Shall We Go On A Mushroom Hunt?
Mycophile or mycophobe? Most people fall into one of these two categories, being either mushroom-loving or mushroom-fearing. European and Asian cultures are generally mycophilic, passing on knowledge of favorite edibles and medicinals, along with hunting grounds for finding them, from generation to generation. Americans tend to mushroom-phobic, being more concerned with the potential for toxicity, or perhaps simply lacking in knowledge due to the shorter history of our culture.
In this installment of the Living Lighter on the Land blog, I will provide a brief overview of fungal life forms in hopes of inspiring you to take another look, for this is the time of year to find them. I also encourage you to join our Guided Walk and Talk in search of mushrooms, scheduled for September 21st. Please email me to register for this free and family-friendly event.
Mushrooms, or fungi, are an exceedingly diverse group of organisms whose taxonomy and biology are bound by certain genetic contraints, which is why they can be described as comprising a kingdom of life. They are known as the decomposers and are vital to ecological processes such as nutrient cycling. By transforming matter on the molecular level, making it available for trees and plants for example, mushrooms support all life on this planet.
Fungi come in forms both familiar and not, from the molds on our food to the classic polka-dotted parasol to vast networks of underground hyphae or mycelium. They generally reside in the substrate upon which they eventually “flower,” or more accurately, fruit. What we see are highly modified extensions of the hyphae which are formed in order to disperse spores, or reproductive cells, into the environment. In this way, harvesting mushrooms is akin to picking berries from a bush.
Mushrooms can be divided into categories based upon their growth forms, and knowing these groupings is a first step for any budding mycologist:
Slime molds Sac Fungi Puffballs Jelly fungi Corals Bracket Fungi Boletes Gilled
Like plants and animals, fungal species have specific habitats and substrates that they are best adapted to and which provide clues to the kinds of fungi we can expect to find. Most mushroom identification guides include keys to identifying species, and these will include details on growth form and environment, in addition to physical characteristics of the mushroom itself.
When I find a mushroom that I would like to identify, I take immediate note of the following: the substrate upon which it grows, surrounding trees, fruiting habit (single, scattered, or clumped), and color, odor, and moisture level of the mushroom itself. At home, the first thing I do is make a spore print: break the cap off (if there is one) and lay it gill- or pore-side down on a sheet of paper. It works best to use a half black/half white sheet of paper, laying the mushroom down in the center, so that white or black spores show up against the contrasting color of the paper. It might take a day or more for the spores to drop out.
While I wait, I make note of the following characteristics of the mushroom’s form (a good field guide can help to familiarize you with descriptive terms used for each factor):
cap diameter, shape, edge, surface texture and color
gill attachment, spacing, color, thickness, depth, and margin
stalk size, shape, texture, color, hollowness, ring structure, cup structure
There is quite a lot of information that goes in to identifying a mushroom to species, and sometimes the differences between them are so subtle that genetic analysis is necessary. Don’t be discouraged! The joy of mushrooming is in experiencing the wonder of their ephemeral form and their place in nature. With practice and the help of other mushroomers, you might one day enter the world of foraging fungi for food and medecine. I recommend joining on-line groups such as Facebook’s Mushroom Identification Forum, as well as groups that meet in-person for forays, such as the Connecticut Westchester Mycological Assocation (COMA).
All photographs courtesy of the author.