WTF - What's That Fungus?

"Daddy, wook!" Punkinhead and I were chasing each other up and down the driveway when something over toward the east pine tree caught her attention.

"What did you find?" I asked, panting, as I caught up to where she was kneeling in the yard, poking at something on the ground. Seriously, how can a two-and-a-half year old be so fast?! Her legs are only like 12 inches long.

What she had found was a fungus. A bunch of fungi actually. Growing in the yard.

Unfortunately, I don't know my fungi. I can identify a morel and that's about it. And even at that, about the only time I see a morel is when one of my buddies is kind enough to share theirs with me. Or when I accidentally sit in a patch while turkey hunting (which has happened on more than one occasion).

So here's my two year old poking at some mushroom that I've never seen before which is already Step 2 of the toddler discovery process. Care to guess what Step 3 is?

The Toddler Discovery Process:

  • Step 1: See. 
  • Step 2: Touch. 
  • Step 3: Taste.

Subsequent steps vary based on what the thing tastes like, or whether a parent intervenes.

Time to pump the brakes, kid.

Luckily, she has a two-year-old's attention span and energy level, which today was exceptionally high, even for her. She soon realized she'd been stationary for more than a few seconds and that energy was pooling in her veins.

Up she sprang and away she went sprinting back up the driveway. Crisis averted.

Thing is, I know in a couple years she's going to start asking the WTF question. And I better have an answer.

"Daddy, what's that fungus?"

So like a good Millennial I pulled out my phone and snapped some pics. Then I sent those pics to anyone I thought might have an answer.

Turns out, I don't have any friends that know their fungus much better than I do (even if they are better at finding morels). Curiosity still piqued, I turned to Google, burying my face in my phone for too long while I should have been playing with my kid (I always swore I'd never be THAT parent, but it was all for HER benefit, I swear).

Google didn't completely meet my research needs (granted, I didn't click past the top page of results) but it got me close to an answer...I think.

Just comparing images I found online, I think these are part of the genus Tricholoma. I'm not sure of the exact species, but if I had to sound confident in front of my kid, I would call these Tricholoma equestre (which I would stress to her are inedible). I'm mostly basing this identification on the symbioses these fungi form with pines, though the size in the description (up to 10-12 cm) is a bit small than what these actually are. But considering these were all within the needle-drop area of one of my White Pine trees, I'm sticking to my conclusion until someone more knowledgeable tells me otherwise.

(Oct. 26 Update: Well I found that more knowledgeable person...Turns out I was completely wrong in calling these Tricholoma. Thanks to local naturalist Kent Rector, and a more thorough inspection, we've determined they are actually Suillus Americanus, otherwise known as "chicken fat mushroom" (sounds tasty, right?) or "American slippery Jack." It too is associated with eastern white pines, forming a mycorrhizal association with them. It is technically edible, but opinions apparently vary as to its palatability. I'm not going to try to find out one way or the other).

Such an apt identification would of course bring up a perfect "teachable moment" when she asks "WTF is a symbiosis?" (or "WTF is a mycorrhizal association?") during which I would dutifully pull out my smartphone and Google it for her.

Side note here: If you want to hear about some mind-blowing research findings regarding symbiotic relationships and inter-species communication in a forest ecosystem, listen to the Radiolab podcast episode titled From Tree to Shining Tree. It's one of those episodes that really will have you asking, "WTF!?"