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Fungus among us

Fungus among us: Some are deadly

Experts are reluctant to tell anyone a mushroom is edible

Even after a dry spell, there's still fungus among us.

During the midsummer rain, mushrooms popped up in many lawns. But even if you can't see them, the fungi still are there.

"The body of these mushrooms are these microscopic threads that run all over the place and in the soil," said James Kimbrough, a fungus expert at the University of Florida.

You might see a matte of growth under some mulch, said Bill Petty, a master gardener in Wakulla County who runs the Florida Fungi Web site. "That is the main body of the mushroom, the fungus, and when the time is right, it fruits," he said.

But just what is growing in the backyard? Is it poisonous? Edible? Destructive? Beneficial?

You could have fungi that are all of these things, and experts always are reluctant to tell anyone that a mushroom is edible. The nice ones can look strikingly similar to the toxic ones.

One of the most poisonous also is one of the most common, a type that appears as a "fairy ring" in the lawn. Chlorophyllum molybdites is the name of this deadly parasol.

If they pose a threat to pets or children, Kimbrough recommends getting up early in the morning, plucking and bagging them and throwing them in the trash.

"That'll keep them away from the dogs and kids that might come along and munch on them," he said.

Some people have eaten such mushrooms, thinking they are hallucinogenic, with tragic results.

"You might think you're tripping, but really what's happening is you're getting sick," Petty said.

There's more than one type of fairy ring. The mushrooms may be preceded by an extra-green circle in the lawn as the fungi process organic materials and release nitrogen. They also can leave rings of dead grass.

As the mushrooms die off, they may sprout again in an ever-expanding ring. An arc or line of mushrooms may be an old fairy ring disrupted by trees or buildings, Petty said.

Some fungi feed off decomposing matter, such as mulch. Others will rot wood structures or kill a palm tree.

A shelf-like conk may form on the trunk of a palm, and it's bad news with an ugly name: Ganoderma butt rot.

"Once you see that, the palm will die," said Sally Scalera, University of Florida horticulture extension agent for Brevard County. "You can't plant any other palm in that spot, because the fungus will live in the soil. And if it's close enough to another palm or the roots can grow together . . . it'll move from one palm to the other. And it's spread by spores. So if there's any wound in the palm trunk from weedeaters or nails or whatever, that's always an opening that the spore can go into."

For sheer annoyance, varieties of stinkhorn prompt people to call for help, Scalera said.

These mushrooms are fond of wood mulch, Petty said, and "they reek to high heaven." The smell, color and form evoke rotting meat so the mushrooms can attract the bugs that will spread their spores.

At their initial stages, stinkhorns resemble a white egg in the ground, perhaps with an orange center. Pull them from the ground or step on them at this stage so they don't smell, the experts say.

But an anti-fungal binge is probably not the way to go, since most plants benefit from fungi.

There are about 95,000 fungi that have been described, Kimbrough said, and that's probably just the tip of the mushroom.

"They are a natural part of our surroundings," he said. "Any trees and shrubs in the yard are going to have a group of fungi that grow symbiotically with the root system."

The green plant shifts carbohydrates to the fungi, which can extend several feet away from the tree. The threads of the fungi deliver minerals to the tree roots and help protect them from drought.

If you feel you must kill fairy ring or other problematic fungi, there are several fungicides that will word, said Kevin Riley, owner of Rockledge Gardens.

"It's not hard," he said. "They react to a fungicide pretty easily."

But he doesn't advocate putting down chemicals unless it's really necessary, since they can kill good fungi, too.

Fans of fungi become enamored of their delicate forms and colors, and going into the back yard after a rain can turn into a revealing safari.

"They're very ephemeral," Kimbrough said. "People are totally fascinated when they learn there are that many different kinds of mushrooms."

FLORIDA TODAY. August 25, 2007.

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