The Alure of the Wild Mushroom

 I have always liked photographing mushrooms, but have never taken the time to understand or truly appreciate anything about them until Tuesday October 16th, when our class took a trip into the part of the arboretum reserved only for university studies. Our class has, for the most pat, become close and I liked the community feeling when we all attempted to meet up and walk through the arboretum to the meeting spot together. This elective has given us a chance to try many new experiences and interact with people we otherwise would not have met.

Most of the class walking through the arboretum on our way to the mushroom foray meeting spot

 Upon arrival, we were introduced to Chris Earley, and along with a few other returning guests, we listened as Diane explained that days activity, a mushroom foray. No one in our class had really done a mushroom foray of this kind before and so it was new to all of us. For our mushroom foray, we split off in small groups to hunt the forest floor for mushrooms, fungus, and any other related creatures. There were plenty of species that varied significantly in size, shape, habitat, colour, even smell! We learned to go slowly and be very observant as we scoured the ground and trees for mushrooms.

Students adding new mushrooms to their collection basket

Afterwards, we all gathered back together to discuss and learn about our findings. Most of us knew that mushrooms were not plants but knew little about how mycelium networks worked. Diane taught us that mushrooms are comparable to flowers on a plant, and that they are connected underground where they absorb nutrients, like a web. We were able to observe different distinctive features, such as fibrous rings on the stem, and learned new terms for the anatomy of mushrooms.

Gills and fibres are visible on this mushroom growing on a tree limb

Coming from Mississauga and having never actively looked for mushrooms, I was very surprised by the size of some of the samples other groups found. I knew bigger mushrooms existed than the ones common to grocery stores but because they seem to be exotic and rare, I did not expect species like the giant puffball to be right on campus just a 10 minute walk away. The diversity of species found by our class in a relatively short time astounded me.

Most of the mushrooms from the foray along with other finds such as egg shells and cocoons

 One question that intrigued me during class was when one of the students asked if mushrooms could be invasive. After further research, it turns out there are invasive species in Canada. The death cap mushroom has become a problem in British Columbia, linked here ( The mushroom foray allowed us all to get a taste (without actually eating any because some are poisonous) of what a mushroom foray is like and why it is a worthwhile activity. I am so glad that Diane got to share one of her passions with the class and we all got to gain exposure to something we might otherwise have overlooked. 

Diane pointing out some interesting features and ways to identify specific species of mushrooms


Circle Mound at the Art Gallery of Guelph

Don Russell: Circle Mound

Public Reception & Sculpture Unveiling:
Thursday, September 15 at 7 pm | Free

Don Russell (Qalipu Mi’kmaq/Acadian French)
Circle Mound, 2016
Earth, plant materials, and reclaimed locally-quarried limestone
Commissioned with funds raised by the AGG Volunteer Association with support from
the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program, 2016
Art Gallery of Guelph Collection

The Art Gallery of Guelph (AGG) has commissioned an outdoor sculpture, Circle Mound, by Aboriginal artist Don RussellCircle Mound is the 39th permanent installation in the Donald Forster Sculpture Park.

Circle Mound is a gathering site or meeting place that encourages visitors to enter and interact with its various elements: earth, stone, plant matter, and open air. The sculpture reflects a First Nations’ worldview focused on the importance of the circle in concepts of time and spirituality. It is also a step toward meaningful reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the community of Guelph, an acknowledgement of the history and presence of Indigenous peoples on this land: above all else, Circle Mound represents unity, cooperation, and gathering. The mounds that extend from the circle, which reference the two rivers that flow through Guelph, are intended to encourage discovery and play; while the circle itself offers serenity and contemplation. The sculpture also uses reclaimed limestone from Guelph’s historic Petrie Building (1882): an act of repurposing and returning the stones to the lands from which they came.

United by… Mushrooms?

The fascinating world where science, culture and art collide

      – Photos and article by Aidan Brushett

Perhaps no class adventure has better embodied the interconnectedness and diversity of all things than this week’s simple theme: mushrooms.

This week’s teachings featured a mushroom foray led by our very own Diane Borsato, with special reappearances by Arboretum interpretive biologist Chris Earley and naturalist intern Rachel Irwin. Equipped with wicker baskets, pocket knives, and identification keys, the class had the unique opportunity to enter the Arboretum’s nature reserve, designed for research and conservation purposes and inaccessible to the public.

There were several instructions. First, do not eat any of the mushrooms, many of which are lethal. Second, collect small and fascinating samples of any fungi that we might discover. Third, keep an eye – and nose – out for the Skirted Stinkhorn, a pungent, phallic species of mushroom. Chris and Rachel are currently authoring a book on the fungi in Guelph; forays such as this one can help gather valuable photos they need of species like the Stinkhorn.

We investigated a variety of habitats: swampy forest, rotted logs and tree trunks, and shady undergrowth. Hidden up high and down low, some of these fungi were brightly coloured, others dull; some were massive, others tiny; some had distinct smells, others did not. The experience demanded attention to all of our senses (except for taste), proving to be a valuable exercise in mindfulness. Those elements of nature which are often overshadowed – the dirty, the ‘gross’, the rotting, the undesirable – were brought to our focus and appreciation through a slower pace of life, seldom found in the day-to-day.

Upturning logs, leaves, and investigating a variety of habitats high and low while searching for fungi in the forest.

After exiting the nature reserve, our curious collection was sorted and identified. With guidance from Chris, Rachel, and Diane, the mushrooms were divided into two piles: gilled – having soft ‘ribs’ under the mushroom cap – and non-gilled. Identifying mushrooms proved to be a much greater challenge than foraging, as it required acute focus on minuscule variations in spore colour, striation, and texture. Notable fungi included the Deadly Galerina, a poisonous orange-brown mushroom, self-explanatory ‘Red Raspberry Slime’, the deliciously edible Giant Puffball, but alas – none of the elusive Skirted Stinkhorn. Within minutes, it was clear that countless diverse species lay in our pile.

The class sorts and identifies the various fungi collected over the time of roughly an hour.

Yet, equally fascinating is the diversity of scientific, cultural and artistic perspectives that mushrooms represent. As described by Prof. Borsato in her article Mushroom Forays,

“Mushrooms literally embody the connections among organisms and across species, and between life and death. And they are described by so many of our human tools for knowing: biology, environmental science… the arts, superstition, and myth.”

From big to small, edible to deadly, mushrooms are incredibly diverse. Featured on the right is a mature Giant Puffball.

The class learned from Diane that mushrooms’ gills – or polypores in non-gilled fungi – are used to spread spores, which enable them to occupy many forest roles. Some are parasites, which feed off healthy trees and kill them. Other fungi may digest rotting logs, returning beneficial nutrients to the soil. Some exist in the form of a vast, blooming underground network called mycelium, at times stretching for kilometers. A common theme to the CBC Ideas: Natives and Invasives podcast, labeling diverse species like mushrooms as ‘good or bad’ fails to truly encompass their being. Our class was lucky to catch a glimpse of the numerous complex ecological roles fungi play in nature.

Mushrooms are also deeply rooted in folklore. A single network mycelium can cause huge groups of mushrooms to fruit overnight, in formations known as fairy rings. Historically, many European cultures saw these sites as mysterious, enchanting places where faeries came to frolic in the night. The hallucinogenic and psychoactive chemicals in some mushrooms have been used by shamans, healers, and in religious ritual for centuries. All this history, collected into our baskets in no more than an hour!

Even artists are drawn to the idea of mycelium, the true heart of the organism. The very nature of mushrooms reflects urban society, and interconnectedness between individuals, communities and life as a whole. The symbols that mushrooms represent create inspiration for countless art forms.

When the foray reluctantly ended, one thing was very clear: mushrooming has the potential to form true bonds between science, culture, and art take form.

Searching for fungi serves as a humble reminder of the connections between all things.

An Un-frog-ettable Pond

It may have been a rainy day on Tuesday October 2nd, but that did not hinder our outdoor school class from a great afternoon of learning and having some fun at the Arboretum on campus! Our class gathered together and met with our guide, Rachel, a recent graduate in environmental sciences from the University of Guelph, who would be taking us to the pond located in the Arboretum. We began with a leisurely walk through the beautiful trees in the Arboretum, the same way that most of our recent trips had begun. What I observed was that every time is different and I notice new aspects that I missed on previous walks. Having this natural resource right on campus is honestly incredible. Eventually, we came to a stop in front of one specific tree. Rachel informed us about the history of the tree, called the Kentucky Coffee Tree, and how it was actually a food source for prehistoric mammoths. Wow! It was moments like these that were extra special and fascinating, being able to learn more about nature and all of the hidden gems in the Arboretum.

Rachel telling our class some history about the trees in the Arboretum.
Sign posted about the Kentucky Coffee Tree.

Before reaching the pond, our class made a quick stop to put on rain boots and grab some buckets and nets. As we continued through the forest, we passed by another beautiful sight, an old growth forest, which Rachel kindly pointed out to us. It was incredible to know that the Arboretum on campus contained trees that had been there for over a hundred years with little disturbance. What an amazing sight to take in! Finally, we reached the incredible pond, surrounded by trees. Rachel explained about a pile of 2 or 3 leaves on the ground. I had thought to myself that it was just some leaves that had fallen off a tree but what I learned was that the significance was not the leaves, but the small hill in the dirt underneath. This hill was created by earthworms, which Rachel told us was an invasive species to Canada, something I and many others actually did not know. Earthworms can do a lot of damage to areas by lowering the soil levels. You learn something new everyday! Once our discussion was over, we all set off to the edge of the pond for the main event, to catch some bugs and frogs!

The Old Growth Forest located in the Arboretum.
Looking closely you can see located in the middle of the mud is the small hill created by some earthworms!

I loved the opportunity of getting up close and personal with the insects and frogs in the pond. It is not everyday that you can walk through the mud in a pond to catch insects (at least not for me). Experiences like this one are the ones I will never forget as I find it a much more effective way of learning rather than being taught through a textbook in a classroom. I wish I could be out in nature for all of my classes, what a great time that would be! The places available around campus to experience nature are so unique, from the Bee Apiary to the Arboretum, there is something for every nature lover! How lucky are we to be surrounded by all of these amazing sites!

Student Molly, ready to catch some frogs and bugs!
Student Anna, searching for insects in the water.

It was quite an adventure stomping though the mud to catch some bugs. I found that it was beneficial to work with other classmates to accomplish our task of catching frogs and bugs as it was difficult ensuring they were put into the vials. In the end, it was interesting to see the different species people managed to capture, from flies to frogs to small insects I had never seen before. As our journey for the days class neared the end, we gathered with Rachel to show her our findings. I think it was fair to say that Rachel was impressed with our pond discoveries! Vials of bugs were passed around as Rachel told us about each kind of bug, even providing us with identification sheets which helped us recognize the bug for ourselves. It was amazing to learn about how many different kinds of insects exist in ponds, more than you would ever think. Specifically learning about the Giant Water Bug was definitely something I will remember for a long time! Rachel even showed us how to properly hold frogs so that they cannot use their back legs to jump out of your hand and hurt themselves. All of these new facts are important to know, especially for those of us who love spending time in nature.

Our class listening as Rachel shows us the identification sheet and discusses the bugs being passed around.
A Giant Water bug found be some students!
Rachel showing our class how to properly hold a frog. Look at his cute little face!

Ponds are important aspects of nature, for so many different species. A field-naturalist from Ottawa, John Sankey, has a site where he shares his knowledge of nature. I was reading his article about ponds when he stated a fact that surprised me. He said, “In Southern Ontario, people have destroyed 80% of our wetlands, and more vanish every day through lack of protection.” The fact that the Arboretum on campus has a pond is really incredible and shows that they are working to help protect wildlife. Another thing Sankey shared is that even people at home are able to help wildlife by properly building and maintaining ponds by their homes. Just consider, maybe you can help protect wildlife by creating a home for more biodiversity in your own backyard! From my experience at the Arboretum pond, I say it is definitely worth it!

By: Breann Saulnier



Make a Pond for Wildlife, John Sankey, 2018.

A Swampy Success!

On Tuesday, October 2nd, things got messy in Outdoor School! We met with Rachel, an environmental science graduate from the University of Guelph and she walked us through a pond study of the Arboretum. She explained how lucky we were to have a “natural museum” connected to the University and described the richness of the wildlife in the Arboretum, particularly in regards to tree life. On our walk down to the pond, we passed a Kentucky coffee tree and Rachel explained the joint project the University had undergone with the African Lion Safari to fertilize the trees.  After the extinction of wooly mammoths, the tree lost its natural partner necessary for germination; the Arboretum decided to feed the pods to elephants at the African Lion Safari to see if fertilization was possible using a modern-day partner.

Rachel, standing in front of the Kentucky coffee tree, described the germination project and shocked us with the fact this tree possessed the largest leaves in Ontario.

The result was a success according to Rachel, who helped to sort through the piles of poo, and the final germination rate was a whopping 60%. This symbiotic relationship drew parallels in my mind to the important partnership between bees and flowers that we learned about in the aviary. Bees are necessary for the pollination of a variety of plant life (such as ragweed and clover) and are crucial to their survival and inherently our survival. Imagining the impact of losing bees and the devastation that would cause helped to iterate how harmful extinction of any species, including the mammoth, can be. It also emphasized the positive impact of discovering a new germination partner for the Kentucky coffee plant, as it will help to maintain the tree’s population and lower its risk of extinction.

Carefully rounding the corner of poison ivy on our way down to the pond.


A closer look at poison ivy: note the three leaves. Rachel explained that the rash-inducing part of the plant comes from its oils.

Continuing down the path, Rachel pointed out clumps of decaying leaves she claimed were the product of an unlikely invasive species, the earthworm! That’s right, the wriggly right-hand man of Ontarian gardeners is harmful to our forests! Rachel explained that decomposition in our forests was originally the responsibility of fungi, but that the introduction of the earthworm has resulted in faster decay. Earthworms have led to soil depletion and lower nutrients available to forest trees, as the dead foliage is broken down at a rate the trees cannot keep up with to properly absorb nutrients. It was interesting to be presented with a local example of an “invasive” species after listening to the podcast CBC Ideas: Bioinvasion: Attack of the Invasive Species, hosted by Barbara Nichol. When Rachel was talking I thought about the point Barbara brought up about how humans can be selective in what we choose to view as “bad” invasive species. So-called “ugly” fish like the snakehead can be painted as truly evil and propaganda is created to instill fear and encourage removing them from environments. However, in the case of earthworms, the benefits they provide in cultivating gardens is beneficial enough that we tend to overlook their negative impact as seen by the chorus of “good” that erupted from our class when Rachel asked if earthworms were “good or bad” for the forest.

The beautiful pond. No further explanation needed.

After carefully rounding a corner with a small patch of poison ivy, our class entered the pond. The trees were slightly wet and the air was damp from fog earlier in the morning. A light mist floated on the water, creating a peaceful scene. With each step down to the water’s edge, our rainboots squelched through the thick mud. Within five minutes of our study, Molly dipped her bucket into the water and with one confident stroke pulled up a bucket containing a frog and a tadpole. It was interesting comparing the differences between the two, as I had never had a chance to study a tadpole up close. The coloration of the tadpole’s body was similar to that of a frog and possessed a leopard pattern.  Its upper body was very large in proportion to its tail, and the small fish-like appendage looked almost unnatural.

A leopard frog and a tadpole: two points of the frog’s life cycle observable in one bucket.

Later, Kasia and I were investigating a patch of water near the lily pads. We pulled up a bucket of water and were amazed at the quantity and variety of life in such a small volume. Along the surface, dozens of small black daphnia swam in a frenzy. Along the bottom slender damselflies with feathery gills scuttled about, and under a dead leaf, we found the queen of the Canadian pond bugs: the giant water bug. After extracting a larger damselfly and the giant water bug into vials, we showed Rachel and she excitedly shared some facts. She explained that the damselfly lived for only a few hours, its sole purpose in that time to mate, and that the giant water bug was apparently an aggressive predator capable of growing up to 2-3 inches in length. Woah!

Identifying the giant water bug we caught against the species chart.

Another group caught a frog, and Rachel showed us the proper way to hold him without causing harm. She pointed out two holes behind his eyes and explained these were his ears, and she explained that frogs breath through their skin, hence the importance of handling them with clean hands and respect.

Rachel demonstrating the proper way to hold a frog, her grip appears tight but she causes him no harm.

Overall, the day was a success and I was amazed at the variety of life both in and around the pond. I found it incredible how at a closer look life was everywhere in the quiet arboretum, and with someone as knowledgeable as Rachel to guide the way, each new discovery was a learning experience.

-Kaylie Mitchell


CBC Ideas: Bioinvasion: Attack of the Invasive Species, Barbara Nichol, 2014.