My legs fall in front of me and I catch my footing. What goes up, must come down. It’s been nearly five hours and I’m coming down the final stretch of the Mt. Crichton Loop Track.
I’ve been here before a year ago and I did the same hike, yet this time it was with new eyes. An obsessive type of forest floor scanning has me picking up new growths I would’ve otherwise overlooked.
It’s the end of September, and mushroom species are different and less prolific (unless you’re a Gyromitra tasmanica / Southern False Morel) then you’re everywhere, so it seems. Hundreds can be found on the side of the track with their strange brain-wrinkled brown heads poking out.
I’m on the lookout for color. No LBMs (little brown mushrooms). Instead, I find false truffles protruding out from the grey clay and soil.
A fitting name as it reminds me of something otherworldly and borne from the imagination of sci-fi author Octavia Butler. This alien potato has a skin that bruises red. Something completely new to me as I get ever-fascinated cleaning up and removing mud from this hefty egg to photograph.
I pull out my knife to slice it in half. I cut through the tough skin, a weird yet overwhelmingly curious mixed-feeling to find out what’s inside. Like a Kinder egg. A liquid (maybe water?) immediately gushes out from a crevice and covers a meaty, steak-like brown interior.
This wouldn’t be the first false truffle, pouch-like fungus I’d find on the track and would later discover a secoitiod species, Cortinarius cartilagineus growing at the base of a beech tree.
In appearance and to the touch the peridium exactly resembles chamois leather and a color of ochraceous to deep apricot yellow. Tossing these growths up in my hand, I feel the weight as if they’re stones.
I spot Sam Summer’s Hut and peek into the past, imagining what it’d be like to live back in the early 1900s as a hermit, carrying around a pickaxe and digging for gold.
Over the bridge and past the waterfall, I go through a tunnel down to the river. A man emerges donning a wetsuit, goggles, a rake and handheld metal detector. A modern day detectorist picking over the crevices upstream. I think to myself – hobbies that revolve around searching, discovering, being on the hunt bring out the inner child in oneself.
I carry onward and upward to reach the lookout over Lake Dispute. Growing under beech and clay, I spot cream-colored tooth fungi.
Hydnum crocidens var. wellingtonii
I collect a handful and fry up later that night and add to ramen. There are a few variations of Hydnum crocidens in New Zealand, and it is reported that all species within Genus Hydnum are deemed edible.
Over the next few days, just down the road from the Mt. Crichton Loop Track, I hike Bob’s Cove towards the Twelve Mile Delta. This part of Queenstown is my favorite and the trail offers some epic views of Lake Wakatipu.
Bob’s Cove Track
Being Springtime I’m on a mission and have one mushroom at the top of my to-find list. I spend nights dreaming of discovering the elusive, unnamed and undescribed endemic true morel. Thinking to myself as I make my way down a hill, wouldn’t it be funny to find one. And just like that, I will the thing into being.
It takes a second for it to dawn on me. I’m processing what I’m witnessing. It can’t be real, I tell myself. Dropping to my knees, I look like a madman, but don’t care. This is my gold.
After looking at hundreds of false morels, to finally lay eyes on a true morel felt like finding a needle in a haystack. I laugh in disbelief and admire the beauty of Genus Morchella growing from soil next to a stump with Coprosma lucida (Shiny karamu) nearby.
Originally thinking that this was one of the undescribed small species of True Morels that have been rarely spotted in NZ, after DNA sequencing and comparing on GenBank it was found to be Morchella tasmanica, a species introduced from Australia and only a second record in the country (the last record was over a hundred years ago).
Riding a high, I find many black Entoloma (Pinkgills) with caps that sparkle glitter-like in the sun. An orange coral, Ramaria species juxtaposed against green moss. A camouflaged Cortinarius lachanus and more Pinkgills.
The next day I head further north and take a different route up Bob’s Cove Bridle Track. I wouldn’t find as many species this last hike, but that doesn’t mean experimentation can’t be done!
I carry a UV torch with me to add an extra layer of observation. Hitting some species with ultraviolet light produces some pretty wicked results. My favorite has been Hypholoma species (Sulfur tuft) that give off a green-yellow and purple show.
Other species of interest to play around with UV light are Ganoderma (brackets and polypores) as some fungus gnats produce webs that reflect the light. And mushrooms that produce guttation.
Off in the bush I find branches with black bulbous growths.
Daldinia / Coal fungus
Known by several common names, including King Alfred’s cake, cramp balls, and coal fungus.
Inside the fruitbody there are concentric silver-grey and black layers. Being silvery-black inside, and arranged in concentric layers, most sources agree that like tree rings, these layers are related to seasonal growth.
The fungus is ball-shaped, with a hard, friable, shiny black fruiting body 2 to 7 centimeters wide. It resembles a chunk of coal, which gives it several of its common names, including coal fungus and carbon balls.
According to legend, King Alfred once hid out in a countryside homestead during war, and was put in charge of removing baking from the oven when it was done. He fell asleep and the cakes burned. Daldinia is said to resemble a cake left to this fate.
Daldinia can be used as a form of tinder for fire-lighting.
It does need to be completely dry, whereupon it will take a spark from traditional flint and steel. It burns slowly, much like a charcoal briquette, with a particularly pungent smoke.
Once lit it usually requires constant oxygen flow to keep burning, such as through swinging the fungus or blowing on it.
Fragments can be broken off to expose more embers and transferred to a tinder bundle to create an open flame.
The sun is setting, it’s getting dark and I think to myself a country boy can survive (on mushrooms).