The Orange Fungi
After writing for three hours, I spent the rest of one of my mornings at the Collegeville Writing Institute on a seven mile walk through the 2500 acre campus of St. John’s University. Those 2500 acres were purchased in the 1850’s by monks of the Order of Saint Benedict from Germany, who promptly began encouraging more Germans to come to America to enjoy the plentiful and fertile farmland available here. They founded churches and schools and St. John’s University, making central Minnesota predominantly Roman Catholic, as reflected in town names like St. Cloud, St. Joseph, St. Anthony, St. Marius, etc.
Part of Roman Catholic piety, of course, is honoring Mary, the mother of Jesus. A chapel built on campus by the monks in 1915 on a peninsula in Lake Sagatagan called the Stella Maris Chapel honors Mary with an ancient title “Star of the Sea.” Seafarers from the 8th century on believed Mary helped guide them on their perilous voyages over the sea. Many coastal towns and villages around the world (including Door County) have churches and chapels to honor Mary for the role many Roman Catholics believe Mary takes in protecting the lives of sailors.
I’m not sure Mary was too interested in me, a lowly Lutheran, wandering around the St. John’s University campus. So for the rest of my seven mile hike I had a map. Which wasn’t a real bad map. It was a lot better than no map, which is my usual gig. It brought me with a modest level of assurance through the most extensive stand of enormous oaks I have ever seen. The canopy was a living ceiling of green; few saplings enjoyed enough sun to attempt to supplant their elders, so the forest floor consisted of a few non-descript varieties of low-growing ground cover.
What caught my eye in many places, however, were various eruptions of orange fungi both on the trunks of trees but also on the ground, apparently following buried roots before they dove deeper into the earth. Some of these fungi, like Aleuria aurantia or orange peel fungus, are saprotrophic: they live on dead wood, breaking it down so that it nourishes those deciduous giants still marching up and down the slopes of the rocky glacial moraines.
More insidiously, however, the spores of other kinds of fungi, infest trees where there are wounds in the tree caused by insect boring, broken branches, or vandalism. The spores of these kinds of fungi send mycellium or hair-like fibers into the tree, causing “heart rot,” which can hollow out a tree, weakening it, making it more vulnerable to winds and the weight of snow. Eventually the fungi explodes from the entry point of the mycellium, sometimes while the tree is still alive. After the tree falls or dies, the fungi still live on, feeding on the dead tree. The scientific name for the fungi pictured here is Laetiporus sulphureus; its common names are sulfur shelf fungus or chicken of the woods. Which, as young fungi, are apparently edible if cooked, preferably by sautéing them in olive oil and garlic and adding a dry Italian white wine (a Pinot Grigio would be lovely) and finally tomato sauce.
If identifying and cooking mushrooms is anything like following maps, I’d stick to a nice jar of Ragu if I were you!