The Mystery of Mushrooms

dog sniffing mushroomsIdentifying the fungus among us


I spend a lot of time hiking with my dog, and I see mushrooms everywhere. They colonize rotting logs, jut like inaccessible shelves from tall trees and pop up from the ground as pristine white spheres.

The more I noticed them, the more I wanted to know them. Knowing the habits and habitat of the flora engages me with the environment and increases my enjoyment. A walk in the woods becomes a walk with the woods. Which ones could I have for lunch? Which ones only looked innocent? And, most importantly, how could I tell the two apart?

No one is sure how many mushroom species grow in our region. Best estimates put the number around 3,000. There is no doubt, though, that the Northwest’s wet, temperate climate is an ideal incubator for mushrooms. Out of the thousands, hundreds are probably edible; of these hundreds, around thirty are common enough (and flavorful enough) to be regularly foraged. I buy many of them, like the sweet and nutty hedgehog and the meaty boletus, at the farmer’s market. Why not pick them myself?

Apprehension is one reason. Unlike most wild edibles, a guidebook or anecdote seems inadequate evidence to eat a mushroom. They are hard to identify and dangerous to experiment with. Who hasn’t heard stories of wild fungi eating gone bad? I needed more than a guidebook. I needed a guide.

The Puget Sound Mycological Society (PSMS) is just that. Since 1964 they have fostered a greater understanding and appreciation of mycology. The Seattle based non-profit does this through volunteer-run public outreach programs like the annual Wild Mushroom Exhibit, which showcases hundreds of Pacific Northwest mushrooms. Membership gives you access to even more of the society’s expertise. Classes introduce students to mushroom identification, and expert identifiers regularly make themselves available to identify and explain unknown species. Experienced foragers also organize field trips to promising picking grounds.

Last spring I joined PSMS and immediately enrolled in Beginning Mushroom Identification. The class covers basic mycology, foraging and mushroom identification. It seemed tailor-made for a budding mushroom hunter.

Class met at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture. Thirty students ranging from college age to retired filled every seat in the room. Hildegard, our instructor that first day, is a retired economics professor; she’d been a PSMS member for 37 years but gave the impression of being born to hunt mushrooms. Hildegard’s personal experiences form the basis of her teaching style, and class was laced with anecdotes and slides—tremendously inspiring slides—of her trunk filled with fresh-picked boletus.

While awed by Hildegard’s foraging exploits it was the biology that struck me. Mushrooms are just the fruit of a larger organism: the mycelium. An intertwined network of threadlike cells, mycelium grow unseen in the logs, trees and soil where mushrooms sprout. The visible mushroom emerges to disperse millions of seeds, spores, in order to reproduce. Except as dinner, the fruit has no other function.

The underground mycelium plays an integral role in the ecosystem by breaking down leaves, needles and dead plants and recycling them into the earth. They can also fortify the plants around them. Pine trees, for instance, often use matsutake mycelium as an extension of its root system. The fungi’s efficiency at absorbing minerals and water improves the trees health and makes it much hardier in difficult conditions like drought. It also means that if I’m looking for matsutake I should look for pine trees. For the next three classes Hildegard shared teaching duties with Patrice. Neither usually teaches the class—the regular instructor had recently had a baby—but the co-teaching arrangement worked well. Patrice is the president of PSMS. Her scientific approach, developed over years of working in immunology and biotech, complemented Hildegard’s more experiential teaching style.

Two teachers also meant we ate twice as much. For the cooking-focused class they each prepared a fungi-filled delicacy for us. Hildegard brought in an amazing wild mushroom bread pudding. She’d made it from mushrooms she’d found and frozen—boletus and chanterelles are both good candidates for freezing. Other mushrooms, like morels, are better dried and re-hydrated as Patrice did in her morels a la creme. It was just as flavorful (but decidedly less healthy) than the bread pudding.

Of course, caution is the word when you’re eating wild mushrooms. “When in doubt, throw it out” is the PSMS mantra. Even if you’re certain of the identification, take it slow. An edible mushroom like verpa bohemica, the false morel, still contains chemicals that can make you ill. All wild mushrooms should be cooked to destroy toxins. After that, start with a small amount and wait a day just to be sure. A mushroom one person finds delicious could result in an uncomfortable, sleepless night for someone else. While edible mushrooms require caution there are plenty to simply avoid. Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric, is one of our most common fall mushrooms. Its bright red cap covered in warts screams “poison!” but most toxic mushrooms aren’t so accommodating.

That’s why it is so important to make a positive identification. Doing this does ultimately require a guidebook, but the process is more intricate than comparing a specimen and a picture. Patrice walked us through the painstaking process of examining a mushroom’s composite parts and identifying the details.

This time of year I’ll be keeping my eye out for yellow-orange mushrooms with a fruity smell. I’ll check for a firm, flexible stem and a vase-shaped cap with vein-like gills on the underside. I hope to find a lot of them. Cantharellus formosus, our most common chanterelle, is absolutely delicious.

Puget Sound Mycological Society
UW Center for Urban Horticulture
3501 NE 41st Street

In spring and fall PSMS collaborates with the Master Gardener clinic. During this time a PSMS member is available to help the public in mushroom identification and mushroom information.

Cameron Kane moonlights as a freelance writer and recipe tester when not walking his adorable but demanding dog.

For a delicious Parmesan Mushroom Puffs recipe, click here
For a fantastic Mushroom Stroganoff recipe, click here

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