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.
The Maryland Poison Center has received 97 reports since January 2010 of people who fell ill after eating the wrong mushrooms. None died.
"There is a cyclical pattern," says Bruce D. Anderson, director of operations of the Maryland Poison Center and associate professor of the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. "Every year as the weather cools at the end of the summer and during the fall, we see an increase in calls."
As Nibali put it: "Most people know that some mushrooms are poisonous, but they think they can tell one from the other. They can't."
Mycological Association president Ray LaSala makes that point persuasively. It was he who successfully identified the toadstool eaten by Constantinopola. Amanita phalloides, also known as "Death Cap," destroys the liver and kidneys and closely resembles such commonplace "good" species as Caesar's mushrooms and straw mushrooms.
Some species, LaSala says, are deadly if eaten raw but pose no health risks if thoroughly cooked. Others can be eaten safely when grilled or sauteed, as long as no alcohol is consumed. Some have been collected for centuries in Asia with no ill effect but are toxic when grown in North America.
Still others are fine if a diner removes the skin covering the cap, but are dangerous to those who don't.
And sometimes, even the experts guess wrong.
"After I'd been doing this for four or five years, I picked a lepiota," Boyer says.
"I'd eaten from the same group of mushrooms before and enjoyed them. But, I wasn't paying attention, and I picked one that, in its mature form, was too small to be the right species. It gave me [diarrhea] and an upset stomach for two or three days.
"Luckily, the kind of lepiota I ate isn't fatal. It just made me wish I was dead."
More mold as well
Mushrooms aren't the only potentially harmful life form to run amok when it's wet outside.
The Maryland Emergency Management Agency has issued an alert advising homeowners to check their homes for mold, which can cause health problems such as rashes, bronchitis and asthma attacks.
"People should be aware that mold and mildew can occur within hours after flood waters recede," Agency spokesman Edward Hopkins says.
State officials don't know if Baltimore has experienced an excess of indoor mold as a result of damp conditions caused by tropical storms Irene and Lee. Most residents, Hopkins says, handle the problem without involving state or local agencies.
"Only some of the mold problems are related to the heavy rains," said Dr. Clifford Mitchell of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "Some also is due to structural defects in the homes, such as leaks around windows or in the basement."
The remedy, Hopkins and Mitchell agree, is to make sure that everything in the home can dry out completely — clothing, bedding, insulation encased inside walls — or to dispose of any items that remain damp.
More information on mold removal is available at http://www.redcross.org.