It’s too cold for spring wildflowers to add their color to the forest landscape, but I spotted some very colorful fungi that looked like good substitutes. They were infrequent bursts of bright scarlet in the litter of a steep north-facing slope of a small creek that drains into the Minnesota River.
These small, saprobic fungi colonize decaying wood, especially beech,willow, elm, or hazel branches, and appear in late winter or early spring when temperatures are cool and litter moisture is high. It is one of the first mushrooms to appear in the spring and may last as long as temperature and moisture conditions hold. Being fairly rare in the forest, it doesn’t seem to be harvested as food, but rather as an ornamental decoration, although native Americans dried and ground it to use as a styptic agent to reduce bleeding.
Do you wonder why this little mushroom is so intensely red? (OK, so I did, and had to look up a good reason for its color.) The red color is derived from carotenoid pigments (the ones that make maple leaves yellow and orange in the fall) and some believe that these pigments enable the mushrooms to trap light energy that then heats them above ambient temperature, promoting their growth on those cold spring days.