Foraging for fungi
Diversity brings challenge when identifying edible mushrooms
Midway through a walk Friday across the top of Grand Mesa, the words of American mycologist and naturalist David Arora came to mind.
“Mushroom hunting is not simply a matter of traipsing through the woods after it rains,” writes Arora in his entertaining guide book, Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Funghi. “It is an art, a skill, a meditation and a process.”
I thought of that passage while I was, yes, traipsing meditatively under dripping trees along the mesa’s south edge, sniffly, cold and soaked to the skin after being pounded by a rain-and hailstorm that left the ground (and a would-be mushroom collector) under an half-inch of ice granules.
I was out there because it’s late summer and rainy, the conflation of which brings on insatiable mycophagy (the eating of mushrooms) in foragers everywhere.
Mushrooms probably were among the first foods eaten by man, who invariably stumbled upon various fungal bodies during the daily food collection.
It’s also possible mushrooms were the last foods eaten by certain unlucky fungivores who learned the hard way that a fungal beauty’s promise of happiness may only be skin deep.
Fortunately, today’s mushroom forager has a bounty of information available, ranging from the overwhelming cascade of the Internet to guide books and field manuals as well as many entertaining mushroom festivals, including the Telluride Mushroom Festival, which ended Tuesday, and a one-day festival (Aug. 17 this year) at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
The 2014 Crested Butte Mushroom Festival was canceled.
Among the literary finds is the 2011 book by New York writer and part-time Paonia resident Eugenia Bone, who that year published Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms.
This delightful and entertainingly erudite book (published by Rodale Press, N.Y.) received hundreds of positive reviews (including one here in The Daily Sentinel) and continued reading still offers insights to many things mycological.
One of Bone’s first revelations, she tells in the book, was to discover that mushrooms aren’t a plant but rather the fruiting body of fungi, “just as apples are fruiting bodies of apple trees.”
Then came the news that mushrooms genetically are more closely related to people than animals and, unlike Hamlet, have a kingdom all their own, the Kingdom Fungi, separate from the plants, the animals and the bacteria.
“There are an estimated 1.5 million species, second only to insects in number and diversity,” writes Bone, one of many interesting facts she disperses over the book’s 340 pages.
This diversity (only 5 percent of the species have been identified) poses no small challenge for the unsure, the uneducated and the just-plain-guessing when it comes to harvesting mushrooms for the table.
Identifying the right mushrooms (meaning those that are edible, although some are more edible than others) is more than simply risking gastric discomfort; making a bad choice it could mean a painful recovery time after a hurried trip to the local poison control office.
Beware relying only on a photo, says author Michael Kuo, who wrote 100 Edible Mushrooms and developed the website MushroomExpert.com.
“Unfortunately, many field guides lack keys and therefore encourage what is probably the least successful method for identifying mushrooms – namely, comparing them to photos,” Kuo writes on his website. “Photos almost never convey the many details that are important in determining a mushroom’s identity, and users of field guides thus often wind up making determinations based on cap color and virtually nothing else.”
And although most hikers have at least a passing familiarity with the red-capped and hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria, determining edibility based on color is “the least reliable” way to ID a mushroom, says Kuo, who admits “wild mushrooms scare me.”
“(T)his identification process is going to fail a lot — even, perhaps, most of the time,” Kuo cautions. “There are several reasons for this, but suffice it to say that mushroom identification is difficult, often technical, and sometimes impossible.”
This article is not about identifying edible mushrooms, since your idea of edible may differ from mine.
I admit to knowing well only a few mushrooms, and I stick close to those, venturing into unknown fungal territory only when coached by someone with immense knowledge and a few years of eating said ‘shrooms, since survival may be a key to edibility.
Have faith, however, said Kuo.
“With patience you will be able to identify some mushrooms, even if you are just starting out,” he wrote.
“And as your experience develops, you will be able to identify more and more mushrooms. If you become frustrated along the way, remember this: I have watched many of the continent’s most prominent living mycologists study mushrooms and throw up their hands in despair without an identification — and the ones I have not seen fail like this are the ones I have never met.”
And if their hands are all they throw up, well, there’s a lesson in that, as well.