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Fungi: Wildflowers of Winter?

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

by Kristin Rosser, Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation

Do you miss the colorful surprise of wildflowers in the winter? You should try looking for mushrooms instead! Winter in the Carolinas is a great time to search for these little wonders of nature. Below are a few common mushrooms you can search for year round– they’re fun to spot and they fill an important role in the ecosystem. Fungi break down detritus to keep our woods clean and are a delectable food source for wild animals like box turtles, squirrels, and bunnies.

Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus spp.)

Oyster mushrooms can be found all over the world, typically on hardwood trees. Foragers delight in discovering these delicious forest delicacies, but be sure to leave identification and harvesting to the experts! The genus name Pleurotus means "side ear," referring to their asymmetrical shape. Oyster mushrooms' identifying characteristics include gills that run partway down the stalk and a unique, hard-to-describe aroma.

photo: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma

Wood Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae)

Aptly named, these mushrooms look like crinkly brown ears. They are one group of “jelly” mushrooms and can most often be found on species of elder. Although these squishy brown mushrooms are not prized for their culinary appeal, they have been used for centuries around the world for medicinal benefits.

photo: Henk Monster

Dog vomit slime mold (Fuligo septica)

Have you ever seen a fungus that looked like vomit? This one is technically not a mushroom but is more closely related to amoebas. They’re a big mass of protoplasm (the goopy stuff inside of the cell) without any cell walls. The lack of cell walls allows them to move around, multiplying in the direction of the decaying material that they eat. They’re very easy to spot because of their bright yellow or orange color.

In my opinion, fungi are fun to find and so fascinating! Maybe they're not as exciting to you as a coneflower or bluebell, but they are no less important to the ecosystem. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for these weird forest-cleaning blobs and thank them for all of the hard work that they do!

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