Rainfall Brings Bumper Crop Of Fungi

With record-breaking rainfall in the northeast in the last few weeks, mycologists say that mushroom numbers seem to be up this year. Wet weather is prime for mushroom emergence because the fruits of fungi form through a hydraulic process, says Nicholas Money of Miami University in Ohio.

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IRA FLATOW, Host:

Now on to something a little bit lighter, so that we don't end the day completely thinking about 9/11 and the depression or other things that might may follow it. So Flora Lichtman is here with our Video Pick of the Week. And I can't think of anybody I'd rather be talking to...

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FLORA LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira. To lighten it up.

FLATOW: ...to make our spirits rise a little bit, because you've got something really interesting.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. We can always count on Pick of the Week to lighten it up. This week, we go back into the archives to one of our favorite videos about fungi. And there's a particular reason that we brought this one back out this week, and that is that senior producer Annette Heist had noticed a lot of fungi in her yard. And I was on vacation last week up in Maine, and, I, too, saw mushrooms that I had never seen before in this area. And it sounds like you, too, Ira have...

FLATOW: Yeah. My lawn is full of mushrooms. All of a sudden, out of nowhere.

LICHTMAN: It seems like a mushroomy year. Yeah. So we wondered, you know, maybe it's because of all this rain. So we talked to the mycologist - the curator of mycology at the New York Botanical Garden, and this is what Roy Halling had to say.

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ROY HALLING: People that I've talked to tell me that they haven't seen it this good in a number of years. And the amount of rainfall we've had in August has just made it a banner year.

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NICHOLAS MONEY: Warmish, wet conditions and high humidity is really mushroom nirvana.

LICHTMAN: That second voice you heard was Nicholas Money. He's a mycologist at Miami University in Ohio. So, mushroom nirvana this year. So what - you know, the question I think that came to our minds is: Why is wet weather mushroom nirvana? And this is what Nicholas Money had to say.

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MONEY: The mechanism that mushrooms actually use to emerge from soil and rotting wood can be described as hydraulic. It's an osmotic process, because they've got a higher concentration of sugars and salts from their surroundings. But under wet conditions, they become inflated, then, by this absorption of water, and then push their way through overlying obstacles.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

LICHTMAN: So - and that was sort of a surprise to me, that it's this hydraulic process. It sounds to me like they're kind of inflated like water balloons...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...from the ground.

FLATOW: That's what he said.

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LICHTMAN: That's kind of what he implied. So it's not - under the ground, you know, there's this mycelium, these sort of...

FLATOW: This what?

LICHTMAN: Yeah, right. I don't know. I mean...

FLATOW: That's not something overhead, mycelium.

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LICHTMAN: Nice one.

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FLATOW: Sorry. I couldn't hold myself.

LICHTMAN: So these microscopic - this sort of large mass that gives rise to the fruiting bodies, which are the mushrooms that we see. And so they rely on water, I mean, to sprout. So that was one thing.

FLATOW: Yeah. And it was not - and being overcast, right, that's great for mushrooms to grow. They like to grow in the dark.

LICHTMAN: Apparently, they like really, like, humid weather, too. So it's not just rain, but apparently, humidity helps, too, because the reason the mushroom exist is to get rid of the spores. It's a reproductive organ. And apparently, the humidity, in some cases, actually helps propel the spores, or get them lifted off. They sort of rely on that wet air to propel them. So that's why they seem to like wet weather. But, you know, the other thing about the storm is that you probably noticed in your yard, there are a lot of downed trees.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

LICHTMAN: And dead wood is another good growth medium for mushrooms. So you can look forward to that, you know, mushrooms growing on those. And if you have a problem, like if you have a lot of dead wood in your yard, Roy Halling has a suggestion. He says go buy these kits to inoculate the stumps with, like, shitakes, for example. So this is what he did.

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HALLING: I've done it, because I had an old maple stump that I wanted to get rid of. So I inoculated it with shitake. And I had shitake mushrooms that I could eat, and a stump that I could decompose naturally. It was perfect.

FLATOW: So you can grow shitakes in your backyard on an old tree stump.

LICHTMAN: That's right.

FLATOW: I know that - and you have a photo. I have an old tree stump, but - it got a lot of mushrooms, but I'm sure they're not shitakes going on there.

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LICHTMAN: I don't think they are. They're on our website. But that - you should - people should send us...

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: ...if you've noticed mushrooms in your yard, I'd love to see some pictures.

FLATOW: Send us your mushroom photos...

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...and see - especially if you've got some shitakes on there, right?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Or you could just send us the dried shitake (unintelligible).

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FLATOW: No, no, no.

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LICHTMAN: I'm sorry. Never mind.

FLATOW: We all know - and when - we should talk to people that if they're going to be seeing mushrooms growing in their yard, they're going to say, oh, something for my scrambled eggs, right? Don't go there.

LICHTMAN: No, no. Don't go there. Don't - you know, consult an expert, if at all. Definitely buy a field guide. I asked Roy Halling this, too. I was like, oh, great, breakfast, and he - or lunch, and he was, like, really, probably not.

FLATOW: Yeah. That's why it's good to inoculate them with something that you know you're putting in there.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, this kit, he also mentioned, make sure it's a verified mushroom kit vendor before you inoculate. But you put these little plugs in, and it kind of works wonders. And you get rid of the stumps. I mean...

FLATOW: Yeah. It's great. And our Video Pick of the Week is going to show us what when we see it today?

LICHTMAN: It's a fungi foraging foray.

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FLATOW: It's a triple F, fungi foray. And what will we be watching?

LICHTMAN: We go to the Botanical Gardens in New York and get sort of an overview of the world of mushrooms. There's different categories. There are like 12 different classes mushrooms: coral mushrooms, dead man's fingers, jelly cups. It just - the names alone are worth watching the video for.

FLATOW: And it's great to get a book, if you can get a book, right, to figure out what you're looking at.

LICHTMAN: I bought a book.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: After my main visit, I felt like I needed to know every mushroom I saw.

FLATOW: And they're very pretty, some of them, aren't they?

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Colorful.

LICHTMAN: Coral - they're really varied. They're really beautiful. So I think if people have pictures, send them.

FLATOW: (unintelligible) Flora's fungi foraging foray this weekend. Watch for those mushrooms popping up at a tree stump near you. Or sometimes they grow in the roots, on the ground, right?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Some of them are symbionts. They work with the photosynthesizing plants.

FLATOW: You did do your homework on this one.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I love this topic.

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FLATOW: Yeah. OK. I'll stick with my concrete, you stick with the mushrooms. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today. You can go to our website - it's sciencefriday.com - and see Flora's fungi foray - fungi, whatever.

LICHTMAN: Foraging foray.

FLATOW: Foraging foray up on our website, our Video Pick of the Week, re-edited, and made up there. Also, we have our podcasts. You can download them on iTunes. And also, we have lots of places for you to talk back to us. You can go to our website. Also, you can to our Facebook @scifri. We'll be tweeting all week there - Twitter, also. And we hope that you have a restful and pleasant weekend. We'll see you back here next week. I'm Ira Flatow, in New York.

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