The tip of the iceberg
Regular rain in July and August has resulted in a bumper crop of mushrooms this year. One type of mushroom we’re seeing a lot of in the Damariscotta-Pemaquid area is coral mushrooms. The fruiting body of these fungi forms spectacular stalks that are finger-shaped or branched like corals of the sea.
Coral mushrooms come in many different colors that often bright and hard to miss. In fact there are more than 30 genera of coral fungi and they are found all over the world. While a few species are considered edible, others can be used as a laxative, and some cause severe poisoning, so we recommend you leave them be unless you are very confident with your identification.
The upper part of the tips of the branches bear spores, their means of sexual reproduction. Most coral fungi are decomposers, helping to break down dead plants and animals in forests or grasslands.
As with other fungi, the fruiting body of a coral mushroom is just the “tip of the iceberg,” with most of the fungus nearly invisible underground. Fungi colonize plant roots to create a mutually beneficial root-and-mycelial network within the surrounding soils. They form a mat of mycorrhizae in the soil of the forest floor and serve as a conduit for nutrient exchange between trees and the fungi. The plant supplies sugars to the fungus, which in turn supplies water and mineral nutrients to the plants. “Myco” literally means “fungus,” and “rhiza” refers to “root,” referring to this symbiotic relationship between plants and fungus.
Astonishingly, approximately 95 percent of plant species on the planet form a symbiotic relationship with beneficial mycorrhizal fungi. In forests, many mycorrhizae are utilized by trees to communicate with each other. By sending chemical signals along this communications network, they share information about predation, stress, and the availability of resources. This extraordinary network has come to be known as the “Wood Wide Web.”