a dachshund’s body) absolutely crazy.

Has anyone else noticed an abundance of “wooly bear caterpillars” on the roadways? Big fat ones. I dodge them while driving similar to dodging frogs on a wet night. I have never noticed this before; I hope it is not a prediction of a cold snowy winter, although it is likely that we are on tap for that as usual.

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Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at naturetalksck@gmail.com.