On any wander in the woods, you will find them. Crammed between twigs on a hemlock branch is a beige mushroom cap with a nibbled edge. Lying loose on the forest floor is a torn scrap of brown and white fungus. A rusty shelf fungus protruding from its host tree is riddled with peppercorn-sized holes. From under a log peeks a shroom whose red cap has been largely scraped away, revealing white meat.
These are the mushrooms munched by forest denizens. Sometimes you can figure out who did the munching.
“I cannot think of an animal that does not utilize mushrooms,” said Nova Kim, a self-taught mushroom gatherer from Fairlee, Vermont. Kim spends a lot of time in the woods looking for mushrooms and she’s come to know the creatures that share her passion.
Red squirrels are perhaps the greatest devourers of mushrooms, fresh and dried. A 1924 article by William Cram in the Journal of Mammalogy is apparently the first scientific report of red squirrels drying mushrooms.
“Have you noticed, in October, little mushrooms hanging in the twigs of pine trees?” begins the article. “I soon found that this was the work of the red squirrels, who gather them one by one, run up the pine stems with them and out along the slender dead branches, and then very carefully place each one in a forked twig.” Cram notes that “After drying a few days, or a week perhaps, according to the weather, they are added to the squirrels’ winter hoard of nuts and acorns. …”
According to a 1978 article by Robert Fogel and James Trapp, fresh mushrooms generally have about the same caloric density as fruits. Dried mushrooms, on the other hand, are much more dense in both calories and nutrients, so that they compare favorably with nuts.
The mushroom itself is the fruiting body of the entire fungus, which extends underground or through a tree or log in fine, hair-like filaments. When moisture and temperature are right, the hidden fungus produces a mushroom, which releases reproductive spores. Being hung high in a tree by a squirrel is advantageous to the mushroom, as it allows the spores to be wafted farther from the parent mushroom, thereby enhancing genetic diversity and colonizing new, perhaps better, environments.
Animals spread mushroom spores by carrying them about, too. It’s common to find scraps of torn mushroom caps lying about on the forest floor.
“If you see just one or two [scraps], it’s usually a grouse,” said Kim, “but if you see several and ground ripped up around there as well, it’s usually turkeys because they go in flocks.”
Though Kim knows the best places to find mushrooms in her neighborhood, she is not always the first one to the feast. “This one spot, sometimes we’d get there first and sometimes the deer would get there first,” reminisced Kim. Kim coveted the spot for matsutake mushrooms, as did this particular deer.
“I used to say I’m gonna take hunting back up,” joked Kim. Get rid of the deer and she would have all the mushrooms to herself. “And then one year, he wasn’t there. And I felt kind of sad, because we’d developed a relationship with him.”
Though the larger creatures, like deer, tend to eat the entire mushroom, leaving little evidence of their feeding, occasionally you can find big bite marks or partial nibbles. Evidence of feeding by the smaller forest dwellers is easier to find.
The larvae of certain species of insects are known to eat mushrooms. These include fungus gnats and several families of beetles with names like pleasing fungus beetles, silken fungus beetles, and handsome fungus beetles (only an entomologist could come up with names like that).
Gnats and beetles tend to bore holes through the meat of mushrooms, sometimes leaving the outside intact while making mush of the innards. The size of the hole the larva emerges from depends on the insect species—some are as small as a millimeter, others half a centimeter, according to Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney (Stackpole Books, 2010).
Kim also competes with slugs, which use their rasp-like teeth to scrape away at mushroom caps, leaving large, irregular holes.
“I remember when I first started collecting 30 years ago and I’d get angry at the slugs,” she said. “But everybody has a right to eat, everybody has to have an adequate food supply.”
So Kim and her husband Les Hook take only some of what they find, not all. “Now, we always try to leave some for the slugs. We always try not to get angry at the slugs because they travel really slow. And they come back to that same patch every year because they live there.” Indeed, sometimes you can find a mushroom with scars healed over from slug feeding, then gnawed into the following year.
Kim and Hook are respectful of other creatures, too. “If we come upon a place where the flying squirrels are feeding, we don’t collect there at all. They may be able to fly, but we can drive farther.”
Kim’s 30 years of mushroom gathering means she knows the woods in a deep, familiar sense. She knows the mushrooms, and she knows her fellow mushroom munchers.
“If you are collecting and gathering, you know what’s there, and you know your neighbors,” she said.