The Conserve School campus is home to many interesting plants and animals, and also some organisms that don’t really fit into either of these categories. Some people see them as being more plant-like, although genetically they are actually more similar to animals.¹ They are abundant in the Northwoods and carry out very important ecosystem functions. They can be so tiny that they can only be seen with a microscope, while others are counted among some of the largest living organisms in the world.² What are they? They’re fungi! The colorful and sometimes strange mushrooms we see in the forest are the fruiting bodies of the much larger fungi that live mostly underground and help break down dead plant and animal matter, transport nutrients, and even help trees communicate with each other. ³
In order to better understand these mystifying mushrooms, Conserve School students had the opportunity to explore the world of fungi both artistically and scientifically. First, we went on an exploratory hike to find some interesting specimens. After picking a few, the students marveled at how more and more mushrooms began to appear before our eyes as if out of thin air. It’s amazing what you find once you actually start to look! While harvesting, we practiced Leave No Trace principles by only taking a few of any given species, and leaving behind those where only one or two of its kind could be found. We then carried our haul into the art room and began to lay out and marvel at our finds. Every shape, color, size, and texture were present. As the sketching and painting began, we also used identification books to help us classify the different type of mushrooms we were seeing, whether they be cap-and-stem, polypores, or slime molds.
The following weekend we dove even deeper into the world of fungi on a “Mushroom Meander” in the Sylvania Wilderness, led by ecologist and avid mushroom hunter, Lang DeLancey. Lang studied biology and forest ecology at the University of Michigan and currently manages an ecosystem ecology lab at the University of Minnesota. He can often be found wandering the forests near his home with a basket in hand, harvesting interesting mushrooms.
After a brief discussion about mushroom structures and key characteristics to look for, we followed Lang and his basket into the wilderness to see what we could find. As soon as we set foot in the forest, numerous mushrooms made themselves apparent and we set to work attempting to identify them. Lang boiled it down to a simple list of key characteristics to look for: Size, shape, shade, substrate, spore print, season, and smell. We found brightly colored orange mushrooms on a decaying log, woody shelf mushrooms growing on trees, small brown mushrooms growing out of the ground, and delicate cup mushrooms. Before we even finished identifying one mushroom, another would be found and the process would start all over again. We cut them open to see how gills attached to the stem, drew on the underside of artist’s conks and talked about the important jobs that mushrooms do in the forest, including the difficult task of breaking down woody matter. We explored, we learned, and at the end of the day, I can confidently say that everyone had a lot of fun with fungi.
Photos contributed by Shelby Roback, Stewardship Teaching Fellow.
¹ Hecht, Jeff. “Science: Animals and fungi closer than anyone expected.” New Scientist,
12 June, 1993. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg13818773-300-science-animals-and-fungi-closer-than-anyone-expected/
² Fleming, Nic. “The Largest Living Thing on Earth is a Humongous Fungus.” BBC News, BBC, 19 Nov. 2014, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141114-the-biggest-organism-in-the-world?ocid=twert.
³ Fleming, Nic. “Earth - Plants Talk to Each Other Using an Internet of Fungus.” BBC News, BBC, 11 Nov. 2014, www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141111-plants-have-a-hidden-internet.