More mushrooms

Green-spored Lepiota (Chlorophyllum molybdites) (Frank Roylance, Baltimore Sun / September 27, 2011)

Baltimore is being invaded by flying saucers — in fungal form.

Airborne spores, driven by the summer's record rains, have been alighting in backyards, gardens, farm fields and forests throughout the Mid-Atlantic region (in short, wherever there is decaying organic matter), resulting in a bumper crop of ominous-looking mushrooms that are creeping out some homeowners.

"There are some fungi that are actually alarming to people because they look weird or a little shocking, and they smell funny," says Ellen Nibali, a horticulturist with the University of Maryland Extension's Home & Garden Center. "Some people see them as obscene or satanic. And the thing is, you might have never seen one before in your life, and suddenly, there it is, coming out of your mulch."

Consider, for instance, the so-called artillery fungus, a type of mushroom of the genus Sphaerobolus, which propagates by hurling gooey blobs at large, bright, light-colored objects, such as the sides of automobiles and homes covered by aluminum siding and windows. The fungus can "shoot" 20 feet in the air — or about the height of a second-story window — and the little black marks made by the spores are extremely difficult to remove.

Then there's the evocatively named "dog vomit" slime mold. (Technically, it's not a fungus, but it's a close cousin to the 'shrooms). The bright yellow, foamy, gelatinous stuff closely resembles your pet's most recent contribution to your landscape decor, though supposedly it will harm neither humans nor pets.

And let's not forget the stinkhorn fungus, which has a suggestively sexual appearance and emits the odor of fresh animal feces. The bad smell attracts flies, which spread the spores.

"It's nature, and it's fascinating," Nibali says. "We tell people that if something growing in their yards bothers them, just knock it down. … They don't hang around for very long.

"Just don't eat any of those things."

Though the mushroom season runs from July through November, with a few species making springtime appearances, prime mushroom season generally occurs between Labor Day andColumbus Day.

Add near-perfect conditions for mushroom propagation — the rainiest September on record, with 12.8 inches recorded through midnight Wednesday; temperatures ranging between 50 and 80; high humidity and lots of downed trees after Hurricane Irene — and the fungi are out in force.

Given the midweek drenching, there's no indication that our spaceship-shaped visitors will be departing any time soon.

The National Weather Service is estimating an even chance of additional precipitation Thursday afternoon, and then a gradual drying-out. High temperatures are expected to be in the 70s both Thursday and Friday, with lows in the upper 50s on Thursday and the upper 40s by Friday.

For morel enthusiasts, this September has been one of the best in decades.

For instance, a recent outing sponsored by the Mycological Association of Washington in the rural highlands of central Pennsylvania was a picker's paradise.

"On an average year, we'll find about 100 different species, and on a bad year, there will only be 80 to 85," says Bruce Boyer, a club trustee. "This year, I'd estimate that we found and identified between 150 and 180 species.

"Mushrooms are notoriously difficult to grow in a commercial environment, so that tells me conditions are right this year even for species that rarely come up. I haven't seen it this good across the board in at least 25 years."

The proliferation of mushrooms means that more people might be tempted to nibble on backyard bounty. But a physician at Georgetown University Hospital has issued a public health warning saying that the practice could prove fatal.

"Our area has seen a lot of rain and dampness in the past month, meaning there are a lot of mushrooms sprouting up in people's yards. We hope people will leave those alone," says Jacqueline Laurin, a surgeon at the hospital. "Some patients end up needing a liver transplant, or the poisoning can end in death."

She issued a public health statement Monday after treating Frank Constantinopola, 49, of Springfield, Va., and Walter Lanz, Jr., 82, of Frederick for near-fatal cases of mushroom poisoning. Both men are expected to recover.