Fungus

This week, Felder Rushing found fresh mushrooms sprouting from his reclining gnome’s tree stump perch.

My garden is sprouting a pop-up bonanza of sorts, with cool, wet weather coaxing surprise toadstools and puffballs from underneath my feet.

Most of these “fungus flowers” are more treat than trick, as they represent happy fungi working hard to keep my garden from being waist-deep in organic detritus. I actually put some beneficial fungi, along with bacteria and earthworms, to work for me by throwing old compost or dirt onto my leaf piles, inoculating the leaves so they break down faster.

But this week, right beside some antique concrete toadstools made by my great-grandmother, I found fresh mushrooms sprouting from my reclining gnome’s tree stump perch. I also discovered some in this summer’s new raised bed garden, which I’d built over roots of trees that had been cut down. The chopped-up roots, along with bark I’d worked in to loosen my clay, have already started to decay with the help of natural wood-decay fungi, which quickly began disassembling the cellulose feast into bits small enough for big, beefy earthworms to digest.

But as soon as we got this week’s spate of cool rain, the tiny, threadlike fungi started producing their mushrooms, which are how they spread seed-like spores. Because these fleshy growths aren’t directly responsible for plant decay, and there being no practical controls other than kicking them over, rather than worry about them I just enjoy their ephemeral, sometimes-colorful appearances.

They often show up overnight in mulched flower beds, on old logs or at the base of trees with internal decay. They are highly varied, ranging from classic mushroom shapes to round hollow puff balls, glistening gill-like masses and shelf-like protrusions, which can get quite large. Colors can range from white or brown to yellow and bright red, with or without spots and streaks, and petrichor — their earthy fragrance — is reminiscent of an incoming summer thunderstorm.

One of the oddest I have come across, which again usually shows up when we have warm days with cool, wet nights, are called “stink horns” because of their finger-like or lattice shapes and pungent smell, which attracts flies and beetles to help spread the spores. They can be quite nasty looking and smell even worse. For a perverse thrill, look them up on the internet.

The most fun ones are those that create magical-looking curves of off-white mushrooms called “fairy rings” in the lawn. The fungi itself, as it spreads outward from its starting point a foot or two a year like a slow-motion ripple on a pond, causes grass to yellow or die in foot-wide curves and rings. As it passes, the grass can grow back in the center and follow the narrow curve off the lawn, which is a good thing because no fungicide or digging or other treatment really gets rid of the fungus.

But when temps and rain are right, their ’shrooms create a fanciful scene looking all the world like the aftermath of a predawn “little folk” party site.

Another fungus that causes circles in the lawn that show up in cool spring or fall spells is called “brown patch” because of the tan discolored circles. It usually disappears when warm weather causes the grass to green back up in the affected areas. Once it appears, the only treatment is to use a fungicide on the outer rims to reduce its spread and not fertilize as much the next year.

So, this week I’m watching mushrooms trace the lines of dead tree root and others making my gnome feel at home — tell-tale reminders of primitive but important unseen workers beneath our feet.

• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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