Voicemail Recording Went Poof

Evidently Skype’s new updates have done something funky to the hotline voicemail. The podcast hotline number is still 347-416-6735. Sorry about the confusing message; I’m looking into it!

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My First Real Mushroom Hunt

How to start graduate school, by Izzie:

  1. Pack up everything you own
  2. Drive it halfway across the country with your husband in the driver’s seat
  3. Build a whole lot of IKEA furniture
  4. Go mushroom hunting!

I had a bit of serendipity here that permitted number 4. See, in February when I started hearing back from graduate schools I had applied to, some of them invited me for a fly-out. This is where grad schools wine and dine some of their most promising applicants (not trying to toot my own horn; it’s true) to try to snag them early. Some offer fellowships to these early applicants. In order to impress the applicants as much as possible, the school puts them up in a hotel and takes them out for meals, while at the same time putting them through the grueling paces of 11 professor interviews in one day. It’s fun, but it’s exhausting.

Fortunately I had an awesome roommate. Sara and I initially bonded over not being able to use the hotel soap (we were both allergic to some ingredient or another and had brought our own). She’s a super cool lady who went straight from undergrad to a PhD program, which makes her a badass because I filled out my grad school applications last year while I wasn’t in school, and it was horrible. Anybody who applies to things while they’re in school has my respect.

Sara and I continued to bond over our love of mushrooms, which had brought both of us to MSU. It turns out that Sara’s dad took her mushroom hunting as a kid, an experience I missed out on. Well, when we both ended up at MSU, basically the first thing we did was decide to go mushroom hunting at the earliest possible moment. It might help that we’re both in a class that requires us to turn in a diverse collection of 10 fungi at the end of the semester, but honestly, we’d go anyway.

Our first forays were over Labor Day Weekend. We first hit Sleepy Hollow Park, a lovely place with a lake and beach, plus lots of walking trails (and a few horse patties). Sara is a much more experienced mushroom hunter than I am, having actually done it before, and she found some really fun specimens for us to collect! I’m pleased to say I found some, too. They just weren’t half the size of hers!

The first exciting find was an Artist’s Polypore (Ganoderma applanatum), so named because the gills start white, but bruise brown – so if you catch them fresh, you can create etched designs that stay permanently on your collection. Of course, we had to give it a go.

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Sara collecting the polypore from its log
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I drew the mushroom, and Sara added the smiley face.

We agonized a fair amount over what to draw first, of course. It was a fairly momentous occasion.

I also saw the first bird’s nest fungi (family Nidulariaceae) I have ever seen in real life! I have absolutely no clue why we didn’t collect them. Sara doesn’t remember either. Ah, well. Apparently they are fairly common.

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They’re really small! Oak leaf in the corner provides some scale.

Sara also pointed out some jelly fungus. It turns out I may have been mistaking these for sap flows all this time. I think Nate and I found some bright red ones on our hike last year, but we just thought it was cool, strange sap chemistry.

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We also kept finding these individual polypore mushrooms fruiting on twigs. They were really little and very cute. We aren’t sure what they are, but that’s the fun of it! We are hoping to identify it later.

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I think I also found an Amanita. It had a smooth cap and a shaggy stem, which I hadn’t seen before. The internet search led us to believe it was A. smithii, but when I tried to take a spore print, the cap… disappeared. Half of it just vanished. And it didn’t leave a spore print. I was really weirded out by the whole thing so I just threw it away, but now I know I should have taken a picture, because nobody knows what I’m talking about. Amanita caps don’t just disappear. “Are you sure it wasn’t a shaggy mane?” Yes, yes I am.

Anyway, here’s the putative Amanita when we first found it:

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See? Smooth cap, scaly stem. I don’t know.

The crowning glory of the hike was when I was prying up one thing and then Sara started screaming with joy. I turned around to see another massive artist’s polypore! She didn’t draw on this one right away – it’s going into her personal collection forever and ever.

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It was a really wonderful day, and a great way to start my mushroom collection! And my mushroom foray career.

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Moving Complete

Hello everyone! I’m sorry you haven’t heard from me for a while. Recently I moved from NYC to East Lansing, Michigan. It was a huge move! My husband and I drove a U-Haul for two days and then spent a few days buying furniture. The new place is still in progress, but it’s coming along. I’m hoping to have the next episode out for you soon!

History Boletes Itself: Purples to Dye For

This blog entry accompanies Episode 6 of the podcast. It deals directly with the content of the episode.

For those of you interested in more of the physics of color, I highly recommend PhysicsClassroom.com. The lessons are very well written and accessible, and come with legitimately fun activities to test comprehension. Find out more about the wave nature of photons or how light interacts with objects. Or just skip ahead to color mixing like I did, because colors are pretty!

Speaking of colors…

“Royal purple” now doesn’t mean the same thing it did three thousand years ago. The modern color is a much darker, bluer purple than the apparent original. Here is a swatch dyed with the snail extraction.

The image has been cropped from its original size (source).

And here’s the average “Royal Purple” from a Google Image search.


And speaking of purple…

Aden Brown (Massachusetts) sent in this picture of the Cortinarius iodes, which is the same one he talks about in the episode’s intermission.

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You know what else is pretty? Leena Riihivilla’s amazingly varied yarn.

Using different mordants like alum, iron and rhubarb, and different acidity (pH), one mushroom or lichen gives Leena amazingly different colors. Leena writes in both English and Finnish on her blog, which is an incredible read!

Here’s a brilliantly blue Sarcodon squamosus, a species Leena loves to experiment with.


By using ammonia, rhubarb, or washing soda mordants and dyeing multiple skeins (bundles) in the same bath at different times, Leena has gotten twelve colors from one batch of S. squamosus.


To see what inputs gave which color, visit Leena’s blog page for the experiment.

There’s a stark difference in how well some dyes cling to the yarn depending on how heat is applied. All the yarn in the image below was dyed with Hydnellum suaveolens. The bright turquoise was a result of boiling the yarn with the mushroom and ammonia. The pale green is the result of solar dyeing with this mushroom, essentially leaving the ammonia, mushroom, and yarn in a jar in full sun.


For more details, visit the experiment post.

The final example for this post (but not the last one Leena has, by far!) is an experiment with the Tinder Polypore, Fomes fomentarius. By varying acidity (pH), the age of the polypores used in dyeing, and use of mordant, Leena captured eight colors.


She found that higher pH gives a stronger yellow, while more acidic dyebaths give stronger browns. See her process here.

Colorful Fungi! (Listener Photos)

This blog entry accompanies Episode 6 of the podcast. It contains listener-submitted photographs.

In preparation for Episode 6 (History Boletes Itself), I asked listeners to send me pictures of colorful fungi they had found. From mushrooms to self-dyed wool, you really got into the color game!

To start off, Kayley Abell-Hart (Massachusetts) sent in a photo with some massive sulfur shelf.

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Benny Coughlin (Connecticut) sent in this pair of stark white Amanitas in training.

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Benny and Aden Brown (Massachusetts) sent in color-changing boletus mushrooms. When cut or bruised, some boletes will stain blue!

Benny’s first picture shows the vibrant yellow pores hiding under a dully colored cap.
Benny’s second photo shows the lamellae, or spore-bearing surfaces, in the cut bowlete starting to tinge blue.
Aden’s photo shows the blue color slowly staining a fresh cut.

Aden also sent in some brilliant orange cup fungi.

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I was also delighted to receive some pictures of dyeing experiments! Julie has only been dyeing yarn with natural pigments since May 2016, but she’s already gotten a rainbow from the lobster mushroom, Hypomyces lactiflourum.

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And she wasted no time turning that yarn into a delightful hat!

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You can see other things Julie is working on at www.evercrafting.com. Way to bring they dye-ing wisdom of the ancients back to life, Julie!

If you have a pretty fungus you’d like to share, drop it in a message to moreldilemma@gmail.com and it could be featured on the blog too! I love looking at them. They’re so pretty.

(The thumbnail image for this post is a purple bolete I found in Colorado several years ago. I’ve been itching for an opportunity to post it!)


The New Blog

Good morning everyone, and welcome to the new website! We have now fully transitioned to a WordPress blog. The episodes are still being published on Podbean, which means you can listen to them there – or via iTunes, or whatever podcasting service you use! Hooray!

Amanitas on my PC

Part 2/2

My friend Meg was playing a PC game called Stardew Valley when she noticed a tree-sized, brightly colored mushroom had sprouted in her “yard”.


Filled with wonder, I assume, at finding such a large fungal specimen, Meg posed me some questions with real-world applications:

The abbreviation “IRL” means “in real life”.

I covered the question of mushroom size in the previous post. For her second query, Meg wants to know what mushroom this one is modeled after, in terms of coloration (and biology, obviously!). Like most mushrooms in video games, it appears to be modeled after Amanita muscaria, a highly psychoactive – and very toxic! – mushroom in the real world. I’ve encountered a few A. muscaria specimens myself, and the illustration is pretty close to life. As in the game, these mushrooms have a rounded reddish cap, with white spots and a band of extra tissue girdling the stipe (stem), which I explain below. Here is a photo from Mycoportal, a database where field researchers and mycophiles associated with academic institutions share information on their fungal finds. These specimens were collected and determined by Yves Lamoureux on August 21, 1990 in Quebec, Canada.

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I’m not magical, and I don’t know Mx. Lamoureux. All this information, and the image, can be found on Mycoportal. Here’s the specimen page. The image is copyright the Université de Montréal.

And here is an image of this species in situ (i.e. in its natural habitat, not pulled up for collection) that I took on August 14, 2014, in the Poudre Canyon of Colorado.

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This species is widespread ecologically: Mycoportal has records of A. muscaria from Eurasia (Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Sweden, and Switzerland), from the Americas (Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Uruguay, and the U.S.), and from the Pacific nations (Australia and New Zealand).

The coloration on my Colorado Amanita is much more saturated than Mx. Lamoreaux’s, meaning the red color is richer than it is in the collection from Quebec. This isn’t because United States Amanitas are generally the reddest, as shown by this collection from Sweden:

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The color differences arise because many biological species have what are called “variants”. These are slightly different from the specimens biologists used to define the species.

The type specimen is considered a typical member of the species, and newly collected specimens can be compared with it to see if they are the same species. In the image above, the Swedish specimen was used by the University of Tennessee as an example of what you might call the “perfect” Amanita muscaria – all its traits, from color to mycelial texture to spore shape, were recorded, and the specimen preserved, as examples of how to identify this species. (It’s called a “neotype” because it is an exemplary specimen that can be used after the original type specimen is lost or destroyed: “neo” = “new”.)

Species variants define those specimens that do not perfectly match the type specimen for a species, but are very, very close – so close they may still be able to reproduce with the type specimen, and therefore fit the definition of being the same species. These don’t exactly match the type specimen, but aren’t a different species. Variants within the species Amanita muscaria include var. flavivolvata, which is bright red but has a different geographical distribution from A. muscaria; var. alba, which has white caps;  and var. guessowii, the caps of which are bright yellow. These species names are written with the variety after the species name: Amanita muscaria var guessowii.

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I found this image on Mushroomexpert.com, another great resource, where you can find a full description of Amanita muscaria var. guessowii and many other fungi.

The spots or warts on the caps of Amanita mushrooms come from something called the universal veil. This is a thin membrane of fungus that surrounds the mushroom like an egg when the fruiting body is just getting started. Unlike a bird egg, though, the veil is meant to be broken. When the mushroom reaches a certain age, the cap becomes too big to be contained in the veil, and rips out of it. The remnants of the veil show up on top of the cap as warts, and fall back onto the stipe to create a distinctive ring or collar that is very useful in identifying Amanitas. Our friends at Stardew Valley were kind enough to include a bit of that veil on the stipe, which is a nice touch of realism for a tree-tall mushroom, and helps us identify it with more certainty.

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This jagged shadow on the game mushroom evokes the collar around the stipe of A. muscaria that show where the universal veil was torn.

So there’s our answer: the mushroom is Amanita muscaria. As tempting a food source a two-story mushroom may seem, I wouldn’t recommend letting your avatar eat it. They could end up having a very strange adventure…

Note: Please also do not eat these mushrooms in real life. They are legitimately full of neurotoxins. 

What’s the Biggest Mushroom?

Part 1/2

My friend Meg was playing the PC game Stardew Valley recently when she noticed a massive mushroom on her lawn.


Amazed by her encounter with a 2-storey pixel art mushroom, Meg posed some questions about mushrooms in our 3-d world.

“IRL” means “in real life”.

In this first installment, I’ll tackle Meg’s first question: What is the biggest mushroom in the world? The answer isn’t as clear-cut as you might think. There are lots of answers. The reason comes back to mushroom biology – as everything eventually does.

A mushroom is just a funny fruit, with spores instead of seeds. It’s the reproductive chapter of a fungal organism’s life. Most people think the mushroom is most of the fungus, but as Hope Jahren* puts it, “This is exactly like believing that a penis is a man.” Most of the fungus’s life story, and its mass, happens in its mycelia, which web through the soil and dead wood gathering resources and finding a good place to fruit. Just like a cherry tree grows through the air until it’s ready to put out some cherries, fungal mycelia roam the soil until they’re ready to put out fruiting bodies. Based on public forgetfulness about the difference between fungal fruit and body, Meg’s question could also be phrased “What is the largest fungus that produces a mushroom?”

Answer I. Biomass

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the world’s largest living organism (“The Humongous Fungus”) is the parasitic fungus Armillaria ostoyae, that kills trees in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon, U.S.A. The common name for this fungus is “Honey mushroom”, and people like to poorly Photoshop spectacularly large mushrooms to illustrate the size of this thing.

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This “photo” was debunked by the website Waffles at Noon.
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This one showed up on my Facebook feed just this morning. If you look closely, you’ll see that the base of the giant mushroom is floating above the ground.

In real life, honey mushrooms – the fruiting bodies of A. ostoyae – generally max out at 4 inches tall and 5 inches wide at the cap. They show up during the rainy season, send out their spores, and quickly die.

Most of the mass of the “Humongous Fungus” in Oregon is its mycelial network, which runs across 2,385 acres (as of 2008). Its biomass, including both mushrooms and mycelia, is estimated at anywhere from 7,567 to 35,000 tons (USDA as of 2008). For you folks who, like me, don’t understand what a ton is, that’s 70 million pounds. On the low end, that’s the weight of the Eiffel tower (7,300 tons). On the upper end, that’s the size of a small cruise ship. Most of that mass is shoelace-like threads embedded in dirt, black on the outside and white within, though a good portion can be seen in “mycelial felts”, mats of A. ostoyae that show up on infected trees like layers of creamy white latex paint.

This figure from the USDA’s pamphlet on A. ostoyae shows what a mycelial felt looks like on an infected tree.

Crucial to answering Meg’s question is the fact that this 2300-acre web of mycelia is all one organism – one individual fungus, called a genet, that is genetically distinct from the other enormous A. ostoyae in the Malheur National Forest. There are five such genets in the forest, but the second-largest covers only 642 acres – about a quarter of the area of our Humongous Fungus. Age estimates for the biggest A. ostoyae range from 1900 to almost 8700 years, depending on how quickly scientists think it grows. If the genet grows 3.3 feet every year, its parent spores landed while Alexandria was burning. If it is much slower, growing about 0.7 feet per year, those spores landed when proto-Greeks were starting to figure out pottery.

Answer II. Fruiting Body

Perhaps I am being unfair to Meg, who was not after the largest mycelial network at all, but the largest fungal fruiting body. In that case, I present to you Fomitiporia ellipsoideus, a Chinese species that made international news when a fruiting body on Hainan Island was estimated to weigh between 880 and 1,100 pounds. It’s about 35 feet long – if you stood it upright, it would peek over the Great Wall of China with almost ten feet to spare.

The fruiting body was recorded by Professor Yu-Cheng Dai and Dr. Bao-Kai Cui. The photo is copyright Dr. Cui. I know, it’s hard to see how big it is without any non-forest-y objects in there.
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Here, Dr. Cui shows off some fragments of the F. ellipsoideus fruit.**

This fungus is a polypore, sending out new layers of one fruiting body where A. ostoyae sends up and loses brand-new mushrooms every year. Very unlike A. ostoyae, F. ellipsoideus lives on just one log and is probably no more than 20 years old. That is still an impressive lifespan for a fungus, though. Polypores can stick around for a long time because nothing much likes to eat them.

Answer III. Longevity is Cheating

If all this sneaking around below the soil and creeping slowly outwards from a trunk for two decades seems like a cheap way to get ahead size-wise, have no fear. There are also fungal fruits that simply sprout up every year to enormous size – and they’re tasty, too. Remember the puffball the size of my head?

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I bring it up whenever I can.

That’s not what puffball aficionados call big. In 1877, New York resident Professor R. Call recorded finding a member of Calvatea gigantea, giant puffball, that was more than five feet wide, four and a half feet long, and nine inches tall – that’s 16.9 cubic feet. It would have fit very snugly inside a large modern bathtub (provided you cut apart first and jigsaw puzzled it into the bath). More recently, in 2012, Canadian grandfather Christian Therrien found a 57 pound puffball.

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I got this photo from the website of CBC Radio-Canada. There was an accompanying interview with Mr. Therrien, but unfortunately the link is broken.

That’s 57 pounds that all sprouted in a number of weeks, and, if it had not been picked, would be gone again just as quickly. As it is, I hope the Therrien family had some very nice puffball steaks.

Final Answer. Mushrooms Only, Please

I hope at this point that Meg is not too exasperated with me, because the screenshot from the game clearly shows an enormous mushroom, with cap and stipe. Not an enormous mat of underground mycelia thousands of years old. Not a giant polypore with decades under its belt. Not a puffball, which doesn’t have a stipe at all. No, Meg asked about mushrooms. So here we (finally) go.

The title for biggest mushroom is somewhat contested between two species: Phlebopus marginatus and Macrocybe titans. 

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Shroomery.org user Shroomeup posted this photo of their Phlebopus marginatus on a forum.


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Some Macrocybe titans specimens being inspected by Carolina Cano. Photo copyright R. Elizondo 1996.


Records for size of these two species have them going neck-and-neck. The largest ever P. marginatus weighed a whopping 71 pounds, almost twice the weight of the largest M. titans ever recorded (44 pounds). However, the largest M. titans has almost twice as much surface area (5 square feet) as P. margnatus (3 square feet). So while biggest fungus and biggest fungal fruiting body are easy to determine, biggest mushroom is a title that could be decided by a coin flip.



*That amazing quote is from Hope Jahren’s autobiographical book Lab Girl that came out this year. She is a very good writer and her story is fascinating. I highly recommend it!

** If the person in the photo is actually Professor Dai, I’m very sorry. The photo is credited to Dai, which I assumed meant that the professor took the picture. It could very easily be Professor Dai in the photo, which could have been taken by Dr. Cui.


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