The Macabre Mushroom
It’s not a dark and stormy night, but rather a clear and sunny day that I write about for my Halloween-themed forest tale. It was unusually hot and humid for an early autumn hike in the mountains of western Maryland. My wife, kids, dog and I were on our annual and perfectly timed pilgrimage to gather our winter’s supply of wild mushrooms. Our secret 3-mile path never has failed to produce an abundance of maitake, chicken of the woods, aborted entoloma and oyster mushrooms. We were rather mystified, therefore, that what we found was a “whole lot of nothing”. I know, that is kind of eerie, right? It was on our trek back down the mountain on a section of the trail with a rather dense canopy that I noticed a glint of radiant orange emerging from a decomposing oak stump off in the distance. My pulse quickened and breath shortened, for I may have just discovered a new area for gathering chicken of the woods (Laetiporus speciosus); my favorite mushroom. Seeing the copious amounts of orange on that stump, I immediately broke free from the trail in hot pursuit of that fixed stump while dismantling the myriads of perfectly engineered spiderwebs with my face. My family queried indifferently as to the purpose of my abrupt and hastened jaunt, but I had no time for chatter. When I closed in on the wily stump I immediately saw that the fruiting bodies of this decomposer was not the delectable chicken that I had sought. The edges of their caps were not yellow. These mushrooms had stems too. Stems? My thoughts raced feverishly. Chanterelles? Yes, yes, they must be. Even better, they were huge. Oh, what a find for sure! Wait, something wasn’t right. I quickly wrestled a specimen from the detritus of the decomposing red oak. These mushrooms had clearly defined gills; they were true gills not the false, forked gills of the chanterelle. What was this devilry? I backed slowly away unbeknownst that I was still clutching the fleshy shadowy fruiting body. My children, who were now intently ignoring me, stared longingly down the path towards the trailhead parking lot. Having realized what I was now clutching, I brought the specimen closer towards my face in bewilderment. I had to know… my wife clasped my arm while imparting the mycological wisdom she just gleaned from the mushroom identification application on her smart phone. This fungus was the jack-o-lantern mushroom, and it was POISIONOUS and would surely imbue me with stomach cramps and other gastrointestinal maladies if I foolishly ventured to taste it……nevermore.
Jack-o-lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus illudens) are common in the late summer and fall in damp eastern hardwood forests. The mushrooms are typically found growing in clusters at the base, stump or roots of hardwood trees, especially oaks. They are saprobic fungi, aiding in the decomposition and decay of dead wood rather than parasitizing living tissue of the tree. As mentioned earlier, they are toxic for human consumption and lead to GI complications but are not typically fatal. These conditions are mainly caused by Illudin S, a chemical in the class of sesquiterpenes and has been shown to have anti-cancer properties. Since Illudin S is toxic to humans, the chemical is refined into a drug known as irofulven and is being tested as a technique to disrupt DNA transcription in cancerous cells. The treatment is still in experimental stages, however.
The Jack-o-lantern mushroom also is a part of a unique group of fungi species referred to as foxfire, that have bioluminescent properties. They produce the enzyme luciferase, the same compound that fireflies use to illuminate. Apparently, the luciferase reacts to the compound luciferin located in in the gills of the mushroom cap to create a blue green glow. I can’t profess to understand the process after researching it – but I do understand that you must witness the glow on the darkest of nights and that both of the compounds in this chemical reaction have Lucifer in them, and that is all I need to know.