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The (ugly) truth about mushrooms

By on September 24, 2018 in Outdoor Fun with 1 Comment

the delectable Chanterelle

By Susan Sampson

Every September and October I hear somebody rhapsodizing about the joys of foraging for wild mushrooms.

The damp coast range hills of Washington state and Oregon and the Cascade foothills of the Pacific Northwest offer some of the world’s best foraging, they say. It’s being at one with nature. It’s a gourmet meal on the cheap, they contend — just heat up some butter in the sauté pan, toss in your bounty, give it a dash of Worcestershire sauce, and you’ll feast like royalty.

Well, before you rush out to buy new hiking boots, rain slicker, gathering basket and a few mushroom books, let me give you some warnings.

Be aware that mushrooms are neither plants nor animals; they belong to the fungi, a kingdom of their own. They are noted for feeding on their hosts, living or dead, by inserting thread-sized hyphae into the cells of their prey and eating from the inside out. Their kingdom includes mold, smut, rust, and rot.

a green conch-type fungus

Does that sound like something you’d like to gather and eat?

Many mushrooms are poisonous.

My ex-hippie sister claims that mushrooms have a false reputation, that they’re merely hallucinogenic, and that offends the Man.

However, our brother the ER doctor wrote his medical school thesis on the treatment of mushroom poisoning, and he disagrees. He warns that some mushrooms upset the gastric system, some emit the chemical equivalent of rocket fuel (Monomethylhydrazine found in false morels) and some are so toxic that they can be treated only with a liver transplant.

Ironically, children’s books about Little Red Riding Hood show her traipsing through the forest with her basket of goodies for grandmother, walking among red Amanitas, which are deadly. I’ve seen a recipe box decorated with painted red mushrooms.

Not one mushroom is universally safe.

a White Oyster mushroom

An author of Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest, Steve Trudell, won’t eat mushrooms; he says he just dislikes the texture.

My college biology teacher fried up a batch of Puffballs that everybody knows are safe, ate them, and tossed a few to his dog. Both he and the dog got sick.

Nor is it easy to distinguish safe from unsafe mushrooms.

Kids who go prowling in the neighbors’ horse pasture with flashlights at night are looking for little psychoactive Psilocybins, but they risk picking dangerous Galerinas. There are species called “false Chanterelle” and “False Morel,” a true-or-false game with consequences.

I used to pick white angel wing oyster mushrooms until I attended the annual October show of the Puget Sound Mycological Society. Looking at the display, I couldn’t tell Angel Wings from an inedible species, so I quit picking them.

Nor can you rely on your experienced friends to pick out safe mushrooms for you.

An older couple I knew ate “Chicken of the Woods” from a friend who swore she knew the species and said they were delectable.

Both got sudden and severe diarrhea, and he, being older and slow moving, did not make it to the bathroom before he shat his pants.

You could identify the species of your mushrooms if you took a spore print, measured the size of the spores in microns and checked a reference book. In the meantime, your Shaggy Mains and Inky Caps would deliquesce into blobs of black ink before your eyes.

But suppose you persist. You buy some Chanterelles at the supermarket so you know what to look for. You walk into a forest so dark that nothing but fungi grow on the forest floor.

Don’t step off a well-marked trail! Your cell phone and GPS won’t get reception here. Your compass works, but you need to know where you are supposed to go.

Every year, search and rescue teams are deployed to find lost mushroomers. Unfortunately, some return to nature, literally, before they are found.

Watch your step. Yellow-jackets live in the deep forest duff, and in the autumn, they seem especially angry and hostile to any intrusion into their territory. Wasps sting hard, then fly away, their nipped waists and dangling legs illuminated by the low yellow rays of the afternoon sun.

Still you persist. You find sizeable Russulas with their coarse gills, and discover that they stink, especially the ones called “Stinking Russians.”

You discover that Lobster mushrooms are nothing more than Russulas covered with orange fungus cannibalizing them. Maybe you find a Boletus type that has a sponge instead of gills under the cap. You’d be lucky to find one that didn’t have worms in it already. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend eating those.

So, why would you look for mushrooms?

Well, in all honesty, it is a pleasant walk in the woods. Sometimes you score a batch of Chanterelles, or see a pretty lavender Blewit, or a Red Scarlet Cup, or a shelf fungus bracketed to a tree trunk and sporting rainbow arcs like a turkey’s tail.

Some say that mushrooms grow so fast that you can almost see them growing, but they’ll hold still long enough for you to make good photographs of their colors and curves.

If you persist, don’t say I didn’t warn you, but please, stay away from my secret foraging places.

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  1. Russell says:

    Very well done!
    Those mushrooms!!!

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