Nebraskaland April 2019

NEBRASKAland Magazine is dedicated to outstanding photography and informative writing with an engaging mix of articles and photos highlighting Nebraska’s outdoor activities, parklands, wildlife, history and people.

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26 Nebraskaland • April 2019 He too was baffl ed, but had Brueggemann collect a specimen of the fungus, which he sent to an out-of-state lab for DNA analysis and comparisons that led to positive identifi cation. The tests showed the mushroom was the truffl e Stephensia shanorii, a little known species with no common name. It has been collected only 10 to 15 times from deciduous woods in Illinois, Maryland and Ohio, but never as far west as Nebraska, leaving Brueggemann to wonder if other mysterious truffl e species are lurking in eastern Nebraska oak woodlands. Truffl es, which commonly grow under oaks and other hardwoods, are strange in that their fruiting bodies are stemless and remain underground. They emit potent odors when ripe, a unique strategy among mushrooms to attract animals, ranging from squirrels to bears. The animals dig them up, ingest them and disperse their spores through their feces. Though their spore dispersal strategy is rather unappetizing, some truffl e species are considered culinary delights. High-end restaurants pay hundreds of dollars a pound for some North American truffl es, while a single large European white truffl e, which can weigh several pounds, can bring six fi gures. In areas of relative truffl e abundance, such as the Pacifi c Northwest, highly-trained dogs are used to sniff them out. It is unknown whether S. shanorii is edible, but judging from its sulfurous odor it is unlikely. Mushrooms have varied feeding habits. Some species are parasites that feed on living plant tissues, such as roots or tree trunks. The highly delectable chicken of the woods, for example, is parasitic on oak trees, often growing at the base of the trunk. Other species – shelf-like oyster mushrooms, for instance – grow and feed on dead plant matter such as downed logs and leaf litter. They break down tough organic compounds, such as cellulose, making its carbon, nitrogen, and other minerals available to plants and other organisms while building soils in the process. Without these vital fungal decomposers, the world would be awash in dead plant material. Mycorrhizal mushrooms, such as the edible and much sought-after morels and boletes, obtain carbohydrates through mutually-beneficial associations with plants, most often trees. Their hyphae either form sheaths around a plant's roots or grow between the root cells and act as root extensions bringing distant soil, water and nutrients to the plant. In return, the plants provide the mushrooms with sugars produced through photosynthesis. Nearly all plant species, from wildflowers to trees to crops, have associations with a few to many mycorrhizal fungi; the survival of many plants depends on this association. The rare western prairie- fringed orchid that grows in eastern Nebraska wet meadows, for example, has microscopic seeds with no starch reserve. In the soil, the seeds must first be infected with mycorrhizal fungi before they will germinate and grow. Until the plant develops leaves to photosynthesize, which takes several years, it is entirely dependent on the fungi for food and water. Prairie restorationists and foresters often apply mycorrhizae to the seeds of prairie plants or the roots of young trees before planting to stimulate seed germination and tree growth and survival. Among their other values, some mushrooms contain anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-cancer agents useful in medicine. Some species can break down environmental toxins into non-toxic compounds and are being used to purify toxic soils. The relatively unstudied fungi surely have other values waiting discovery. Mushroom Ecology Brueggemann unearthed Nebraska's only known truffl e, Stephensia shanorii, while raking a fi re-break in oak woods at Indian Cave. PHOTO BY CHANCE BRUEGGEMANN

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