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May 11, 2009

Wild About Utah: Snowbank Mushrooms

Hiding beneath and fruiting near the retreating snow banks here in the western mountains of North America are legions of mushrooms. Collectively known as snowbank fungi, this diverse group of fungal species is found only in the high elevation forests of our mountains were snow lingers into the summer months. These species are found mostly in the spruce-fir zone in mature forests were there is abundant litter and woody material on the forest floor and the snow pack is deep and lingers in the deep shade the trees provide. Many of the species found in such conditions are found no where else, while others are found elsewhere in the world, but not under these unique conditions.

This diverse group of fungi was first reported by Wm, Bridge Cooke in 1944 from Mt. Shasta, California. Here along the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, the snowbank fungi are a predictable lot and diverse and often abundant enough to wow even the experienced mushroomer. Some species are strictly decomposers that break down the forest litter and woody debris that carpets the forest floor while others are mycorrhizal forming those ecologically important beneficial relationships with the area plants.

The species found range from silver-gray gilled species to colorful cup and jelly fungi. At an otherwise drab time in the forest blue-stained orange cub fungi litter areas were squirrels have cached conifer seeds and cones; pale orange jelly-like poor man’s gumdrops drops dot woody debris on the forest floor. Large logs and stumps play hot to the deep orange sponge polypore with its deep ragged teeth, hidden on the forest floor is the black champagne glass-shaped Plectannia nannfeldtii, while the pale-brown, gilled Clitocybe albirhiza is rather widely scattered on the forest floor it is easily distinguished by the copious white root-like projections at the base of the stem just below the soil surface. Slime molds are found fruiting as is the edible wood ear, beneath the soil are several false truffles attracting the squirrels with enticing (to them) aromas.

So why wait for the snow to melt to enjoy the high forest? These and many more wait to be discovered just under the melting snow.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Photo: Lentinus montana.; by Don Johnston, © 2009 Intermountain Herbarium
Text: Michael Piep, Intermountain Herbarium, Utah State University

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