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Fungus Is Among Us: Charlotte’s Having A Mushroom Boom

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David Boraks
Mushroom sighting on North Main Street in Davidson.

Red, white, yellow and brown: It seems like everywhere you turn in the Charlotte area, mushrooms of all shades are covering yards and parks. A fungus is indeed among us.

If you’ve been spending more time gardening or going for long walks, you may feel a little like you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and found Wonderland. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

"I think it is fair to say there’s a boom this season," said Deborah Langsam, a retired UNC Charlotte professor who studied mushrooms. "And it’s kind of a like a perfect storm."

Langsam's specialty at UNC Charlotte was mycology — the study of fungi. It still is. Today, she's the adjunct curator for fungal collections at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia.

Langsam says that "perfect storm" for this season’s shroom boom has a few key ingredients. As we inch closer to fall, more mushrooms will pop up. Add in the heavy rain we've had — the Charlotte area is running about 9 inches above our normal rainfall, according to the National Weather Service — and the fact that more people working from home, and it means we're more likely to notice these fungal umbrellas than we did before.

"Folks really are seeing more mushrooms," Langsam said. "We’re out walking a lot more, we’re paying more attention to our environment because we’re not being distracted by other things in our lives, so people are noticing the mushrooms more."

And in that respect, we’re pretty lucky. Langsam doesn’t want to badmouth her fungal friends, but they can be picky.

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Credit Sarah Delia
Mushrooms popping up in Plaza Midwood.

"Mushrooms are, I don’t want to say particular, but I will say that they can be cranky about when they appear or how they appear," she said. "You may look at an area and think there aren’t any mushrooms and then two weeks later, there are a whole flush of mushrooms and then you don’t see them for years to come."

Some mushrooms have difficult personalities, she said with a chuckle. But some just want to mellow out in your front yard, which is typically a good thing.

"People often panic when they see mushrooms growing in lawns, and in general that is actually an indication that something healthy is going on in the soil," Langsam said. "Turns out that about 90% of green plants coexist with fungi."

But what’s good for the ground may not be best for humans or pets to ingest. There's a poisonous white mushroom that grows in lawns people need to be wary of. 

"Chlorophyllum molybdites is the name of the mushroom I’m thinking of," Langsam said. "And that’s probably the leading cause of mushroom poisonings that are seen in this area and in many areas."

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Credit Alan Rockefeller / Wikimedia
Pretty, but dangerous. If you see these growing in your yard, avoid them.

If you’re not an expert, she advises sticking to foraging at the grocery store instead of your yard.

"There is maybe something like 10,000 different species of mushrooms that are found in North America — maybe 3-5% are poisonous," she said. "Only about 1% are the bad, bad ones."

So. if you find your dog with a toadstool sticking out of his or her mouth, don’t panic. But do collect more information.

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Credit Laura Brache
Another fungal friend found in Mooresville.

First, save whatever remnant of the mushroom you can. Pro tip: Keep it in the fridge so it doesn’t wither. Then take detailed photos of the mushroom including the environment where it’s growing.

"Photograph the mushroom from different angles and particularly photograph the underside of the mushroom," Langsam said. "If you think of supermarket mushrooms, when you turn it over and you see the little gills on the bottom: You definitely want to get those."

Langsam says you can call the North Carolina Poison Control or ASPCA hotlines for more information. The more details you can provide between the pictures and the sample, the better chance of identifying the mushroom.

Keep in mind, she says, squirrels can eat some mushrooms that are poisonous to humans, so if you see one having a snack, think twice before you take a bite.

Mostly, Langsam hopes people will enjoy these fungal finds with a sense of curiosity and appreciation. As humans remain home and distant, we can at least admire how mushrooms are doing quite the opposite with no health consequences.  

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Credit Dashiell Coleman
"The mushroom is just the tip of the iceberg," says mycology expert Deborah Langsam

"The mushroom is actually just the tip of the iceberg," she said. "It’s just the reproductive structure of the fungus, and what's actually going on is underneath the surface in the soil there are lots and lots ofthread-like filaments, which are kind of the business end of the fungus."

When environmental conditions are right, some of those threads grow and become mushrooms, and that’s what we get to see, but there’s so much more to the fungal kingdom right under our feet. So, the next time you’re out in your garden or going for a walk, you can feel a little less alone. You could be stepping on a whole world waiting to decide if it’s time to pop up and say hello.