Cochise County: A Fungus Amungus, Mystery Mushroom in the Desert

I admit it; I was surprised. The mystery mushroom popped up through the clay soil near our Cochise County desert home, slamming a full load of dirt skyward (for several inches), right out in the open. Next to the driveway. With no covering vegetation to shield it from the harsh desert sun, it was suddenly, overnight, just…there.

Hey, you know it’s been rainy (and especially humid) for a while when that happens. This is our eighth year on this acreage and the first time we’ve ever seen a mushroom manifestation of any sort, let alone right out in the open like that. But we never let a good photo op go to waste, right? So out came the Canon PowerShot, the pictures were uploaded to the computer, and it was time to Google around for a while to see if this spore based life form could be identified.

And…it could not. I’ve never been a shroom guy; my ignorance on the topic knows no bounds. Add to that the apparent truth that there are seventy-six mega-zillion mushroom species out there, some of which look a lot like others, with one specimen being tasty and another (that looks a lot like the tasty version) being absolutely deadly…huh. Not a time to be guessing, especially since I could literally kill a reader who trusted this site if I got it wrong.

Which leaves only one real option: Post a few photos and see if a reader or two can help us out with identification. Note: Our homesite sits at approximately 4,300 feet elevation, pretty much considered “low desert” for this area.

The cap of our mystery desert mushroom is roughly 1/2" thick, atop a 3" stile.

The cap of our mystery desert mushroom is roughly 1/2″ thick, atop a 3″ stile.

The mushroom cap with a bit of dirt remaining on top.

The mushroom cap with a bit of dirt remaining on top.

About that dirt on the cap: When I first spotted the newcomer with its entire cap topped by a pyramidal mound of dirt, I didn’t trust it. Could have been a mini-zombie monster masquerading as a mushroom-under-dirt. Possibly an alien life form that sticks up a “bait” protrusion above ground to lure a foolish mammal to touch it, at which time it bursts forth in all its horrific glory and gobbles down the fresh meat with great teeth-gnashing gusto. Or, even worse, it might count as “vegetation” and harbor evil little chiggers–which have been chomping on me pretty thoroughly in recent wet-season weeks. So I, uh…threw a rock at it.

Really.

Don’t look at me like that. It was a little rock. Thrown from a range of about six inches. Anyway, the rock knocked off most of the dirt, but also dinged the cap a little, knocking loose several flakes of the thing. That made it obvious that the mystery object was indeed a mushroom.

Seen from above, the cap is neither oval nor rectangular, but somewhere in between, with a slight “waist” indentation more or less in the middle. Whether this is genetic or simply caused by pressures in the earth (such as rocks in the way of the growing cap), I have no idea…although another day has passed since the first lines of this paragraph were written, and another such mushroom popped up in the interim. The newer entry was spotted a quarter mile east of this one, similar height, with a slightly smaller cap. That cap is clearly oval, so….

The "mostly oval" mushroom cap, after the bigger bits of dirt were brushed off.

The “mostly oval” mushroom cap, after the bigger bits of dirt were brushed off.

In this shot, the slightly blurry mushroom (foreground) came out looking like the Under-Earth Man-Eating Spore Monster from the Monsoon Lagoon.

In this shot, the slightly blurry mushroom (foreground) came out looking like the Under-Earth Man-Eating Spore Monster from the Monsoon Lagoon.

While I was still studying the mushroom, Pam wandered around a bit and came across a dandy set of coyote tracks. Those have little to do with the Fungus Amungus, but one photo is included here by virtue of its clarity. It also deserves an Honorable Mention for size. “I’m thinking that’s Baby’s new mate,” I told my wife. “It’s way too big to be hers. Bet that was the rowdy fellow you witnessed barking the javelina clear out of the area the other day.”

We appreciated that. Coyotes: Welcome near the Border Fort. Javelinas: Not so much. In truth, we discriminate against the skunk pigs and like them best when they’re not around at all…although…could it be possible a few spores might travel in javelina intestinal tracts? Or do they all spread via wind currents? Alien implantation? Who knows? (Sure, the mushroom experts probably know, but I don’t have even one mushroom specialist on speed dial.)

Crystal clear track, a big fellow for the relatively small  desert Mearns coyote species.  (No scale reference shown, but this print was at least 1/3 bigger than the resident female who frequents this area.)

Crystal clear track, a big fellow for the relatively small desert Mearns coyote species. (No scale reference shown, but this print was at least 1/3 bigger than the resident female who frequents this area.)

Anyway: Species identification, anybody? Other than “desert mushroom,” that is.

7 thoughts on “Cochise County: A Fungus Amungus, Mystery Mushroom in the Desert

  1. I did not think mushrooms would grow in the desert, unless in a cave. Most do not like sun and grow under trees, or in the lea of a rock, that I have seen. I thought they liked dark, although it has been pretty dim with the cloud cover lately.

  2. I certainly had no idea they’d grow in bare desert, either. Turns out they’re not that uncommon, according to folks who’ve lived here all their lives and also paid attention to what grows where. The “dim cloud cover” (and close to, or sometimes even above, 60% humidity) have to be major factors.

    There do seem to be other spores making a major thrust this month. I’ve had to start leaving my west side office window closed 24/7 because the mold smell was coming in from outside. No interior problems that I can detect, but Pam’s AC unit has also needed bleach applications this year, to stop powerful mold smells from invading her bedroom. We’ve had to do that sometimes as often as twice a week. Also, the outside condensation dripping from the aluminum ductwork to the ground has been (some days and nights) close to unbelievable. Never seen anything like it before; not even the major rain summer of 2013 did that. Then again, actual rain seems to settle the humidity a bit.

    Definitely looking forward to “whenever” this kinda-sorta rainy season decides to officially depart.

  3. It looks like a regular button mushroom to me, but I wouldn’t want to try eating it. After a rain, all kinds of ‘shrooms pop up in my yard. Most look like edible buttons and occasionally I get a huge, orange type. I have no idea what it is. I wonder if any of the ‘shrooms that pop up are edible. I’d be afraid to try. Now that I think about it, I’ve never seen a squirrel eat them, so they may be poisonous.

    Anyway, I drifted a bit…. I’ll try to see if I can find something on your desert fungus.

  4. Thanks, Sha. I did get that far–that is, finding that same photo and link–but didn’t want to speculate in the text. Figured it just wasn’t “for sure” enough to be, uh, sure. As in, pinning down the specific species. Zach mentioned that according to the lore he’s learned, if they have dark or black gills, they’re poisonous; if the gills are light colored, they’re edible. But I wouldn’t care to put even that simple rule to the test by chowing down on one, knowing the old saw about there being an exception to every rule.

  5. I agree, Sha, although that text (on that page) still doesn’t pin down the exact species. My thought all along has been that this is indeed most likely a Montagnea version, but what species? (Presuming Montagnea to be the genus, though I’m not even certain about that.) If you’d like to eyeball a clue to the depth of the challenge, here’s a link that hooks up to some pretty intimidating text unless you’re a Biologist with a PhD specializing in fungi and the like–and that page doesn’t even break it down below Family! The link:

    http://www.mushroomexpert.com/taxonomy.html

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