I’ve been wandering the Maine woods since I was a little girl. I’ve become familiar with its flora and fauna. Yet the wilderness keeps surprising me with things I’ve never seen before — like neon pink slime mold.
I’m not sure how it escaped my notice for so long. But now that I’ve seen it, I’m fascinated.
My first official observation of slime mold was at Tills Point Preserve in Penobscot. It was a drizzly day, and I was keeping an eye out for interesting mushrooms and wildflowers. That’s when I spotted it: a collection of small pink and purple balls covering a fallen tree.
They were a bit smaller than wild Maine blueberries, and they looked just about as tasty. In fact, they reminded me of Nerds candy, strawberry- and grape-flavored.
Assuming they were a type of mushroom or lichen that I’d never seen before, I excitedly took about a million photos, then went on my merry way. But my very broad educated guess was incorrect.
Slime molds aren’t fungi or lichens. They’re single-celled organisms that move around, similar to an amoeba. At that stage, they’re too small for people to see. But sometimes, they congregate to form threads and fruiting bodies that resemble mushrooms.
Hundreds of slime mold species have been documented throughout the world. At Mount Rainier National Park alone, 60 species have been documented, and they come in many colors.
Some of them remind me of the fictional, deadly fungi in the video game and TV show “The Last of Us.”
Slime molds play an important role in the ecosystem. Often found on decaying forest litter and rotting wood, they serve as decomposers and recycle nutrients, according to an online fact sheet published by the National Park Service. They feed on bacteria, which decomposes plant matter. They also serve as food for worms, beetles and other creepy crawlies.
But that’s not all. Join me further down the rabbit hole. You won’t be disappointed.
Slime molds don’t have brains, but they can communicate with chemical signals. In a laboratory setting, they’ve demonstrated the ability to navigate mazes to find food. Furthermore, if fed on a schedule at a specific location, they can anticipate that feeding event and spot.
Slime molds typically thrive in dark, cool and wet areas. So I suppose it’s fitting that I found some after days of rain and unseasonably cool weather.
I always hesitate to slap a species name on something that I’m not familiar with, but I think that the slime mold I found in Penobscot is Lycogala epidendrum, which is often called wolf’s-milk slime or toothpaste slime. During my research, I learned that, before this particular type of slime mold matures, you can pop it and a pink-orange substance, similar to the consistency of toothpaste, will ooze out.
You can imagine my disappointment that I hadn’t thought to try and pop one of the pink or purple balls on the log. But at the time, I didn’t know anything about it.
However, I lucked out a few days later when I spied a small patch of slime mold on a log near my home. It’s funny how once you take notice of something in nature, you often start seeing it everywhere.
I rummaged around on the forest floor for a small, sharp twig, then used it to poke a few of the pink fruiting bodies. They burst open, as expected, spilling out a bright, pasty substance. It was quite satisfying. But I didn’t want to wreck too many.
As is the case with many things in nature, people have varying perspectives on slime mold. Some gardeners view it as a problem to be eradicated, while others consider it harmless. While some slime molds are considered quite beautiful, others are labeled as unsightly. There’s even a variety with the common name of “dog vomit slime mold.”
Now that I’m aware of slime mold, I’m seeing it everywhere. Or at least I think I’m seeing it everywhere. It can be challenging to distinguish it from mushrooms and lichens. But I’m fairly certain I have a yellow, stringy variety and an off-white, frothy variety living on the fallen trees near my home.
Each time I learn something new about the wilderness, it changes the way I experience it. I’ll never look at fallen trees the same way. I’ll forever be looking for patches of neon pink, yellow and orange sprawling over rotting wood, especially after plenty of rain.
Family and friends lovingly tease me about my excitement for finding and photographing colorful mushrooms, and now they can add slime molds to the equation. As a self-proclaimed nature nerd, I seem to just keep getting nerdier. And I’m OK with that.
It still amazes me that something that’s bright pink could escape my notice in the Maine woods for all of these years. It makes me wonder what else is out there that I’ve yet to see.