“Nature alone is antique, and the oldest art a mushroom.”
– Thomas Carlyle
Just over a week ago I traveled to Napa with J. for my birthday and took a little break from weekly writing (actually, I took a little break from pretty much everything). I had already chosen the subject matter for this post, though, before we left, so I found our stroll through downtown Yountville on Saturday evening to be nothing short of serendipitous. We had a relaxing late night dinner at Ad Hoc, and as we wandered back to the car, arm in arm in the crisp night air, we came upon a collection of stone toadstools casting intricate shadows onto the ground below. The display, by artist Richard Botto, bore the name “Rock Mushrooms,” and, in that moment, my evening was complete.
You see, I have a mild, let’s be honest, moderate to extreme obsession with mushrooms. I’m not sure where it started. When I search my memory files as far back as they will go, I think my first love came from the daily image of my mother’s Sears and Roebuck Merry Mushroom Canister Set that sat on our kitchen counter, holding flour, sugar, and other dry goods. If you lived at all in the 70s, you know someone who had this set. Then I remember those vintage mushroom Christmas ornaments that everyone’s grandparents had hanging on their trees during the holidays. I always loved those. Not long ago I got a hankering to find out why Christmas trees have mushroom ornaments. That’s a crazy story (you should definitely read that after you read this). It will make you question your entire existence. And then, of course, there’s children’s literature. My mother read the Babar the Elephant series to me and my little brother. In one scene Babar the King eats a poisonous mushroom and becomes very ill. I remember thinking, “That guy looks just like how I feel when I’m car sick.” Abhorring car sickness as I did, that sickly green elephant laid out on the ground kind-of made me want to steer clear of eating mushrooms (although I did covet them on our Sunday supper roast). I thought I had the lesson down pat, but then, invariably at bedtime on another night, we might be offered up Lewis Carroll and a hookah-smoking caterpillar convincing a pretty, tow-headed little girl that eating a mushroom to alter height was a perfectly acceptable idea. You can see how this complicates reason within a child’s brain (but hey, it was now the 80s). Mushrooms were comforting and whimsical and dangerous and perplexingly magical all at the same time. I was hooked.
About the time that J. and I were beginning to sketch out ideas for our pollinator garden in January, my friend R. G. posted an absolutely delicious photo on Facebook®. There they were, the most perfectly presented rust-hued mushrooms nestled among decaying wood, draped in velvety green moss, basking in exquisite sunlight. I melted and confessed to him my mushroom addiction and sunlit moss romance (yes…that’s a real thing too…I have dozens of photos of sunlit moss that I have taken over the years). Not long after that, I also began reading “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life,” by Marta McDowell, given to me by my very special friend N. DW. This was a woman who was so much more than just the inventor of a rabbit in a blue jacket with brass buttons. One of her many projects, over almost thirteen years of her life, was actually growing and studying fungi. She sketched and painted the various stages of growth, and even submitted an extensive paper for review to the Linnean Society of London, a note-worthy botanical organization. Sadly, it was quickly rejected…less likely due to its content and more likely due to her gender. So now with R. G. and Bea converging on me at the same time, I became inspired to begin the hunt on my own grounds.
As early spring started to grab hold in our vegetable garden and the first signs of life began to take shape in the newly planned pollinator garden, I found myself noticing them and grabbing my camera. I once commented that it is as if an empty plot of land exists one day and then the next is suddenly inhabited by tiny villagers, demanding to be heard. That’s how I see the mushrooms. They seem to appear out of nowhere in masses. In fact, the American Journal of Botany notes that there are over five million species of fungi, outnumbering plants by six to one. That’s a lot of little villages. But not all of the villages are small. There are mushroom rings, for instance, growing near Stonehenge that are so large you can see them from an airplane.
If you are wondering about fungi in your own garden, they are perfectly harmless. In fact they actually assist in the decomposition process within the soil, helping to break down decaying matter into nutrients that plants can absorb through water entering the root system. So when you see mushrooms, something good and right and holy is happening within your soil. The only caveat would be if you see them growing on the actual structure of a tree or plant. Since fungi prefer decaying matter, this could be a sign that the tree or plant is already dying on the inside. If you live in the United States and are looking for an easy resource for identifying mushrooms, David Fischer’s American Mushrooms site has a pretty good index with over 1,000 photos. I’ve started using it as a quick guide when I see new specimens pop up. Here is just a sampling of what I’ve uncovered in my own garden this year…
So the next time you dig in your flower bed or take a walk through the park, be on the look-out for the fungi around you. They’ll be there, raising their little hands and demanding to be heard. You might not find yourself as oddly consumed as I am, but at least give them a slight nod of appreciation when you cross paths. After all, they take on death daily to give your world life!
All the best,