Taylor Lockwood is one of those mushroom lovers who discovered the aesthetic allure of fungi and decided to dedicate himself to photographing the world’s most beautiful and rare fungi. Taylor’s quest for bioluminescent fungi in the Amazon was one of the highlights of his lengthy career as a mushroom photographer, and I discovered that Taylor is as good a storyteller as he is a photographer when I interviewed him at an Oregon mushroom festival a few years back.
Taylor’s recounting of his quest for bioluminescent fungi is but one of many awesome stories that he shared with me when I interviewed him for a public radio documentary called Crazy About Mushrooms: Conversations With Fungus Fanatics.
Of all the interesting and strange mushrooms in the world, bioluminescent fungi are among the most bizarre, and it’s no surprise that Taylor Lockwood decided to hunt them down. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did!
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
Taylor Lockwood and Bioluminescent Fungi – Gotta Find Those Glowing Mushrooms!
In North America, we do have some bioluminescent fungi (glowing mushrooms), but species with this trait are few and far between. If you want to learn a little about America’s bioluminescent fungi, I have described two of them after the jump. But for now, tune in and listen to Taylor Lockwood’s account of seeking out bioluminescent fungi in the Amazon!
Bioluminescent Fungi in North America
Bioluminescent fungi are something of a mystery to mycologists, but as far as I know, mushrooms glow in the dark for one reason: to attract bugs. Many mushrooms are designed to appeal to insects because the buzzing and wriggling maggots and flies of the world are terrific at spreading mushroom spores far and wide. For anyone who’s ever found a stinkhorn mushroom that smells of poop in order to attract flies, or found a bolete that was riddled with maggots that were born inside the developing mushroom, it can be disheartening to discover that us mammals are not the primary target audience for certain species of fungi.
Bioluminescent fungi are no different: the glowing gills, fruiting bodies, and mycelium of these mushrooms are like the lights of Las Vegas for various night-flying bugs that stop in, maybe grab a bite of mushroom, and carry off mushroom spores once they’ve partied down on the fruiting body for a while.
Omphalotus illudens, the Jack o’ Lantern Mushroom
The most famous of America’s glowing mushrooms is the Jack o’ Lantern mushroom, Omphalotus illudens. This mushroom is very common in the eastern United States throughout the summer and fall, and although it’s quite clear that many, many specimens of this mushroom are not bioluminescent, it’s still (mostly) accepted that certain specimens of this species do in fact glow in the dark.
The greenish glow of this mushroom’s gills is something I’ve never witnessed, despite the fact that I’ve gathered it many times in different phases of its life, but there are certainly some mycophiles who celebrate Omphalotus illudens as the best of our continent’s bioluminescent fungi.
A word of caution is in order, however: some people mistake Omphalotus illudens for chanterelle mushrooms every year, with semi-dire consequences. Although the Jack o’ lantern mushroom won’t kill you, it does cause some serious gastrointestinal upset in those who choose to eat it! I would venture to guess that this mushroom causes more cases of poisoning than most other species, and although it’s fortunately not deadly, it sure does pack a whallop of belly upset that’s well worth avoiding!
Armillaria species, Honey Mushrooms
Honey mushrooms are a complex of species that grow widely and abundantly around the United States. In North Carolina, Armillaria tabescens, the ringless honey mushroom, is extremely common and pops up in great numbers around September each year, most of the time taking up residence on root systems of oak trees.
Although the fruiting bodies of the various honey mushroom species are not bioluminescent, the mycelium of some honey mushrooms glow a ghostly blue-green color, illuminating logs and stumps that the mycelium of this wood-decomposing mushroom calls home. The result is called foxfire, a ghostly glowing in the forest that caused much hullabaloo and alarm for American settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
I suppose here’s as good a place as anywhere to address the edibility of honey mushrooms: although most books list them as edible, I’ve been quite cautious to do so, especially because I have met two mushroom hunters who got very sick over the course of 4-6 weeks after eating honey mushrooms. If you plan to eat Armillaria tabescens, I recommend boiling them first and then cooking them; most folks I’ve spoken with think that these mushrooms do not disagree with everyone, but on the whole, parboiling them prior to cooking them is one way to render them safe for consumption.
Now, I also know plenty of people who’ve eaten different honey mushroom species without any special treatment beyond basic cooking and suffered no ill effects, but those two exceptions are enough to give me pause and take extra steps to assure that these mushrooms don’t cause what is reportedly a very bad, extended bellyache.
As with all wild foods, it’s entirely possible that the mushrooms themselves were not to blame for my two acquaintances’ bad experiences with them, but rather could have been caused by harmful microbes on the fruiting bodies that caused havoc in the gut. Since I am not a microbiologist I won’t venture a guess on this matter, but it does stand to reason that it’s possible that the mushrooms aren’t poisonous, but may be inhabited by microbiome disrupting agents of one kind or another. If this is the case, the parboiling method makes sense as a way of making honey mushrooms safe to eat.