The Slow March of the Mushrooms

Slightly shrunken, nondescript, this tiny mushroom faded into near-obscurity above the forest floor. Still, its presence suggested others might have taken hold, and so it was. Creeping through the mixture of damp, decaying needles and leaves, my eyes caught by unexpected bursts of color, I began to grasp the truth of Sylvia Plath’s delicate poem titled “Mushrooms.”

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.
Waxcap (Hygrocybe spp.)
Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,
Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,
Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes.
Waxcap (Hygrocybe spp.)
We diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking
Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

As if to prove Plath’s point, this Skullcap Dapperling (Leucocoprinus brebissonii), had emerged next to a trail. Described by Louis-Luc Godey as Lepiota brebissonii in 1874, it was moved to Leucocoprinus by Marcel Locquin in 1943. Long considered a European species, it’s recently been identified in the Pacific Northwest, often occurring in large groups on forest litter.

Bemused by the Skullcap’s seemingly overnight appearance in second-growth forests around Puget Sound, the University of Washington’s Burke Herbarium has questioned how such an abundant species could have made the move unnoticed, or been overlooked in the past.

Whatever the answer, it’s still on the move, having reached the Sam Houston National Forest and the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve. Here in Texas, it most certainly has its foot in the door.


Comments always are welcome.

57 thoughts on “The Slow March of the Mushrooms

    1. Aren’t they gorgeous? There are scarlet wax caps, red goblet wax caps, vermillion wax caps, and who knows how many more? After a few hours with the wax caps last night, I decided to stick with the genus and let it go at that.

  1. It is really encouraging that fungi seemed to have gripped people’s attention of late, more than I can remember in years past, but it’s a good thing. I will send the link to your blog to a couple of mushroom aficionado friends, one of whom used to teach mycology at the University of Waterloo. They will appreciate the verse.

    1. I suspect fungi might be getting more attention because of an increasing emphasis on the importance of native plants, the importance of soil vs. dirt, and the role of mycorrhizae in the grand scheme of things. In any event, it is a good thing, and immensely interesting.

      Thanks for passing on the post. If your friends have any suggestions about the identity of the little brown mushroom at the top, I’d be pleased to receive them. I gave up trying to ID that one with only a photo, although I think it might also be a wax cap: albeit in decline.

    1. When I came across Plath’s poem, it surprised me with its delicacy and evidence of close observation. I’ve never thought of her as a nature poet, but this one is perfect. This is another instance of photos and poetry both lingering in the files for some time, until I realize a match can be made.

  2. I loved the combination of your colourful mushrooms and Sylvia Plath’s poem – they work so well together! When I was a kid, we could gather field mushrooms from the hill behind us – even from the garden sometimes.

    1. Until I began spending more time in the woods, I’d never seen one of these colorful beauties, or the fancier sort that adorn the trunks of trees. The color of the red ones is true; that’s just what they look like, and you can spot them at some distance if they’re not covered with leaf litter.

      1. I haven’t seen many kinds of mushrooms but have collected chanterelles in the past – they smell of apricots and taste good too. There were weird fungi growing on a dying shrub in the garden. I think they were ‘jelly ear’ fungi. Very strange things!

  3. Some good to eat, some deadly poisonous, and some guaranteed to give you a trip you might not want to go on. Plenty grow in our yard and the surrounding forest. Morels are the kings around here. Mushroom hunters have their secret places. You’d have to pull out their toenails to find where they are. They grow up in the forest behind us. I’ve seen the hunters sneaking up there in season. But I have never been able to find them. –Curt

    1. We used to hunt morels in Iowa. There’s nothing better, dredged with flour and sauteed in butter. Simple, but delicious. They can be found here in Texas, but farther north. I remember reading that they’re not going to be found between Dallas or Waco and the Gulf. I’ve heard people mention their frustrations when trying to get information about where morels can be found. Sometimes, even family won’t share their secret.

    1. I’ve not found many, but on the day that I discovered these, it was cloudy and dim. No matter. That color stood out as though the mushrooms had spotlights shining on them. It was quite a discovery. In the past, the Watson Preserve has hosted events with real mushroom experts. If we ever get to do that again, I intend to go. Identifying them’s hard, and I need all the help I can get.

  4. Love this post, LInda. As you know, I am always wild about the fabulous fungi up at the lake when September begins. I’m shocked at how quickly they spring up and then how they radically change, evolving from shape to another almost before our eyes. Sylvia Plath’s poem is new to me but it certainly captures everything about the marvelous mushroom. So do you, with your observations and photos!

    1. The mushrooms I get to watch most closely are those that create what we call ‘fairy rings’ after rain. You describe it well; they pop up overnight, spread out during the day, and in only another day or so are bending over like it all was just too much effort.

      It’s a shame so many people remember Plath only for The Bell Jar and her unhappy life. She does such a beautiful job in this poem of imagining the secret life of fungi: their variety, and their strength. Writing about roses and lilies is one thing; they’re naturally appealing. But taking on fungi and making them seem appealing — that’s something else.

  5. Mushrooms always seem so wondrous and magical. It’s a bit early here for them yet, but likely in the next few weeks. I remember my father coming home in early spring with bags of morels. Wondrous things. He never let on where they grew.

    1. Morels are a gift from the gods. I wish I could have some again, but they’re not a local delicacy. On the other hand, in the process of writing this post I learned something interesting. The delicate, lemon-yellow mushroom that often pops up in my pot plants belongs to the same genus as the Skullcap Dapperling. It’s Leucocoprinus birnbaumii. Mine often are the color of lemon meringue pie — so pretty!

    1. I was surprised by how well the photos fit, and equally pleased that I’d refrained from publishing them for their visual appeal alone. Sometimes it takes a while for me to find or remember certain poems; I discovered this one by Plath some time ago, but it’s as self-effacing as that little brown mushroom and had disappeared into my resource file. When I did my occasional scroll through that file to see what was there, I found the poem.

  6. I love the “soft fists” metaphor. When I walk my trail at our cabin, I’m always on the lookout for the emerging mushrooms, and I’m eager to see what they have done during my (at least) two-year unexpected absence of maintenance. I look forward very much to reporting my new observations.

    1. I suspect there may be a few posts with titles like ‘Mushrooms Run Amok.’ It will be interesting to see what you find. From what I’ve read, ‘undisturbed’ seems to suit them, and if that’s true, they will have had conditions allowing them to thrive.

  7. Your title’s words “March of the Mushrooms” reminded me (not slowly) of an M…M piece by Gounod, which will no doubt remind you of Alfred Hitchcock’s television show. And Plath’s “We are shelves, we are / Tables, we are meek, / We are edible…” recalls Mitchell’s “We are stardust, we are golden, / We are billion-year-old carbon….”

    If a certain virus rapidly spread around the world, a certain fungus could, too. “Skullcap” has been applied to wildflowers as well as fungi; the word may get used least of all in its original sense as a kind of cap worn by a person.

    1. There are themes that come to mind without any assistance at all, and Hitchcock’s is one. What I didn’t remember, because I never heard it accurately when the song was popular, is that line about billion-year old carbon. I always had a hard time understanding the phrase, so I just skipped over it.

      I thought about the plants known as skullcaps when I finally identified the mushroom and learned its common name. I discovered something else about Google while I was poking around. When I did a search for ‘skullcap,’ only references to the plants came up. I thought that was odd, so I did another search using ‘skull cap,’ with a space between the words. Those results were primarily about various sorts of head coverings. Keeping ahead of Google’s algorithms isn’t always easy.

    1. Slowing down’s part of it, but no matter how slowly we go, we can’t see everything at once. I always see things on the return that I missed going out, even if I’m just meandering. I’ve developed a couple of tricks to deal with it. Sometimes it’s as easy as only examining one side of the trail going, and the other side coming back.

      Of course, given the mushroom’s nature, some of those you think you missed may have popped up while your back was turned!

  8. What a coincidence! We just explored this poem in my English class. And I recalled my photos of mushrooms and how I’ve always seen so much in their silent stories.

    1. That makes me happy — to know that someone is studying this poem in class! It took me all these decades to find it, but I’m certainly glad I did. The woman knew her mushrooms!

  9. These things remind me of certain insects (notably cockroaches) that have a prehistoric feel, yet manage to exist to the present age … and likely will be here long after we’re all gone! Lovely variety of colors, too — thanks, Linda!

    1. If someone hasn’t written The Secret Life of Mushrooms, they should. They’re fascinating organisms, and some are much prettier than I ever imagined. Some are a little creepy, too, but we’ll save those for Halloween — along with the spiders and cockroaches!

  10. The colors of your mushroom photographs are gorgeous, in particular the red wax caps. Plath’s poem fits perfectly with them (heaving the needles). I used to hunt and identify mushrooms some time ago, Boletus edulis and chanterelle species were my favorites, but I usually found them filled with worm holes.

    1. When I spotted the first red one, I hardly could believe it. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything in nature more vibrant. In the gloom of the woods, they really stood out. I was pleased to identify the Skullcap Dapperling, too. It turned out to be a relative of a very pretty, very pale yellow mushroom that often turns up in my potted plants. I get a good, humus-y soil from a local garden center, and that probably explains it.

      I finally figured out that your Boletus eduis is what I know as porcini. I learned something else: it’s a food source for the banana slug that’s found in California. I’m sure you know that the banana slug’s the mascot of UC Santa Cruz. A friend has the tee shirt.

  11. I haven’t seen a red mushroom before. Gorgeous photos, Linda. And the Plath poem is interesting, never thought she would have chosen the mushroom as a poetic subject.

    1. Like many people, poetry isn’t what first comes to mind when I think of Sylvia Plath. What I’ve read of her poems before seemed a little heavy, a little too complicated. But I think she had just the right touch here, and a singular touch, at that. Not many people could write of mushrooms without falling into humor — or something. But she pulled it off, and quite nicely. The poem’s as memorable as that wonderful red.

    1. Aren’t they something? I haven’t yet figured out if the orange one is a different species, or a different stage of the red ones. No matter. They’re both beautiful, and they certainly were attention-getters. I’d never seen anything like them, either. They’re a far cry from the white/gray/brown mushrooms I’ve been accustomed to.

  12. Mushrooms are another of those “under the radar” wild things people don’t tend to notice unless they’re looking for them. “Nevertheless, they persisted” sprung to mind, and seems appropriate. They’ve been minding their own mushroomy business for millions of years now.

    1. If only we could learn to mind our own business from time to time. We might persist more easily and more effectively if we did. Flying under the radar’s not so bad, either. I’m reminded of the line from Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto”: “what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.” Sometimes a low profile’s the best profile, as the mushrooms have learned.

    1. I didn’t realize how varied they are. After I found these, I did a search for Texas mushrooms, and was amazed to learn there are 10,000 species just in our state. Just a hundred of those are poisonous, but it only takes one — I’ll let someone else guide me to the Chanterelles.

  13. Slowing down to absorb what nature has to offer is not easy for us humans. We are so accustomed to hurrying, scurrying, adhering to a schedule, achieving a goal.

    Outside, I’ve tried to teach myself to simply stand still at frequent intervals and look, really look, around. Scan the ground, the rocks, the logs, tree trunks, leaves, sky.

    Your photographs are spectacular! Getting down on the mushroom’s level can be humbling and revealing. It is a universe we are not used to observing. Rewards await the explorer.

    1. When it comes to mushrooms, getting ‘down and dirty’ is a necessity. I have figured out why so many photos of mushrooms are taken after they’re pulled from the ground; getting beneath a two or three inch tall fungus isn’t the easiest thing in the world.

      Your comment about stopping to observe everything around you reminded me of Chris Helzer, who’s with the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, and his ‘Square Meter Photography Project.’ He spent a year observing and photographing one square meter of Nebraska prairie. What a revelation that was! I’ve pondered doing the same sort of thing, but let it go after the piece of land I was going to follow was sold, mowed, and posted. I just might find another plot somewhere and give it a try.

  14. Mushrooms don’t come much brighter than a waxcap, especially the brilliance of yours. They are like beacons in the dead dry leaves on a forest floor that hides their fungal powers of ecological balance.

    1. ‘Beacon’ is a good description. As for ‘fungal powers of ecological balance,’ I think that’s close to what my grandmother meant when she said ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place.’ All of the interrelationships of fungi and plants are fascinating, but disturb that balance, and something’s going to suffer. That’s the lesson people learn when they try to transplant Indian paintbrush. Just digging it up breaks the bond between the paintbrush’s roots and their hosts, and the paintbrushes begin to pout.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.