Fall rains have arrived and that means it’s wild mushroom season! In this months Nature Net News we delve into the world of fungus–both above and below ground. Learn about the largest living organism on Earth, the best time to look for wild mushrooms, and how to cook wild mushrooms.

The Hunt

One sunny afternoon this week, some coworkers and I took our planning meeting on the road, or rather, on the trail. While we discussed what the next week of our program would look like, our minds were preoccupied with the real reason we were traipsing through the woods: giant puffball mushrooms. During our first pass down the trail, we were unsuccessful in locating the puffball rumored to have been spotted early in the week. On our second pass, tucked behind some roots and leaves at the base of an oak tree, we spotted it. Our hoots of excitement likely scared off any competition we had for the bulbous, smooth white orb. We broke it off at its base and carried it back to be cooked up and shared with our colleagues. Interested in trying some yourselves? Check out these tips on preparation and this recipe!

This is something of a ritual among wild mushroom enthusiasts. Now that the weather has chilled and the rains that seemed to forget about the Midwest for most of the summer have finally made their debut. This combination can only mean one thing; prime wild mushroom season is upon us!

The World’s Biggest Recycling System

Step out into your local park or even along your shaded sidewalk after a rainstorm and you’ll likely find a trove of rounded, orange, speckled, pockmarked, grayish, red, slimy, or gilled individuals. These are your local wild mushroom populations and while you may only notice them when their fruiting bodies emerge from the soil, their main structure exists in massive webs of Mycelia, spreading beneath your feet!

While the fruiting bodies we all see may seem like they burst through the soil nearly overnight, the mycelia they’re attached to could have been processing decomposing organic matter in the soil for hundreds if not thousands of years. In fact, while the fruiting bodies you see are rarely bigger than your fist, the largest organism on earth is the Honey Fungus–the largest individual is roughly the size of the city of Monona!

While mushrooms serve several purposes in the many ecosystems they inhabit, one of their most important roles is that of the decomposer. Mushrooms, along with other decomposer species of bacteria and invertebrates, are responsible for ecological clean up. Anything that falls on the ground, particularly in forests, gets slowly consumed by these voracious, slow-motion, recycling centers. Decomposers complete the loop on forest food chains by returning nutrients to the soil that would otherwise be unavailable for the plants and trees to use. 

In addition to recycling nutrients in a forest through decomposition, mushrooms and their fungal networks may help trees communicate with each other. While there is some disagreement on this idea within the field, the core concept that trees are connected to one another, at least for brief periods of time, by fungal networks (specifically mycorrhizal networks) seems to hold true. The extent to which trees utilize this for resource sharing and communication, however, requires further research, particularly experiments beyond lab controlled ones.

Fungal Connections

Mushrooms, considering their poisonous lore, mysterious networks, and roles as nature’s recycling system, act as an excellent metaphor for themselves. We only ever see their red-capped, speckled, or lumpy bodies peeking up through the soil, while beneath, they are much more complex, interconnected, and valuable than we can imagine.

Want to learn more about our multifaceted fungal friends? Check out our local mycological society or take this quiz that tells you which fantastic fungi you are!

Still hungry from mycological musings? Check out this podcast featuring a legendary Wisconsin mycologist:


Or if documentaries are more your speed, watch the Fantastic Fungi Film!




In Case You Missed It…

News from Nature Net Members​​

New Solar Panels Heart of the Zoo Art at the Arboretum
Our member site Cave of the Mounds recently installed ground-mounted solar panels. The ribbon was cut on the project last Tuesday. This project is expected to offset the site’s energy use by 50% and help power the caves entrance building and the visitor center. Read more from WKOW. The Henry Vilas Zoo has announced a new giraffe enclosure as part of their Heart of the Zoo development project. The giraffe barn will become a year round home for the zoo’s giraffes and is the first project in the new Edge of Africa are. Learn more about the coming updates here. The UW Arboretum is currently hosting an art exhibit titled Seen/Unseen. The installations are spread throughout the Longenecker Horticulture Garden and are intended to highlight the conversation between the art and the surrounding environment. Read more about the installation here.

More from Nature Net…

For Families: For Educators: Upcoming Events:
The leaves are putting on a show and it’s the perfect time for some leaf art! We’ve got some ideas that add a new spin to the classic leaf rubbing craft–with materials you have at home. Check it out here! The WAEE annual conference is coming up in the first week of November. Register, check out the event’s website for details on speakers, celebrations, film screenings, and more! Even as the weather cools, there are still plenty of ways to get out and enjoy Nature Net sites! Check out our calendar for opportunities to learn about prescribed burns, do ecological restoration work, and more!

Nature Net News: Funding & Content Creation