Ramaria of the Pacific Northwestern United States
Over the years, I have taken tens of thousands of photographs of mushrooms and the slides (yes, I’m still using film) now fill quite a number of ring binders in our basement. Naturally, I like to label each one with the name of the fungus and information about the location of the photo. So a long-time frustration has been the many binder pages of slides labeled Cortinarius sp., Russula sp., and Ramaria sp.
I’m happy to report that Ramaria sp. slides now are accumulating at a much slower rate than before (and, at times, even shrinking a bit), thanks to this very useful book published by the BLM. Although the association of the BLM with mushrooms might seem surprising, it isn’t if you consider the large areas of forested land the BLM manages in Oregon and other parts of the West. The Northwest Forest Plan called for surveys for rare and uncommon fungi on forested federal lands in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) and many species of Ramaria were considered rare or uncommon, although it was suspected that many of these were not so rare, just rarely collected and identified. Ron Exeter is a botanist for BLM and led many such surveys. Lorelei Norvell played a big part in many of them, and Efrén Cázares took on the challenge of learning to identify the ramarias being found on BLM lands as well as national forests managed by the US Forest Service. A major hindrance to their identification had always been the degree to which chemical reactions of the flesh were deemed critical. Often one had to fill a 12-spot depression plate with bits of the mushroom and a wide variety of reagents, many of which are not readily accessible outside of university laboratories, and then wait to see whether anything changed color. Thus, few people, including me, bothered trying to identify any but the most common distinctive species. So the number of my Ramaria sp. slides steadily rose because they are too pretty to leave un-photographed.
A major revelation of the work by Cázares and others was that ramarias, at least those in the PNW, can be identified without using the full gamut of chemical tests, although a microscope definitely is necessary for most of them. The critical information now includes macroscopic features such as size, stature, coloration, and branching pattern, plus spore size, shape, and ornamentation, the presence of clamp connections at the base of the basidia (a sometimes tough observation to make), and the reaction of the flesh to just two reagents--ferrous sulfate and Melzer’s reagent. (The chloral hydrate needed to make Melzer’s reagent is a controlled substance and thus Melzer’s can be hard to come by. However, a satisfactory version can be made without the chloral hydrate.)
Once you’ve made the necessary observations, you are ready to use the book. The front matter includes a very brief introduction followed by discussions of phylogenetic relationships (ramarias are now thought to be close relatives of gomphuses, clavariadelphuses, gautierias (a type of false truffle), and stinkhorns), taxonomic characters, global occurrence of Ramaria (numbers of species known from various parts of the world), and the keys. Appendixes include three tabular comparisons of the reddish species, species with a yellow “belly band,” and clamped vs. non-clamped species, reproduction of keys from earlier publications by Currie Marr / Daniel Stuntz and Ron Petersen / Kit Scates-Barnhart, a list of selected synonyms, a comprehensive list of PNW species, glossary, and bibliography. The keys work well, but require use of a microscope, because the presence/absence of clamp connections and spore size, shape, and ornamentation type are emphasized heavily.
Each description typically fills a page and most are augmented with good quality photographs, sometimes as many as five, and sometimes comparing similar species in one photo (I love both those features!). The field photos taken by Exeter are particularly well done. The description categories include a capsule summary, stipe, stipe context (flesh) reaction (to ferrous sulfate and Melzer’s), branches, apices, basidia, spores, habitat, distribution, diagnostic characters, additional comments, and references. Nearly always the information needed for an identification is there, although there’s quite a bit of redundancy among the various categories, especially the capsule description and “diagnostic characters.” Complete reference citations are given for each species, as well as being listed in the bibliography.
The design and layout (and apparently the editing too) were done in-house at the BLM, so the book lacks some of the tightness and polish of a commercial publication but, at the same time, it lacks a commercial price tag and I suspect most readers will be like me and be happy to overlook some editing and design quibbles for an affordable volume. Some additions that I think would have been helpful: photos or drawings of spores, either for each species or at least representatives of the common shapes and ornamentation types; close-up photos of a “yellow belly band” and “rusty root;” and a recommended concentration for aqueous ferrous sulfate (10% is typical).
The authors’ concept of Pacific Northwest is broader than most folks use, extending well south into California and including habitats that can only loosely be considered part of the PNW biological region. However, this likely was done to match the range of Forest Plan-affected forests. A large proportion of the species have been reported only from the PNW, so the usefulness of the book can be expected to diminish with increasing distance from our area. Nonetheless, it demonstrates that ramaria identification can be a manageable task and, hopefully, will encourage the preparation of similar compilations for other parts of North America.
If you live or mushroom in the PNW, you should have this book, whether you use a microscope or not. If you do have a scope, however, identification of a fairly high proportion of your Ramaria finds is now within your grasp. At such a reasonable price, those with an interest in colorful coral fungi, but who live elsewhere, may also want a copy. The easiest way to get one is to call the Salem office of BLM and order it with a credit card.
Call 503-375-5646 for additional information or to order by phone using Visa or Mastercard.
To order by mail, send a $27 (USD) check or money order to: Salem Bureau of Land Management, c/o Ramaria of the Pacific Northwestern publication, 1717 Fabry Road SE, Salem, Oregon 97306 USA. Note: shipping is included in the price.
Fungi Editors Note: Greg Thorn (University of Western Ontario) wishes to add: I just read the review by Steve Trudell of Ramaria of the Pacific Northwestern United States and can add my recommendation that this book should be on the shelf of any serious field mycologist in North America who enjoys these coral fungi. I have had an opportunity to field-test the book well outside its home range – in Newfoundland! – and can report that it has been quite helpful in identifying collections of Ramaria even there, although of course some of our specimens fall between the species described by Exeter et al. Still, this volume adds tremendously to our arsenal, and sure beats relying solely on Nordic Macromycetes volume 3 plus Fungi of Switzerland volume 2
— Review by Steve Trudell
— Originally published in Fungi