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The University of Michigan Herbarium — Mecca for Macrofungi

This article was written by Matthew Foltz, who is the manager of the Macrofungi digitization project at the University of Michigan.  We commissioned this article because most of the labels that are currently available  for transcription in Macrofungi are from this institution.  The University of Michigan Herbarium has an unparalleled history of contributions to the scientific study of fungi, and also for contributions to bringing an understanding of fungi to a general audience.

The University of Michigan Herbarium is internationally recognized as one of the leading repositories for natural history collections including Vascular Plants, Bryophytes (that is, mosses and related plants), Algae, Lichens, and Fungi. It has a rich history dating back to the late 1830s when state geologist Douglass Houghton conducted a geological survey of Michigan and deposited about 800 collections at the University of Michigan.  The herbarium is now home to over 1.7 million specimens of plants and fungi collected from around the world, including about 280,000 collections of fungi.

Figure 1. The University of Michigan Herbarium houses over 1.7 million collections in 1,200 cabinets in a 16,000 square-foot climate-controlled range. Photo by M. Foltz.

Figure 1. The University of Michigan Herbarium houses over 1.7 million collections in 1,200 cabinets in a 16,000 square-foot climate-controlled range. Photo by M. Foltz.llections of fungi.

The University of Michigan Herbarium has strong roots in mycology. In 1921 the herbarium became its own department under the directorship of mycologist Calvin H. Kauffman. Directorship of the herbarium went on to several other mycologists in the 1900s including Edwin B. Mains, Alexander H. Smith, and Robert L. Shaffer. Calvin Kauffman was a mycological and scientific pioneer. His publication on the Agaricaceae of Michigan (as well as the series of fungal monographs that preceded it) was not only the most comprehensive for the state, but at the time it was also one of the best fungal surveys for North America. The family Agaricaceae contains the common grocery store mushroom.

Figure 2. Calvin H. Kauffman. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan.

Figure 2. Calvin H. Kauffman. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan.

To truly appreciate the impact that Kauffman and his predecessors have had on mycology, one needs to look no further than the Kauffman Lineage which is a part of Meredith Blackwell and Robert Gilbertson’s Genealogy of North American Mycologists. This lineage of education includes many of the most significant mycologists of all time, including some of today’s most prominent scientists.

The fungal collection at the herbarium is strong in both Macrofungi (mushrooms and shelf fungi) and microfungi (molds and mildews, etc.). Kauffman’s work was strong in the agarics (mushrooms) of the Great Lakes region, but he also collected in many localities across North American and internationally. Alex Smith followed in his footsteps and went on to become a leading expert of the agarics as well as other groups such as the gasteroid fungi (puffballs, earthballs, stinkhorns, etc.) and the boletes. Like Kauffman, Smith contributed to both the Great Lakes region flora, and the North American flora. Smith was a prominent collector and deposited over 92,000 specimens at the herbarium during his lifetime.

Figure 3. Dow V. Baxter. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan.

Figure 3. Dow V. Baxter. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan.

The value and depth of the Michigan fungal collection is strengthened by Dow Baxter’s extensive collection of wood-decay fungi, along with collections of agarics from R.L. Shaffer and hypogeous (underground) fungi from R. Fogel. The Michigan herbarium also owns several classical exsiccati (historical sets of reference collections), as well as historically important personal collections from H.A. Kelly, H.C. Beardslee Jr., and many others. In addition to macrofungi, Michigan also has extensive collections of microfungi from prominent mycologists including Bessie B. Kanouse (discomycetes), E.B. Mains (Uredinales, Geoglossaceae, insecticolous fungi), L.E. Wehmeyer (pyrenomycetes), F.K. Sparrow (aquatic fungi), and others.

Michigan mycologists have a history of supporting citizen science and collaborating with amateur mycologists and the general public. Alex Smith was an advisor and supporter of the premier amateur mycology group the North American Mycological Association (NAMA) in its early days.

Figure 4. Alexander H. Smith. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan.

Figure 4. Alexander H. Smith. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan.

Smith was a close friend to many of the top “amateur” mycologists such as Ellen Trueblood, Virginia Wells, Phyllis Kempton, and others.

These mycologists kept detailed records and notes with their specimens, and these important collections and their ancillary materials are deposited at the Michigan herbarium. More recently, Robert Fogel, a past curator of fungi at Michigan, was one of the first mycologists to create a website for learning about fungi in the 1990s (Fun Facts About Fungi).

The tradition of outreach continues today through the efforts of mycologist Tim James, the assistant curator of fungi at the herbarium. Recently, James has held lectures and forays for several amateur groups including the Michigan Botanical Club and the Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club. He is also leading the efforts at Michigan as part of the Macrofungi Collection Consortium, a nationwide project to digitize the fungal collections and make them available online to researchers and the general public. The digital records produced by that project are the ones posted here on Notes from Nature.

Figure 5. James lab (Umich) on a John Cage inspired mushroom foray with the Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club. Photo courtesy of T. James.

Figure 5. James lab (Umich) on a John Cage inspired mushroom foray with the Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club. Photo courtesy of T. James.

On behalf of the University of Michigan Herbarium, we thank you for your participation in this effort to transcribe information from these historical records.

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What are Macrofungi?

. . .You may be wondering.   It’s really just a fancy Latin term for “Big Fungi.”   What Macrofungi all have in common is that they form structures called fruiting bodies or sporocarps  –these sporocarps are  typically the above ground part of the mushroom that you see.

When you see  a sporocarp, this indicates that the macrofungus is in reproductive mode. When not in reproductive mode, these fungi consist of a nothing more than network of nearly invisible threads, called mycelia, which run through soil or decaying wood.  But, when environmental conditions are favorable for reproduction (for example, when temperatures are warm and there is lots of rain), these threads coalesce into the woody or fleshy sporocarp. These can take a wide variety of shapes, but somewhere on or in all sporocarps, tiny reproductive units called spores will be formed.  The spores of macrofungi  act like seeds in a plant — they are dispersed by the sporocarp, and if the spore lands on a suitable spot, it will produce mycelia, and eventually may form a new sporocarp.

Microfungi, by contrast, are mostly invisible for their whole lifetime, except when they produce millions of colorful spores.  You may have  seen  the black spores of bread mold  or the blue-green spores of Penicillium in your refrigerator, on occasion!

The most familiar group of macrofungi is the mushrooms.    In a typical mushroom, the spores are produced on the surfaces of the gills on the underside of the cap, as shown below.  The fungus shown here belongs to the genus Marasmiellus, and was collected in Belize. Read More…

The Macrofungi Collection – Some Background

The Macrofungi project on Notes from Nature is off to a great start!!! Thank so much to all who have contributed so far.

Some transcribers have been a bit confused when there are several different bits of paper presented for transcribing. Usually there is one “official” label with the basic collection information, e.g., the name of the specimen, where it was collected, when and by whom. There may be a second label that just repeats some of the official label information. Occasionally there is even a third label, often handwritten, and sometimes quite lengthy, that is filled with unfamiliar terminology. Learning a bit more about how macrofungi collections are documented may help you to understand what is going on here.

Macrofungi are usually short-lived. As soon as you pick one, it begins to change, and if left alone after picking, may become a slimy mess in an astonishingly short time. So if a mycologist (that is, someone who studies fungi) plans to make a scientifically useful specimen from a macrofungus he or she collects, there is a work that has to be done right away.

First, the mycologist will take habitat photographs as shown here, sometimes picking a few individuals and arranging them so all the important parts are showing.

Habitat photograph

Habitat photograph

Then he or she will make written notes about the features of the fungus that are going to disappear once it is dried, namely the odor, the color, the taste (yes, all mushrooms are tasted, even poisonous ones, but of course they aren’t swallowed!) and whether or not the fungus is dry, sticky, or slippery to the touch. These characteristics, as well as measurements of size and descriptions of shapes are important for identifying the fungus, and must be recorded before the specimen is put on the drier.

These days mycologists record these field notes on computers, but before this was possible, the information was often recorded in cramped handwriting on small bits of paper, as shown here, that could be folded up and would follow the fungus on the its journey to becoming a permanent collection.

Handwritten fieldnotes

Handwritten fieldnotes

At the end of a collecting trip, the mycologist has to prepare the specimen for permanent storage in an herbarium (or fungarium, as some mycologists like to call these collections). This involves making the official label and placing the specimen and the field notes in a cardboard box.

Dried macrofungi collections

Dried macrofungi collections

Placement of the official label varies between and even within collections – it is very convenient for future users if the label is glued to the box top where it is easily seen, but to save space and money, we use the smallest possible box for each the collection, and this often means that the label won’t fit on the box top. In such cases, the label is put inside the box, and some of the label information, usually the name of the specimen and the collector name and number, sometimes the state or country, are written or printed on the box top.  The picture below shows a collection with all three label types.  Hopefully, armed with the information presented here, you will now be able to tell which is the official label, which is the box label, and which are field notes when Notes from Nature Macrofungi presents you with multiple pieces of paper to transcribe. You should always transcribe from the official label, but sometimes looking at the box top label can be helpful in interpreting handwriting or abbreviations. If not, please keep posting comments!

A macrofungi image in Notes from Nature with three labels

A macrofungi image in Notes from Nature with three labels

If you would like to learn more about how mycologists make collection of macrofungi, you can download a document called “Recommendations for Collecting Mushrooms for Scientific Study” that explain the process in more detail:                (http://sweetgum.nybg.org/boletineae/collecting_illustrated.pdf).

If you would like collect macrofungi yourself, contact a mushroom club in your area – you can find a complete listing at the North American Mycological Association website (http://namyco.org)

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