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Mutalistic Relationships of Trees and Fungi

(Pic by Colleen Hulett: Top left/clockwise: Chicken Fat Mushroom, Comb's Tooth, Dryad's Saddle, White Pine, Beech, Birch with Chaga.)

BLOG 29: Fungi’s mycelium (root-like filaments underground) love to hunt fallen logs that are covered in bark and ultimately to eat and create balanced soil in order for plant and tree seeds to grow. Mycorrhizae is the symbiotic relationship between the fungi’s mycelium and the roots of other plants. It’s no secret trees and fungi share a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship between them. Basically, they live in close proximity to each other and need each other to thrive and survive. The mycorrhizae provide nutrients to the tree and can triple the trees growth thereby increasing its health. In kind, the tree feeds the mushroom carbohydrates (that’s a sugar treat!) giving them a chance to produce sporing fruit bodies (toadstools and brackets) so they can reproduce. Interestingly the tiny mycorrhizal filaments form a sheath around the tree’s root tips where it accumulates minerals from the fungi that is wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. As the trees absorb the minerals they are also prompted to feed the fungi carbohydrates that scientists believe have specifically been produced for this exchange of minerals and carbs. Studies have shown how trees do not successfully establish themselves without fungus but grow thrive three-fold when fungi are present. Fungi protect trees from disease, too, among many other benefits. Seeing a variety and volume of fungi in your forest is a good indicator of its health and sustainability.

Successful mushroom hunters know what mushrooms they will likely find while hiking if they know which trees and mushrooms share mutualistic relationships. They make a note of the trees they pass in the forest and can anticipate which fungi they most likely will find. For example, Birch Polypore share their symbiotic relationship only with Birch trees. Therefore, why would you look for this medicinal ‘first-aid’ polypore on a pine tree? Right? Knowing which trees and mushrooms mutually hang together will make your hunt easier but please also know that some fungi are associated with more than one tree such as the Bolete family, for example, and also that timing and the right conditions for growth have to be present as well. Even if you don’t see a birch polypore in a stand of Birch trees you can be rest assured there are miles of birch polypore mycelium directly under your feet waiting for the right conditions to emerge. Patience is a virtue for mushroom hunters as they may need to return to the tree stand more than once to find their prize.

For your benefit I have compiled a list of trees and mushrooms that will most likely be found in close proximity to each other in the Ontario and Quebec highlands.

Tip: Knowing the leaves, fruit and bark of trees is key to identifying them. Knowing the bark of deciduous trees is beneficial too for our local mushroom hunters in the late fall and winter when leaf shedding trees can only be recognized by their bark. Tree bark can look similar to most people at first but they do have recognizable differences in textures, patterns and colours. Beech tree bark is extremely smooth, for example, and Oak tree bark is rough and fissured. Incidentally Beech leaves stay on the tree all winter long making it a key identifying feature.

Below is a list of common trees in our area and the fungi associated with them. Study the list, research the tree’s bark, leaves or needles and next time you are out foraging for mushrooms check your guide to find out what is in season and which tree it shares a mutualistic relationship with and start searching around and within the specific tree canopy and you will have your best chance of finding what you crave. You will also find through your research the wonderful medicinal and edible features of trees that foragers also know... Remember to go out the day after a good day or two of rain and on the day you go out it should be milder than the rainy days before it. Good luck, everyone and please bring your children foraging with you so they can benefit from the Earth like their ancestors did before them. Show them what poison ivy looks like and be on your way. Prepare to be shocked at how innately children forage!

Beech (Fagus grandifolia):

Mushrooms: Hen of the Woods, Chanterelles, Lion’s Mane, Bear Head, Hedgehog

Description: Tall tree with smooth silver-grey bark and coarsely-toothed elliptic leaves. Leaves are 1-5 inches long. Fruit is small triangular nuts enclosed in a burr-like husk containing three nuts. Nuts are a favourite of bears and many older trees have distinct bear claw scars on them. Leaves hang around on the tree all winter. 60-80ft high and 2-3ft in diameter.

Oak (Quercus spp.):

Mushrooms: Hen of the Woods, Chanterelles, Chicken of the Woods, Honey mushrooms,

Turkey Tail Polypore, Black Trumpet, some Boletes

Description: A large widespread group of trees with a large variation in size and leaf shape but all have the presence of acorns. The acorns have cup-like caps on them all. White and Red Oaks have tell-tale leaves that are 2-9 inches long with many lobes that can be rounded or pointy. Mature Oaks are 60-80 feet in height. 2-4ft in diameter. Bark is grey and furrowed in the Eastern White Oak (Quercus alba) and the bark of the Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) is grey and patchy.

Birch (Betula spp.):

Mushrooms: Chaga, Turkey Tail, Birch Polypore

Description: Birches are medium-sized trees that can have white, black, grey, silver or yellow bark. With the exception of the Grey Birch, the bark easily peels off around the tree horizontally. They have long catskins in the spring. The leaves are finely double-toothed and oval-shaped with blunt bases. The twigs when crushed have a wonderful wintergreen smell.

American Elm (Ulmus americana):

Mushrooms: Morels, Dryad’s Saddle, Elm Oyster

Description: Up to 100ft high, the bark is grey, deeply furrowed, rough and coarse with intersecting ridges. The leaves are dark green oval-shaped and rough to the touch, toothed with an asymmetrical base. The seeds are in a small cluster and flat and circular.

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus):

Mushrooms: Morels, Boletes, Chicken Fat, Painted Suillus

Description: Up to 130ft high. Bunches of 5 skinny needles is a distinguishing feature of this pine tree’s leaf structure. The pine cones hang down from the branches and are 8-20cm long. Good seed crops aren’t produced until the tree is over 20 years old and then only every 3-5 years. The bark is greyish-brown with 2-5cm thick ridges and the young tree has smooth bark.

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis):

Mushrooms: Ganodermas, Chanterelles, Boletes, Suillus, Hedgehog

Description: up to 70ft high. Needles are ½ in long with flat splays and white undersides. Cones are tiny and less than an inch long. Bark is rough and dark. Lives in hilly or rocky woods.

Spruce (Picea spp.):

Mushrooms: King Bolete, Chanterelles

Description: Steeple shaped tree with short, stiff, sharp-pointed 4-sided needles that grow all around the twigs.Cones are drooping, brown and woody. Bark is rough and dark.


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