Early this morning I ran across this beauty growing on a dry slope in the upper reaches of Lost Cove. Even though the light was still dim, the mushroom’s sunny cap glowed. The species is Amanita jacksonii, or American Caesar’s mushroom. This is the American relative of a European delicacy which, it seems, was a favorite of Julius Caesar (evidence for this claim would be interesting to come by — perhaps when Chris McDonough returns from his conquest of Britain?). Several field guides claim that we have the European Amanita caesarea in North America; I think this is likely incorrect — see M. Kuo’s page over at MushroomExpert.com for an overview.
This is an edible species. But I’ll leave it in place. A small error can be costly in this genus of mushrooms — close relatives have cheery names like “destroying angel” and “death cap.” Interestingly, that venerable source of information on all things Classical, Wikipedia, notes that Roman Emperor Claudius may have been felled by Amantia phalloides, the death cap.
These mushrooms not only defend themselves with potent little peptides, they have interesting lives below the ground. Mushrooms are just temporary parts of much larger fungal bodies, like biological icebergs bobbing on the forest floor. The below-ground parts are filamentous, spreading through the leaf litter and slowly munching at their homes. The Amanitas also squeeze their filaments around tiny tree roots, exchanging minerals for sugars. This mutually beneficial relationship helps the forest retain its vitality. No dictators here, just plebeians trying to make it work.
For those in need of Scrabble words, the technical name for this is an “ectomycorrhizal” relationship — ecto because the filaments stay outside the plant cells, myco for mushrooms, and rhizal for roots. Regrettably, all these terms derive from Greek, not Latin, so they likely did not cross the lips of Caesar as he nibbled on his ‘shrooms.