The dreamlike fungi that thrive in nature’s damp corners

While sheltering at home in the Netherlands, this photographer watched an array of fungi appear amid the rotting wood and forest litter.

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One of the best-known wild mushroom species, the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) is the photographer’s favorite, and he was delighted to find it growing in his yard and his neighbor’s.

This story appears in the December 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

I've traveled all over the world taking pictures of nature and ecosystems. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020 in the Netherlands, where I live, I stayed home like everyone else. That’s when I began to notice the fungi growing in my yard and around my neighborhood.

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The mushroom Laccaria amethystina, which grows near beech trees, can be hard to see from above, given its drab cap. But by lying on the ground and looking up at the gills on the cap’s underside, an observer can see the breathtaking purple referenced in the species’ name.

That mushrooms and other fungi thrive in humidity became abundantly clear to me starting in autumn 2019, when the Netherlands received an exceptional amount of precipitation.

But perhaps more essential than humidity for fungi is dead wood. Rotting timber contains nutrients that enter the soil, which in turn can help microorganisms, fungi, and insects. The entire food chain benefits from it. Around here, deposits of wood left behind from a former era of forest cutting have long enriched the soil and supported biodiversity.

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This small Crepidotus grows on dead branches and logs. Its enzymes break down the molecules of wood, releasing food for the fungus and leaving behind material that will nourish other organisms and enrich the soil.
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About 2.4 inches tall at most, Xylaria hypoxylon is known as carbon antlers or stag’s horn fungus.

The situation may be changing. For fire prevention, twigs, branches, and trees—material that can be food for mushrooms—is being thinned from some Dutch forests. With the rise of power plants that run on biomass, that material can be turned into energy. But if there are disruptions of the woodland cycle in which rotting matter creates new soil, this could reduce the diversity of fungi and have ripple effects across the ecosystem.

In my yard, I’ve watched the various fungi grow and change with the seasons. My favorites are fly agaric mushrooms, with white stalks and bright red tops. I was delighted to discover the polka-dotted fungus, but my neighbor had even nicer looking ones. I asked him if he would mow around them when he cut his grass, so I could make an image—the one that opens this article.

With fewer fungi, a forest would be less rich ecologically—and more boring. So I’m always looking forward to the damp of autumn, to see how the organisms will grow back.

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Mushrooms like this one are known as inky caps because as the short-lived mushroom matures, the gills on the cap’s underside liquefy to an inklike substance that can be used for writing.
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One common name of Fomes fomentarius is hoof fungus, because as it ages, it looks more and more like a horse’s hoof.
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This mushroom of the genus Helvella is commonly known as an elfin saddle; at this magnification, its long stem can be seen in detail.
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Growing alongside fungi was this organism from a different life category: the slime mold Badhamia utricularis. It is orange or yellow in its early stage, with the slate gray appearing as it matures.
Correction: A previous version of this article gave the incorrect name for the mushroom in the third photo. It is a Crepidotus mushroom.