\brown horn of plentyBlack chanterelle mushrooms. A new obsession. They hide in the duff until the eye recognizes their outline – fleshy ebony trumpets with round edges; some like charcoal petunias with wavy, frilly edges. For a miniature fairy house, this mushroom would make an excellent replica of an antique phonograph horn. Where we find one, we find many, giving them another common name: the “horn of plenty” mushroom. The field guide confirms “Edibility: Delicious – the most flavorful of the chanterelles.” Cleaning them up for the feast is like opening tiny packages; the miniature vases have collected bits of forest as they rose through the duff: lichen, leaves, redwood seeds. We cook them up with butter, garlic, salt. They taste velvety smooth.

Mushrooms amaze. The diversity of colors span the rainbow: aminita red, witch’s butter orange, parrot waxy cap green, blewit purple. The smells are equally diverse: cinnamon sugar candy caps, the stench of stink horns, nutty or apricot, almond, anise-smelling. The colors and smells mimic flowers and attract animals that disperse the fungal spores – similar to pollination.

Not only are mushrooms (the fruiting body of the fungus) fascinating, but contemplate the thread-like hyphae (collectively called mycelia) from which they came. Turn over a fallen log and look for white threads helping the wood decompose. Imagine the fungal highways that weave through the forest soil. Species of mycorrhizal fungi connect to tree roots, delivering essential nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, minerals). Proteins given off by fungi bind soil and help control erosion. Fungi are underappreciated underdogs of the natural world with these vital ecological roles.

Fungi are omnipresent. They allow us to make bread, wine and beer; yeasts in the human gut help us digest; molds grow on old food in the refrigerator; and mildew grows on our lawn chairs in the moist winter months. Lichens hanging from the trees are part fungus, part algae.

horn of plentyThere are over 100,000 fungal species described, including some marine species. An estimated 1.5 million species co-exist with us here on Earth. Fossil evidence has revealed fungi that have been around for 450 million years without any change through time. And a fungus holds the record for the largest living organism on our planet – a honey fungus in the Blue Mountains in Oregon, estimated to be 2400 years old, spans 8.9 square miles.

Next time you see a mushroom – perhaps on your pizza or salad – think of all the cool things about fungi!