Mys­te­ri­ous white spheres on the for­est floor

Rappahannock News - - FROM PAGE ONE - PAM OWEN wil­dideas.va@gmail.com

I’m of­ten amazed how even a lit­tle rain can trans­form a dry en­vi­ron­ment. While this is dra­mat­i­cally demon­strated in desert ar­eas, here in the Blue Ridge it has sub­tler trans­for­ma­tive pow­ers.

On Oct. 27, af­ter rain brought some relief to the long, hot dry spell we’d been hav­ing, a friend and I were walk­ing on the Thorn­ton River Trail in Shenan­doah Na­tional Park. It was a beau­ti­ful fall day, with rain and a cool front hav­ing brought more-typ­i­cal fall weather be­hind it. And de­spite the drought, the leaf color was good enough to make the scenery along the trail even more gor­geous than it was this sum­mer.

Not too far from the junc­tion with the Hull School and Thorn­ton Hol­low trails, I stopped to take pho­tos of some bracket mush­rooms on fallen limbs and logs. Look­ing up, I spot­ted two bright-white spher­i­cal ob­jects a short way off the trail, in a damp­ish area with lots of vines. At first, I thought it was plas­tic de­bris or vol­ley­balls that some­one had dumped, but that didn’t seem likely here. Then I had an­other thought, walk­ing in to get a closer look.

Up close, I con­firmed my sus­pi­cion that this wasn’t man­made de­bris but rather hu­mon­gous white mush­rooms. One was al­most per­fectly spher­i­cal, shiny and white and about six inches in di­am­e­ter. The other, which had grown around de­bris and plants next to it, was not so per­fectly round, with dim­ples, and not so shiny. It was big­ger than the first one — about eight inches.

I had seen some­what sim­i­lar mush­rooms, pur­ple­spored puff­balls, at Leopold’s Pre­serve, in Broad Run this sum­mer. Be­fore that, I hadn’t re­al­ized Vir­ginia had puff­balls that grew that big — and none there were as big as the ones I was now look­ing at. But the puff­balls at the pre­serve ei­ther had cream­col­ored splotches on them or had turned al­most black, as blooms of this species do when they age. The mush­rooms along the Thorn­ton River Trail were bright white ex­cept where de­bris on the larger one had dis­col­ored it..

When I got home, I looked through my fa­vorite mush­room guide, “Mush­rooms of Vir­ginia and the Cen­tral Ap­palachi­ans,” but didn’t find the large puff­balls

I had pho­tographed. I then searched on­line for “large white puff­ball,” and Mush­roomEx­pert.com (tinyurl.com/wi-g-puff­ball) came up. The pho­tos and de­scrip­tion on the site of Clava­tia gi­gan­tean (gi­ant puff­ball) matched what I had seen along the trail. I was sur­prised to learn that, ac­cord­ing to the web­site, this species could grow much larger:

“Typ­i­cal spec­i­mens are about the size of a soc­cer ball, and more or less round. How­ever, it can be much larger (a 5-foot, 50-pound spec­i­men is on record!), and its shape can be more ‘blob-ish’ than round, es­pe­cially when it at­tains enor­mous sizes.”

The Mid­west Amer­i­can My­co­log­i­cal In­for­ma­tion (tinyurl.com/wi-puff­ball) web­site adds that this mush­room is con­sid­ered ed­i­ble when im­ma­ture. How­ever, once it does ma­ture, it’s no longer con­sid­ered ed­i­ble, al­though it’s still not poi­sonous. Nor­mally with a fleshy, white in­te­rior, that turns yel­low­ish green from the spores ma­tur­ing in­side. (As al­ways, I should say here that I’m no mush­room ex­pert, and I ad­vise against eat­ing any mush­rooms that aren’t iden­ti­fied in per­son by an ex­pert.)

Find­ing the gi­ant puff­balls and adding them to my photo cat­a­log made what was al­ready a great hike even bet­ter, and last Satur­day (Nov. 4), I was sur­prised to see the same white spheres in the for­est across the drive­way from my house. Bush­whack­ing through the thick vines there, I found three gi­ant puff­balls, rang­ing 6-10.5 inches.

The largest had grown around a stick and had some other de­bris on and around it. When I cleared that away, the ‘shroom took on a fa­mil­iar shape, seem­ing to moon me. While I don’t know how long the gi­ant puff­balls along the Thorn­ton had been bloom­ing, this was the first time I’d ever no­ticed them near the drive­way, so I imag­ine the re­cent rains had trig­gered the bloom.

Al­though the fall fun­gus bloom has not been as good this year here be­cause of the dry weather, I did find sev­eral more species in the woods and yard around my house. I wasn’t sure about the iden­tity of most, but I’ve asked for help from the Face­book group Cen­tral Vir­ginia Mush­room Hunters. In the mean­time, I put to­gether a slideshow of them (see at rapp­news.com/wil­dideas).

Among two of the more color­ful fungi — at least, I think it’s a fun­gus — was a beau­ti­ful blue one cov­er­ing log-shaped scat. It looked like it had been painted on. The scat looked a bit large for any of the canids (wild and do­mes­tic) on the prop­erty. But it was also a bit small and not as seg­mented as most bear poop I see this time of year, when bears are eat­ing a lot of acorns and nuts. What­ever was cov­er­ing the scat, it looked so lovely that I didn’t try to look un­der­neath to con­firm the species that left it there.

The other color­ful mush­room I found was so tiny (about a 10th of an inch) that I might have missed it had it not been for its bright golden color. Clus­ters of it stood out from the grey log it was on. I be­lieve it’s

Bis­porella cit­rina (yel­low fairy-cup, aka yel­low disco) — a com­mon mush­room that is of­ten over­looked be­cause of its size.

BY PAM OWEN

Mush­rooms Pam Owen re­cently found in the for­est sur­round­ing her house in­clude this gi­ant puff­ball, an 11.5-inch be­he­moth, and clus­ters of lovely 0.1inch “yel­low fairycups.”

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