Decomposing my Troubles

“Fungi are the grand molecular disassemblers in nature. Fungi are the interface organisms between life and death. They generate soil.”

  • Mycologist Paul Stamets

There is something lurking in the swamps of New Jersey. It breathes oxygen. It respires CO2. It devours the dead for dinner.

What I’m talking about is fungus, of course!

When making plant collections in thick forests, it’s hard to miss the unique shapes and vibrant colors of the fungus that are contrasting with the brown and green background.   

This internship not only strengthens my skills in plant identification, but additionally gives me the opportunity to expand my realm of knowledge to other aspects of biotic life.  Like finding a 1up mushroom in a mario game, it’s like a prize to see a brightly colored cap along the path I’m hiking. As a naturalist, I enjoy matching each new plant or fungi to their correct species epithet, and learn about their functionality. Social media platforms, like Facebook, currently host tons of group identification forums. The online community is always helpful to plant-nerds like me whenever the right answer cannot be found in my field guide. So as I walk along, I snap a quick picture of these photogenic fungi and continue on my way. Here are some of my favorites:


Cortinarius iodes

“Violet cort”

This fungi gets a slimey cap after it rains.


Artomyces pyxidatus

“Crown coral”

An elegant coral mushroom.


Amanita muscaria var. Guessowii

American Yellow Fly Agaric”

What a pretty baby growing on the path!


Boletus edulis


The choicest of all mushrooms. Highly prized in Europe, they can sell for over $50 a pound dry.


Trametes Versicolor

“Turkey tail”

I often see these more than any other mushroom in my travels. Has medicinal and anti-cancer properties.


Pleurotus ostreatus

“Oyster mushroom”

These were growing on Fagus grandifolia, although they normally grow on oaks. They have a fishy smell and are commercially cultivated. I have noticed that the wild variety has a more fragrant smell than cultivated ones.

“Bicolor bolete”

Boletus bicolor

The “Bicolor bolete.”

This fungi, sports a red stem and cap, and yellow pores. It is apparently edible and bruises blue.


Laetiporus sp.

Chicken Mushroom”

MY FAVORITE. Serve em up anyway you like, batter em, fry em, stick em in a stew. Unmistakable and easy to spot. They have sulfur colored pores beneath. Tastes like chicken.


Lycoperdon pyriforme

“Pear Puffballs”

This species is white inside and can often be found growing on wood.

Clavaria sp.

Clavaria sp.

“Flame fungus”

When I saw these poking out from under the leaf litter I just thought, “Wow, the Earth is weird.”

I would have loved to pick some of these toadstools, however, I only had a permit to collect seeds, so I had to leave them be. When foraging mushrooms, it’s good to keep in mind that picking them will not destroy the mycelial networks that they sprout from. In fact, picking the mushroom can spread the spores that are produced from the fruiting body further when they are carried in something like a basket. If it is your style to pick, then try and cut or pinch the end that has soil/debris on it, (the part that you would cut off before eating) and leave it on the ground or on a piece of wood nearby. By incorporating this into your foraging habits, it can help proliferate culture in the future.

I saw most of these mushrooms in Northern New Jersey in both the piedmont and Appalachian ecoregions. I have also seen some in the pine barrens. Within the permits of the Mid- Atlantic Regional Seed Bank, one of the most biodiverse areas to collect is the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1960. Half of the refuge is designated wilderness area, and was the first wilderness under the management of the U.S. Department of Interior. Perhaps the area’s preservation from half a century ago left the mycelial networks intact better than the other areas I’ve explored that have roads through them. I usually associate the presence of a diverse array of fungi with a healthy swamp ecosystem.

There are roughly 5.1 million species of fungus on earth, of which 10 percent produce fruiting bodies or “mushrooms.” From food, to medicine, to bioremediation, to plant communication to decomposition; fungus is integral part of life in our world. Even when there aren’t any fruits to be seen, you can be sure there are webs of mycelial networks just beneath your feet.