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The Essential Guide to Rocky Mountain Mushrooms by Habitat
By Cathy L. Cripps, Vera S. Evenson, Michael Kuo
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
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THE AMERICAN PRAIRIE
The American Prairie covers many thousands of square miles of grasslands that sweep gently eastward from a series of spectacular North American mountain ranges collectively known as the Rocky Mountains. Ancient volcanic activity, regional uplifts, glaciations, erosion, and climate change shaped our world-renowned mountain formation. This immense crest of rocks is a continental divide in a most literal sense; the extreme heights of the massive Rocky Mountain ranges and high peaks running roughly north and south divide a large part of our North American continent.
The climate and geography of our prairies and plains formed on the east and the west sides of the Rockies are a direct result of this uplift. Stretching for more than 3,000 miles from northern British Columbia in western Canada down to the Rio Grande in New Mexico, the extensive uplift of rock has created a rain shadow by robbing the western winds of their moisture. The result is a beautiful sea of grassy prairie lands known for their characteristic lack of forests. Instead of forest green, prairies show us a mosaic of soft browns and gray greens, punctuated with bright spots of colorful native wildflowers.
Sometimes the rolling sea of grasses, herbaceous forbs, and shrubs is broken by a ravine or wandering waterway. All the plants there as well as the birds and other animals have evolved by adapting to the semi-arid soils and harsh extremes of weather.
Amid waving grasses and prairie wildflowers, this landscape speaks to us of our human heritage. For thousands of years, native peoples traversed the immense grasslands in order to follow the great herds of bison that found their perfect home in the vastness. Later, our pioneer ancestors came through these rolling grasslands in search of a new life, eventually settling in many areas, usually near rivers and other water sources. The name for these vast grasslands or meadows was adopted by these hardy settlers from the early French explorers' use of their word for meadow or grassland, which was prairie.
Although a large percentage of the millions of acres of North American prairie have since been plowed for croplands or grazed by domestic animals for the past century or more, some priceless remnants remain in the prairies of Montana near Malta, the eastern Washington and Idaho grasslands known as Palouse country, and prairie land in the eastern parts of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.
A rich mosaic of native grasses grows in these semi-arid habitats. Short and mixed grasses, the hallmarks of the western prairie, have provided nutritious fodder for its native animals and birds throughout history. Pronghorns, celebrated for their long-distance running skills, evolved in these great expanses of grasslands by outwitting the now-extinct native cheetahs to survive to this day in large herds. Until recently, there were more pronghorn individuals in the state of Wyoming than humans. Their range still includes prairie lands throughout the Rocky Mountain region.
The dominant two grasses in the short-grass prairie are buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) and blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis). These and other native grasses have adapted to the extremes of variable moisture and harsh weather conditions by developing exceptionally deep roots that penetrate the soil as far as 10 feet down. Prairie grasses thrive in semi-arid conditions by a water-use strategy that involves rapid intake of water when it is available and then, when it is scarce, they become dormant.
Adding a delightful contrasting color to the prairie, indigenous herbaceous species have also adapted to the low moisture and intense sun in this semi-arid habitat. The bush morning glory survives here by developing turnip-shaped roots that grow deep in the soil, enabling it to overcome droughts, overgrazing, and prairie fires.
Also penetrating the deep prairie soils are the underground tunnels made by villages of social rodents known as prairie dogs. The journals written by Lewis and Clark during their famed expedition to the West in 1804 made note of their first discovery of a prairie dog village in Nebraska. A live specimen was captured and sent back to President Jefferson in the White House, much to his delight.
Commonly referred to as a "keystone" species in many western American prairie habitats, the black-tailed prairie dog and its huge colonies have had a great impact historically on the prairie grassland environment. The foraging and burrowing action of many millions of these communal rodents has enhanced the diversity of the grasses and herbaceous plants there. Animals native to these habitats, both vertebrates and invertebrates, have benefited from the constant disturbance and aeration of the deep prairie soil caused by these gregarious natives.
Burrowing owls inhabit open grasslands, preying on a variety of insects and small animals such as mice and lizards, and often nest in abandoned prairie dog burrows. Spotting a charming group of these uncommon owls is a rare treat, which is becoming rarer as their habitat and prey gradually disappear.
The mountain plover (Charadrius montanus) is a characteristically short-grass prairie bird, living exclusively in open grasslands where it nests in a scrape on bare ground, historically near heavily grazed bison habitats or prairie dog farms where grass is short or trampled. Both of these native birds' populations have been greatly diminished during the past century because "keystone" species such as prairie dogs and other interdependent native species have been greatly reduced in numbers with overgrazing by domestic animals, plowing under native soils, and other human activities.
Too moist to be deserts, too dry for forests, the prairie grasslands support a sparse and sporadic mushroom flora. Most of those fungi are saprobes that break down and recycle the dead grasses and forbs in the vast prairie lands, thus helping to build soils and recycling nutrients for the use of native plants that eventually provide fodder for the animals that live there. In turn, the dung from those animals is eventually recycled by specialized coprophilous (dung-loving) fungi, thus continuing the constant interchange of nutrients and organic materials in this amazing habitat. Native fungi play an absolutely essential role in the harmony and balance of the prairie ecosystems.
Grassland prairies present flat unobstructed areas for mushrooms to show up as fairy rings and arcs that are sometimes many meters across. Folklore in many cultures suggests that the mystery of mushrooms growing in circles and killing the grass inside the circles can be explained by fairies, leprechauns, or even dragons dancing in magic circles at night. A more scientific explanation is that the original mycelium develops from a spore and grows outward in all directions, sending up fruiting bodies at the periphery in the form of huge circles. This process continues, however slowly, sometimes for as long as a century if the soil is not disturbed. Often the fungal mycelial growth inside the circle is so dense or so devoid of nutrients that the grass inside the circle dies back, forming a change in color or aspect of the grass that is hard to explain. A variety of fungi form rings including Agaricus species, Marasmius oreades, and a whole host of large puffballs.
Amanita prairiicola Peck
DESCRIPTION: CAP 6–20 cm across, convex to flat; white or cream, with flat innate warts that make for a bumpy appearance; sticky, with soil adhering; margin turned in at first, hung with patches of white tissue, later splitting. GILLS free, crowded, broad; pale cream to dingy gold; edges floccose, eventually eroded. STALK 15–20(25) × 2–4 cm, enlarging to a swollen onion-bulb base; white to cream; sticky, with ragged zones of tissue below a fragile pendant ring; deeply buried in soil; bits of tissue (volva) on the base. FLESH white, solid in stem; odor strong and unpleasant. SPORE PRINT white.
ECOLOGY: in open cultivated fields and sagebrush areas, typically without a mycorrhizal host; fruiting in early to late spring. Known from Oregon, Montana, idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado, but originally described from Kansas. Here, we report it from an open cultivated field with no potential for a mycorrhizal host, unusual for an Amanita.
OBSERVATIONS:prairiicola for its habitat. This Amanita is unusual for its lack of a need for a mycorrhizal host plant and it could be mistaken for a Macrolepiota. it appears to be the same as A. malheurensis Trueblood, O. K. Miller Jr., and Jenkins (Miller et al. 1990). Ellen Trueblood was a well-known amateur mycologist from idaho who collected with A. H. Smith and O. K. Miller. Not edible.
Clitocybe praemagna (Murrill) H. E. Bigelow and A. H. Smith
DESCRIPTION: CAP large, 10–30 cm across, convex; dull pale brownish; surface fairly smooth and dry, often covered with dirt from eruption through the soil; margins with tiny cracks with age. GILLS white to cream, close, attached-adnate. STALK short and bulky, 2–6.5 cm long × 2–5 cm across, equal to slight bulb at base; surface lightly scurfy; white with pale cinnamon-colored area; without veil remnants. FLESH firm, white; odor and taste mild. SPORE PRINT pinkish.
ECOLOGY: Erupting through the soil; a saprobe in grasslands and open meadows, often in arcs or fairy rings, late spring into summer after thunderstorms.
OBSERVATIONS:praemagna for the large size of the fruiting bodies. This mushroom is distinctive because of its manner of growth, bulky size, and tendency to grow in arcs or clusters. it is not common but has been reported from Wyoming, idaho, Colorado, and Montana, as well as the Pacific Northwest and Canada, always in open grasslands or former prairies. Smith et al. (1979) reports it as edible and from western grasslands including sagebrush areas. Great care is needed to confirm the identification. Called Lepista praemagna by mycologist Rolf Singer.
Marasmius oreades (Bolton) Fries
DESCRIPTION: CAP 2–5 cm broad, distinctively campanulate, becoming more or less plane, often with rounded umbo; surface smooth, dry; margins slightly wrinkled with age; colors dull orange-cinnamon to salmon to pale ocher-brown, fading upon exposure to light. GILLS distant, broad, adnexed to nearly free; pale cream. STALK 4–8 cm long × 4–8 mm wide, equal; pale ochraceous above with reddish brown colors at base; tiny hairs near base; texture distinctively tough and not breaking easily. FLESH rather firm; pale ochraceous to buff; odor mildly fragrant, often like cyanide; taste mild. SPORE PRINT white.
ECOLOGY: Known as the fairy ring mushroom, Marasmius oreades is a common saprobe in the soil of grassy areas of such diverse habitats as backyards, native prairies, golf courses, or city parks, often forming fairy rings. M. oreades can be found there throughout the growing season, most abundantly in warm weather after rains.
OBSERVATIONS:oreades for the Greek expression for mountain fairies. Members of the genus Marasmius are known for the ability of the fruiting bodies to revive after drying and even produce spores again. Edible, but caution is advised as toxic species can grow among them or form their own fairy rings.
Agaricus bernardii Quélet
DESCRIPTION: CAP large, 5–12 cm across, hemispheric when young, becoming convex soon, flattened on top and often depressed; margins exceeding the gills, remaining incurved; surface white to dingy buff; dry, at first smooth, often developing brownish flattened scales with age; veil remnants at margins whitish, cottony. GILLS grayish pink in youth, becoming chocolate-colored; close, free, and narrow. STALK 4–9 cm long × 1.5–3 cm, commonly narrowing at base; veil thin, white, membranous, sheathing the lower stalk, soon tearing as cap expands, leaving a thin, torn edge resembling white tissue paper on stalk midsection and on cap margin. FLESH firm, white, immediately turning reddish to brown-orange when cut; odor pungent; taste rather strong. SPORES in mass dark brown.
ECOLOGY: Growing as a saprobe in soil in groups or fairy rings; open areas, prairies, parks, and pastures; fruiting in midsummer to early fall after rains.
OBSERVATIONS: Distinguished in the field by its stout stature, rufescent flesh, thin cottony veil, and gregarious growth habit, this species often fruits in sandy or saline soil. Agaricus bitorquis is similar with its short, stout stature and strongly inrolled cap margin, but its flesh is unchanging at injury and its odor is mild. it fruits along roadsides, sometimes in hard-packed soils.
Agaricus campestris Linnaeus
DESCRIPTION: CAP 2.5–8 cm across; hemispheric convex, then almost flat; smooth or with faint scales, dry; white or a bit tan; margin turned in at first. GILLS free, crowded; bright pink when young, then grayish pink, finally dark chocolate brown. STALK 2–5 × 1–2 cm, equal and usually tapering to a point; smooth, silky, dry; bright white; with a ring that is only a bit of ragged tissue and not skirtlike. FLESH white, turning slightly brownish when cut open; odor fungoid. SPORE PRINT dark chocolate brown.
ECOLOGY: Scattered or in rings in grasslands and meadows, from the prairie to the alpine; widespread, commonly fruiting in spring, particularly in June but also in the fall after rain; a decomposer of organic matter in soil, including that from dead grass.
OBSERVATIONS:campestris for fields or plains. The well-known "meadow mushroom" or "pink bottom" can be recognized by the pointed stem base, flesh that barely turns brown when cut, the very thin ring, and a weak odor. The much larger Agaricus arvensis has a skirtlike ring, stains a bit yellow and has a faint almond odor. There are many other Agaricus species in open grasslands, especially in Colorado, and many are not well-known or named, so their edibility is also unknown. This species is an excellent edible, but the identification should be carefully confirmed.
Polyporus cryptopus Ellis and Bartholomew
DESCRIPTION: CAP small, 0.5–1.5 cm across, shallow convex; pale brown, buff, cream; smooth, kidskin dry; margin turned down. PORES go slightly down the stalk, radially arranged, somewhat hexagonal; small, 2–3 per mm; cream; mouth of pores appears ragged or with small hairs (ciliate). STALK 0.8–1.2 × 0.1–0.2 cm, equal, rough ridged; dingy white at top, black for most of the length. FLESH tough, woody in both cap and stalk; odor not distinctive. SPORES white.
ECOLOGY: Appearing terrestrial or attached to "woody" rhizomes of grass or possibly sagebrush belowground; a decomposer of woody material in prairies, known from the American Prairie Reserve in Montana, Colorado, and the Great Plains. On a global scale as Polyporus rhizophilus, it is reported on "steppe grasses" in Europe and Asia.
OBSERVATIONS: This "prairie polypore" is rare or overlooked in prairie habitats. it is similar to P. badius (also known as Royoporus badius) with its black stem and the pores are a bit hexagonal like P. arcularius, but the habitat is different.
Excerpted from The Essential Guide to Rocky Mountain Mushrooms by Habitat by Cathy L. Cripps, Vera S. Evenson, Michael Kuo. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
The American Prairie, 15,
Semi-Arid Shrublands, 30,
Cottonwood Riparian, 47,
Ponderosa Pine Forests, 69,
Douglas Fir Forests, 88,
Aspen Forests, 101,
Lodgepole Pine Forests, 122,
Burned Ground, 142,
Spruce-Fir Forests, 159,
High-Elevation Pine Forests, 207,
The Alpine, 225,
Macrofungi Grouped by Morphology, 237,
On Eating Wild Mushrooms, 243,
Further Reading and References by Habitat, 244,
Index for Fungi, 253,
Index for Plants, 257,
Index for Animals, 259,