The mass of vibrant pink-ish orange filling Kaitlyn Harden’s right hand looks sort of like a sponge. Sort of like a chunk of spiky hair from someone’s head. Sort of like a piece of sea coral.
That last one is pretty close to what it is.
She’s holding a coral mushroom she found in the Tennessee River Gorge a few miles from downtown Chattanooga. The mushroom is a member of the species Ramaria, for the science-minded.
Being science-minded is the reason Harden, a biology major, is out in the oh-so-green wilderness on a day that turns on a dime between cloudy, sprinkly and Noah-must-be-near rainy.
The coral mushroom is, without doubt, the most remarkable specimen found on the 90-minute search by 16 students in “Mushrooms, Mold and Yeast: An Introduction to the Fungi,” a course taught by Hill Craddock, UC Foundation Robert M. Davenport professor in the Department of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
When Harden shows him the coral mushroom, Craddock is eager to discuss it, going over its name, characteristics and habitat.
“It’s just a neat piece.”
He also has a bit of a scold.
“Maybe you should have broken off just a little piece and left the rest in the ground,” he said.
He does just that, snapping off one of the mushroom’s arms, then walking a few feet away into the woods and replanting the rest of the mushroom into the soggy soil.
Underneath the canopy of trees, no rain gets through, but the trail is a mix of goosh-slick mud and slime-slick rocks. Students are unconcerned, trudging steadily along the trail and veering into the woods when they catch sight of various types of mushrooms.
“I thought mushrooms would be an interesting subject. They’re understudied,” says Patrick Cuttle, who is majoring in environmental science.
A biology major, Kaili Phillips’ interest in mushrooms grew from something of an apocalyptic seed.
“I thought it would be good to know what you needed, farming-wise, if you needed to live off the land. What you needed in order to survive. If you needed any kind of survival tips if you were stranded,” she says, chuckling at how fatalistic that sounds.
As students bring various mushrooms to Craddock, he tears through a host of names that only someone intimately familiar with mushrooms, molds and fungi would recognize. A lot of Latin flies around.
A Rufous Milkcap is a “lactarius rufous,” “lactarius” meaning it produces a whitish latex, or “milk,” if cut. A tan-ish, fan-shaped fungus growing off a rotted tree branch on the ground is a trichaptum.
Part of the hunt is to get the students out and into nature, he said. The day of the hunt is just full of nature. At the bottom of the 1,000-foot-deep Tennessee River Gorge, along the Ritchie Hollow Trail, it’s nothing but nature.
In another piece of the exploration, students take close-up photos of the fungi on their smartphones, then, once they get back to campus, post them to the iNaturalist website, a community of scientists, biologists and nature lovers.
Along with the photo, students post the type of mushroom—or what they believe it is. Others on iNaturalist will either verify the supplied name or point out that it’s wrong.
Samples from the forest foray are taken back to the lab, where they’re dried, then examined in future labs. Students also are expected to search for mushrooms between labs, but the hunt can be around town, not necessarily out in deep nature.
Craddock has made the whole find-the-mushroom exploration something of a game.
“I’m giving prizes for the most amazing mushroom —I’m the judge of that—the most number of species found, the most verified species.”
As the Tennessee River Gorge hunt draws to a close, students wander out of the woods, hands full of different mushrooms. Some have long stems. Others have short ones. Some are shaped like fans. Others like patio umbrellas.
Dark brown. Golden. Orange. Yellow-ish. White-ish. Nothing bright red, though.
Some believe the color red instantly indicates “poisonous.” Not so. Color isn’t indicative of anything in particular, Craddock said.
“The only ones that will kill you are the ones that are poisonous.”
Yes, there’s more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice.