Home / Natural History / Naturalist’s Notes: Catskills Tree Fungi

Naturalist’s Notes: Catskills Tree Fungi

Bears Head Tooth Fungus
Bears Head Tooth Fungus

My interest in forest fungi started when I was hiking Vermont’s Long Trail in 2008 and I kept coming across these white fiddlehead looking plants called Indian Pipe or Ghost Flower. I took photos of them and the other new plants, trees, bugs, and animals I saw and started researching them after each of my section hikes to learn more about the woods around me.

How do you discover fungus in the forest? You need to look around more when you hike, not just at the vast expanse of woods around you, but at the root systems on the forest floor or at dead and diseased trees. Slow down when you see something new, get down on your hands and knees if you have to, and get a really close look. You’ll be surprised at how satisfying it is to observe a mushroom or fungus closely and then to learn about it more when you get home.

Close observation of fungi like this also helps put into perspective the cycle of change which is occurring constantly in the forest. Some trees are growing, some are dead, and others are being broken down into their raw elements to help continue the growth cycle. This activity is constant, but our human minds obscure it, chopping the world into frozen scenes that hide the chemical processes and change around us.

For example, on my latest hike through the Catskills, I saw many different types of fungus and mushrooms, some familiar and some not. Take the Bear’s Head Tooth Fungus above. It grows from the center out and feeds on dead trees. It’s also edible and supposedly tastes like lobster. I first learned about it in 2008 when I was section hiking the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts. It’s pretty rare but I spotted it a few times on my hike.

Red Belt Fungus
Red Belt Fungus

In contrast, the Red Belt Fungus is a common sight in the deciduous and coniferous forests of the northeast US. It’s a hard plate-like and woody protuberance characterized by a red or brown band running along it’s outside edge. It thrives in deciduous and coniferous forests.

Crown-topped Coral Fungus
Crown-topped Coral Fungus

Another cool fungus I spotted is the Crown-tipped Coral Fungus growing on the forest floor. It’s scientific name is Clavicorona pyxidata. This was new one for me and I found it growing on the forest floor in a grove of old growth red pine and spruce trees.

Turkey Tail
Turkey Tail Fungus

Nearby, I saw common Turkey Tail or Tramates Versicolor has a fan-like shape with overlapping bands of white, blue, black or brown stripes. This is a very brown specimen, but the variegated stripes are clearly observable on close inspection of the individual fans.

Witches Butter Fungus
Witches Butter Fungus

Finally, I also saw Witches Butter (Tremella Mesenterica) for the first time. It has a jelly like appearance and not only feeds on dead trees, but other fungi in a parasitic relationship. There is a rich history of folklore about this fungus which is said to be left by witches after rainfall.

Perhaps, I will tell you more about it when Halloween comes around this year!

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7 comments

  1. As aslways, a good write up.

    Bears tooth is indeed good eating. Boiled, then fried with peppers and onions it is very good.

    Coral fungus may or may not be poisenous. There is too many species and varieties to say. Not being an expert, I would avoid it, but some are edible.

    The Turkey Tail the wife makes earings and neclaces from…after varnishing.

    I am not sure of your identification of Witches Butter, though.

  2. Granted, I am the least certain about the Witches Butter ID. Any ideas? I've spent hours trying to find something else it could be.

  3. Because they are growing on a hardwood tree, I would guess some type of oyster mushroom.

    As always, when in doubt, do not eat.

  4. Witches butter is pretty easy to identify in the field since it's a jelly fungi. It's difficult however to try to identify fungi through picture alone (with some exceptions). If you haven't already, I highly recommend you working through taxonomical keys found in a worthwhile guide such as North American Mushrooms: A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi by Dr. Orson K. Miller Jr. and Hope Miller, Mushrooms of Northeastern North America by Alan E. Bessette, Arleen R. Bessette and David W. Fischer, or even Michael Kuo's mushroomexpert.com website. I also recommend cross-reference everything, and getting in the habit of using their Latin names..

    At first look of what you have labeled Bear's Head Tooth Fungus, I thought "I've always heard it called Lion's Mane Mushroom, Pom Pom Mushroom, or Bearded Tooth Mushroom, but never Bear's Head Tooth Fungus." Either way it's a beautiful picture of Hericium erinaceus, and is indeed quite palatable!

  5. When an older friend first introduced me to his wife, he told me:

    "This is my fourth wife. My first wife died. She ate poison mushrooms."

    I was about to offer my condolences when he continued…

    "My second wife also died. She ate poison mushrooms, too."

    I began to suspect something was up as he soldiered on…

    "My third wife died of a blow to the head. She wouldn't eat her mushrooms!"

  6. Help, I've been informed and I can't become igrnoant.

  7. Hey, I think you have a couple of things mis-ID-d.

    The coral in that pic is not the crown-tipped coral, (formally known as Clavicorona pyxidata, now known as Artomyces pyxidatus), because Artomyces pyxidatus grows on logs, and this is growing on the ground. Also Artomyces pyxidatus has a translucent color effect, hard to describe, but this is too opaque. The shape of the crowns is also different, on Artomyces pyxidatus they are very upright, these are more sprawling. I don’t know what you do have for sure though.

    http://www.mushroomexpert.com/artomyces_pyxidatus.html

    Second, that is definitely not witches butter. The mushrooms you have are either decayed oyster mushrooms (some kind of Pleurotus species) or decayed Crepidotus mushrooms. Too far gone to tell which, though I suspect oysters. You can tell because of the one in the bottom left, clearly has a stem (a stubby one, but a stem), which witches butter does not. Also they are not gelatinous and the color is wrong

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