It is late summertime and rain has been falling regularly for several weeks in the Valle Grande. Varieties of mushrooms are emerging from the ground or are growing on the sides of trees.
The trail around the Cerro La Jara dome in the Valle Grande provides a visually pleasing setting in which to look for mushrooms. The Valle Grande is seen in any direction as the trail circles the dome. The dome was created as lava below pushed the level floor of the Valle Grande upwards. Sheets of rock can be seen sloping upwards and a small cave can be entered while walking along the trail.
The dome emerges from a grassy meadowland and then a conifer forest quickly covers it as its elevation increases. This forest has a number of glens throughout it. Small to large lichen covered boulders protrude from the soil everywhere. The result is a variety of ecological settings and in turn a variety of mushroom species grow among them.
The trailhead starts in the grasslands where there is a prairie dog community. The prairie dogs stand by their tunnel entrances and chirp warnings to one another when a hiker comes by. Prairie dogs actually are a species of ground squirrel that are considered to be a keystone species. They are a food source for a variety of predators. Birds such as the burrowing owl use their tunnels for their nests. Grazing animals such as mule deer show a preference for the grasses growing around a prairie dog community.
The browsing and turning over of soil by the prairie dogs provides a good ecological setting for the largest species of mushroom to be seen along the La Jara trail. A species of milkcap mushroom has a cap that is up to eight inches across and is distinctively white. The mushroom often may be seen growing next to or out of a bunch of grass.
Interestingly, the mushrooms also appear in lines or curves with the youngest at one end and the oldest at the other end. This may be a result of the thread-like mycelium of mushrooms growing in lines or curves below ground. The younger mycelium may be at one end of a line while the older are toward the other end. The mushroom we see above ground actually is the “fruiting body” growing up from the mycelium below. A mushroom can be considered to be analogous to a flower. The mycelium itself can be considered analogous to tree branches. The younger branches of a tree are toward one end while the older branches are toward the other end.
The shaggy parasol provides a contrast to the milkcap mushroom. Its cap is circular with pinkish to cinnamon-brown scales on it. Its cap is distinctly more curved compared to a milkcap mushroom. The shaggy parasol grows in the forested area rather than the grasslands of the prairie dog community.
The witch’s hat is small when compared to a milkcap or shaggy parasol mushroom. However it makes up for its lack of size with its bright red color. It has a distinctly pointed cap and has yellow gills. It can be found growing under the conifers.
Mushrooms can be found growing on tree trunks in addition to the ground. Roundhead mushrooms have caps that are up to four inches across. They may be seen growing in clusters on the side of a conifer tree. The light brown cap stands out distinctly to what may be an almost grey-colored tree trunk. Their gills are a dark brown.
Surprises can occur when looking carefully at a mushroom. Mushrooms typically have sheet-like gills on the bottom side of their caps. It therefore is easy to think that all mushrooms have gills. However there are some species that instead have parallel tubes pointing downward. Their spores fall out of these tubes rather than from the sides of gills.
The spores that drop from gills or tubes can be very colorful. The mushroom in Picture A has a dull grayish-white cap. However Picture B shows it has bright yellow-orange spores when it is turned over. Its spores could not drift away in the air because the mushroom was growing close to the ground. The spores therefore were concentrated on its underside. Perhaps it could be called a “fried egg” mushroom.
Want to identify a mushroom that interests you? Pick a complete specimen so that you can measure it and see its shape below the cap. Cut the stem off and place it on a white sheet of paper for several hours so its spores can accumulate. The color of the spores than can be seen. Enter the information into the following web site. It will help narrow the field among several hundred species of mushrooms.