So That’s What Happens When It Rains in July

July and rains: two simple words that paint a sweet picture when put together—or, if you’re anything like me, beyond your wildest dreams kind of stuff. July rains can mean a break in the heat, a rainbow in the future, and a greener, cleaner world in general. 

Significant July rains, or “sulains” as the kids call it, might mean an extra pass with the lawn mower, more worms for fishing, and maybe even water deep enough for kayaking in the marsh near my house! One thing’s for sure though, sulains can bring out the best in mushrooms. And slime molds, too!

Green headed jelly babies

It was a wonderful July, in my humble opinion.

Whenever I visit Calderwood Island, a Maine Coast Heritage Trust preserve, I bring a healthy amount of giddypations for the island’s butterflies—specifically visions of American Coppers landing one after another in the trails. Calderwood has a lot to offer—it has multiple sweet beaches, a big old oak tree, and is popular among Swainson’s Thrush. But for me, Calderwood is all about the butterflies. The grassy fields that have grown in after the three prescribed burns offer the perfect combination of habitat for the Lepidoptera and easy access trails for Homo sapiens. It’s nice.

Except that when I visited Calderwood this July the butternuts were more flutterbies than butteredflies. Why, you ask? A storm was coming, I figure. It was a chaotic scene, with lots of flapping and little landing. Fortunately though, there are a few spots where the trail system cuts through maritime spruce forest, and on this day, thanks to all those July rains, mushrooms ruled the woods.

There were Chanterelles and Destroying Angels—choice edible and deadly poisonous, respectfully—close to each other, as well as other Amanitas and the first Boletes of the season (for me)! Was finding mushrooms on Calderwood surprising? Not at all. What was impressive was the numbers, the mass, the amounts of individual spore dispersal agents (shrooms) present.

July is always a good month to learn about Midcoast Maine mushrooms, as well as the fungus responsible for said ’shrooms. Most Julys you can hear me say, “We could use a little more rain,” while I’m checking out that month’s bloom o’ shrooms. Fungally speaking, we typically start with early summer rains, and then dry up and peter-down with a lack of significant rains. This year was the opposite.

Full disclosure: it has been dry enough that I have had to deal with wasp/hornets/stingy critters that have decided trails are a great place to nest. One trail in the Basin Preserve on Vinalhaven has been a particular favorite for such beings this summer, but it has also been a welcome refuge for the weary mushroom watcher. So while focusing on a search for a relatively negative aspect of nature (stingy critters), one can’t help but notice an abundance of Bolete mushrooms (Family Boleteaece) along the trails.

A patch of yellow headed jelly babies

The original title of this column was “Boletus Down the Road,” but the truth is that there were several Bolete genuses (not just Boletus) represented along the trail that day. So limiting the scope of observation—even only in title—would’ve been an injustice to Boletes everywhere. That injustice will not stand.

Who was there? King Boletes (porcini), Red-mouthed Bolete, Bitter Bolete, Painted Bolete, Graceful Bolete—to name a few of the Boletes I saw that day. One Bolete species I always look for (with much giddypation) is the Lilac-brown Bolete (Tylopilus eximius).

I find them yearly, and sure enough there were several specimens along the Basin Trail. But one group/patch in particular caught my interest—three mushroom bases/stalks and caps rising in a clump, the twist being that the caps had connected to each other at points. A trio of the same hyphae, so close (genetically) some would call them “identical” triplets. And so close (geographically) their caps connected, some would call them conjoined. Call them whatever you want (mushrooms don’t care), the Bolete scene was cool enough, but felt even cooler with the conjoinedness. Everything is cooler conjoined. (Sounds like a bumper sticker.)

The rains kept coming in July, some storms more sulainian than others, but several brought downpours, which is unusual in my limited experience with July rains in Maine. While it poured I couldn’t wait to see what unusual blooms these rains might inspire!

And while I appreciate the classic mushrooms like Boletes, Corts, Russulas and Amanitas (I’m an amanita man), sometimes it’s the funky-looking (judgment) mushrooms that grab my attention. You know the ones that break the classic (cap, gills, stipe/stalk) mushroom look. This July it was the club fungi that tickled my fancy, and it’s a theme that has continued into August.

As a term, club fungi refers to a loose group of mushrooms who are lumped together by form rather than relationship. The local club mushrooms that I’ve found most entertaining of late are the phylum Ascomycetes (sac fungi), which is cool in so many ways I couldn’t possibly do them justice here. You’ll just have to trust me or look them up yourself. If it was me, I’d do the latter.

Black Earth Tongues (Tricholglossum farlowii) in the family Geoglossaceae (earth tongues) have exploded in the woods near my house. It seems like every patch of moss is complemented by a multitude of small, black tongues rising from the green. It’s a scene that makes me giggle and calm at the same time. There are few sights that give me a larger smile than having the ground stick tongues out at me while I walk by in the woods. I understand that it’s not about me, but, still, it gets me to smile.

Where Black Earth Tongues are in the family Geoglossaceae, two other club fungus of a different family (Leotiaceae) announced their presence in July with authority. Jellie Babies come in two flavors, Yellow-headed and Green-headed (Leotia lubrica and L. viscosa), and both species have responded handsomely to the July rains.

Most summers I will cross paths with a patch or two of Jelly Babies, but this summer I may have tripled my lifetime jelly baby path crossing total! There are that many out there, turning debris and duff into dirt. Decomposition is such an important niche, happy to see the Jelly Babies representing decomposers along the trail. Tip of the hat to decomposers, you make the world dirty, and that’s a good thing!

Black earth tongue

It’s always a good time to walk in the woods, and with every rain something new pops up, changing the trail experience weekly, daily, hourly even. Sometimes changes can startle up epiphanies, and none have been greater than this year’s, thanks so all those rains in July. I’ve been wishing for that for a while actually, so, thanks 2021 for giving us a peek at mushroom potential.

There’s always so much to learn, I can’t wait to see what’s next! See you out there!

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