Winter Gifts: The Wonderful World of Wild Mushrooms

  

I think many gardener/naturalist types will agree with me when I write that one of the greatest personal results of being a gardener/ naturalist is how these interests and activities tie me into the larger network of life and its many processes. To work in the dirt amongst my flowers or fruit, to play in the duff beneath familiar trees, birds and bugs buzzing about, is to feel grounded, and to be reminded on almost every level of the interconnectedness of all life. Within this sense of interconnectedness, I am allowed a comfortable perception that I belong. I am part of these processes. I have some basic understanding. I have some control. Photo: Jack-o-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olivascens). According the "Mushrooms Demystified" by David Arora, these mushrooms are common in Northern California "from fall through early spring, especially on oak, manzanita, madrone, and chinquapin." Said to be luminescent at night, jack-o-lantern's size and color make them dramatic even without nighttime bio-luminescence. PHOTO BY JOHN WHITTLESEY.

Then I stumble upon a mushroom. That wasn't there last week, maybe not even there yesterday. Photo: Earthstars - likely of the Geastrum genus - in my back garden.

Be it a tiny little puff-ball earth star, or an enormous bouquet jack-o-lantern whose luminous upward sweep of pumpkin-colored gills against the dark side of a living tree can stop you in your tracks - the sight of a mushroom never fails to bring on a strong sense of OTHER. Of mystery. Of all that I have no control over and little understanding of. Like the cosmos, God or Love on the other end of the existential spectrum, for me, gazing on a mushroom reminds me of my place in the universe - of just how little, how young, how unknowing and how not in control I am. Photo: Witch's butter (Tremella mesenterica), a brightly colored gelatinous/jelly fungi common in live oak woodlands. PHOTO BY JOHN WHITTLESEY.

Which, in my opinion, is a gift of the highest order.

Mushrooms are in fact the fruit of some varieties of fungus. Ranging from the stunningly beautiful and pleasantly aromatic, to the repugnant and grotesque; from the delicious and sought after to the deadly poisonous; from the microscopic to comprising some of the largest living organisms on the planet, fungi and their associated mushrooms are awesome in their variety and in their ecological function. Photo: A cluster of terrestrial, edible and lavender colored blewits (Clitocybe nuda).

All mushrooms are born of fungi. Fungi comprise one of six so-called Kindgoms of taxonomic categorization (along with Plants, Animals, Archaebacteria, Protista, and Eubacteria) that scientists use to understand and organize our understanding of life. Not all fungi produce mushrooms. All mushrooms, however, whether they look like what we think of as a mushroom or they look like a glob of bright yellow jelly, or a dead man's foot, share the basic function of being the spore-producing reproductive (fruiting) parts of larger fungal organisms. Unlike plants, these fungi are unable to produce their own food through photosynthesis. Instead, they 'digest' their nutrients as they decompose dead or decaying material. These fungi consist of mycelia (singular is mycelium), networks of thread-like filaments that spread through their "host" material being decomposed. Some decompose organic matter in the soil, and are primarily terrestrial, others live on dead or dying wood. These fungi are critical to the ecology of the planet in breaking down organic waste material which both gets this waste material out of the way, and transforms it into nutrient-rich humus for other plants to make use of. In some cases these fungi even clean the soil or material in which they are living of pollutants and toxins. Mycologists, scientists who specialize in the study of fungi, discover more about these amazing organisms and their many benefits to soil, plant and animals life, all the time.

Mushroom-producing fungi are generally understood to be of three varieties: parasitic, in which case they ultimately kill their host; saprophytic, in which they do not actively harm their host, but simply decompose already decaying material; and, mycorhizzal, in which case the fungi work cooperatively with the rootlets of other plants (mostly trees). To put it very simply, as mycorhizzal fungi decompose organic material in the soil, they make some of the nutrients from that material available to their associated tree and in return, the tree's rootlets "feed" the fungi something else, generally some form of carbohydrate, which fungi cannot produce on their own. It is now understood that some species of fungi have associations with specific tree species, and each species of fungi provide specific things to their associated trees. Trees can have many kinds of associated fungi providing them with different kinds of nutrients. Photo: A stunning stand of honey mushrooms. Armillariella mellea, also known as honey mushrooms, are edible and considered delicious, but they are also a bad sign regarding the long term survival of the tree on which they are growing. It is said that honey mushroom mycelia growing into hardwood trees can produce a bioluminescence, called 'foxfire', from the wood at night. Foxfire facts from, and PHOTO BY JOAN WALTERS of Forest Ranch.

While mushrooms can appear at any time of year in a whole variety of circumstances, the onset of fall and winter rains in the North State is generally considered true mushroom season, although each kind of mushroom seems to have its own timing and conditions that bring it out. During the fall and winter season, mushroom hunters search for inspirational new sights to behold (like me), and for the many wonderful edible varieties of mushrooms to be found in our region. Photo: Chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) mushroom on a living oak tree. These mushrooms, the young and tender edges of which are said to be delicious, are known for appearing in woodlands in October, right before the onset of fall rains.

In a North State Garden had the good fortune to host on Monday evening December 19th a special edition of Northstate Public Radio's I-5 LIVE! all about mushrooms and the annual hunt for them. My enthusiastic, passionate and knowledgeable guests included Beth and Steve Wattenberg, mushroom enthusiasts from Forest Ranch both of whom have lead wild mushroom walks at CSU, Chico's Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve in winter's past, and Don Simoni, of Mushroom Adventures in Marysville, a company specializing in kits to grow your own gourmet edible mushrooms at home. Don is also my guest on this week's In a North State Garden. Photo: Lion's mane (Hericium erinaceus), an edible 'toothed' mushroom. PHOTO BY BETH WATTENBERG.

Beth and Steve came to mushroom hunting later in life, after enjoying the annual appearance and surprising, often elegant forms of them throughout the woodlands around Forest Ranch. Beth began by photographing mushrooms extensively. Once the couple began to learn more through joining a mycological society and taking a few classes, the couple turned to hunting for and preparing the edible varities. No longer novices, they now strive for the best tasting mushrooms they can find. For our evening program, Beth prepared delectable treats of homemade sourdough and wild mushroom calzones; crackers and honey mushroom dip, and warm, earthy-smelling dried king boletes (Boletus edulis) for reconstituting and including in soups, stews or other recipes later. Photo: A boletus in oak woodland. Boletes are often edible and noted for their spore producing pores, rather than gills - lining the underneath of the mushroom bodies. Boletes often stain particular colors, like dark blue, when they are cut or bruised and their flesh begins to oxidize.

Don, on the other hand, grew up in a large Italian family that prized both good food and wild mushrooms. He had an uncle who would take him mushroom hunting in woods, in meadows and along area creeks. Through the process of trying to develop a way to cultivate a particular variety, he learned to cultivate many, many other varieties successfully on wood chip media and his business was born. In our interview, he relates the story of going out pheasant hunting with his uncle along a creek draw and agreeing to meet back at a particular spot at a designated time. Don got so distracted by oyster mushrooms growing on the creek-bed willows that he did not think to look for pheasant. When he and his uncle reconvened, Don's arms were full of oyster mushrooms and his uncle had four pheasant. "Together we had the makings of a great meal." Photo: Mature and drying oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) along a riparian corridor. Oyster mushrooms are most often found on trees - alder, willow, etc., growing right along waterways. PHOTO BY JOHN WHITTLESEY.

Don, Beth and Steve recommend that people interested in mushrooms and their fungi begin by joining a group or take sponsored mushroom walks or workshops. While there are good books out there, nothing is more helpful than actually seeing mushrooms in the wild with someone knowledgeable. They recommend that as a novice who might be interested in eating wild mushrooms, your first task is to learn thoroughly the characteristics of the poisonous mushrooms - primarily the Amanitas. While there are literally 1000s of species of mushrooms, only about 2 percent are deadly poisonous. However, all it takes is one. If you are not sure about a mushroom you have collected, DO NOT EAT IT. "If in doubt, throw it out," is a mantra of experienced mushroom hunters. Furthermore, mushrooms are fairly rich and complex food sources, while a given mushroom may not be poisonous, it could cause an allergic reaction in some people, so start small in the amount of wild mushrooms you eat at a time. Finally, don't eat old or possibly rotting mushrooms, just like any other kind of food, rotting mushrooms are potential sources of food poisoning. Photo: A fuzzy capped, diminutive Schizophyllum growing on a dead log. Its gill configuration is particularly lovely.

As David Arora writes in his well-respected book "Mushrooms Demystified": "Like driving, swimming, walking or breathing, mushroom eating is only made dangerous by those who would approach it frivolously." If you take the time to learn a little about fungi and their characteristics before you begin to eat wild mushrooms, he assures us, "it's about as difficult to tell a deadly Amanita from a savory chanterelle as it is a lima bean from an artichoke." Photo: A selection of terrestrial, edible and lavender colored blewit caps, ready to take spore prints or to chop and saute with butter (Clitocybe nuda) - or a little of both!

Don, Beth and Steve recommend cooking all of your wild mushrooms before eating them, and the Wattenbergs are fans of using a dehydrator to dry excess mushrooms collected at any one time. They point out that when cooking some mushrooms - notably morels - you should be sure to have good ventilation. Beth also points out that mushrooms can be poisonous to dogs. Photo:
A so-called fairy ring of mushrooms around a tree. Fairy rings are mushrooms coming up in a circular pattern and indicate the growth pattern of the fungi's mycelium underground. It was once believed that fairies danced inside these rings at night.

While you can find many articles in the media striking fear into your heart about the deadly aspects of wild mushrooms, I was happy to recently be sent a link to a New York Times Mushroom Taco recipe written by Martha Rose Schulman, which included the following nutritional information: "Mushrooms are an excellent source of vitamins and many minerals, particularly selenium, copper, potassium, phosphorous, zinc, and manganese – and they contain a powerful antioxidant called L-ergothioneine. They’re used medicinally throughout Asia for their immunity-boosting properties. They also contain more protein than most other vegetables, and their meaty texture makes them a perfect choice for vegetarians." Photo: A gnarly and sticky-capped mushroom that appeared in the compost of one of my raised vegetable beds. As it matured and then decayed, it disintegrated into a gooey liquid, a process known as deliquescing (my new favorite vocabulary word, by the way.)

Even if you're not interested in eating wild mushrooms, I was happy to learn that there is no harm to the fungal organism in picking mushrooms in order to look at them, examine their distinct structures, appreciate them and perhaps even identify them. That said, use common sense when collecting. Ask permission to collect on private land, and don't take more than you need or will use. Photo: Taking a spore print of a mushroom is fun and educational, telling you what color spores are produced by your mushroom, and when looked at under a microscope, what shape the spores have. Both pieces of information can be instrumental in positively identifying the species.

Photo: A spore print.

"Learning to identify mushrooms is, above all else, an exercise in attention to detail," writes David Arora. Attention to detail - to where you are and what's around you - seems another gift, an aspiration. A New Year's resolution, perhaps? Happy hunting.


Photo: A variety of Russula poking up out of the woodland floor duff. The mound a mushroom makes as it breaks through the soil/duff surface is often called a "mushrump".

For more information, try the following resources:

"Mushrooms Demystified", David Arora

"All That The Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Field Guide", David Arora

Mykoweb.com: pages devoted to the science of mycology (the study of the fungi) and the hobby of mushrooming (the pursuit of mushrooms). It is a production of Michael Wood, a past president of the Mycological Society of San Francisco. MykoWeb was started in the fall of 1995 and was one of the first internet mycology mushrooming sites. The main attraction at MykoWeb is "The Fungi of California", an expanded version of the former "Fungi of the San Francisco Bay Area". The Fungi of California contains photographs over 600 species of mushrooms and other fungi found in California, with over 480 of the species with descriptions. There are currently over 4800 total photographs of the mushrooms. Included are links to other online descriptions and photos of the species treated plus references to common field guides. Also included is a Glossary of mycological terms and a Bibliography of useful mycological references. The Fungi of California is a joint project of Michael Wood and Fred Stevens. Photo: A little blewit, at the base of which you can see the filaments forming the mycelium of the fungi growing through and decomposing the leaf litter of the oak woodland floor.

Bay Area Mushrooms

Fungizette

FOR RECIPES, Beth recommends: Robert's Wild Mushroom Cookbook Photo: One of the edible Amanitas, a coccora (Amanita calyptrata). PHOTO BY BETH WATTENBERG.

A MUSHROOM WORKSHOP IS BEING OFFERED BY THE FRIENDS OF THE CHICO STATE HERBARIUM IN FEBRUARY:

INTRODUCTION INTO MUSHROOM FORAGING AND IDENTIFICATION
by Philip Carpenter
February 25, 2012, Saturday

For details and a registration form, please go to:
www.csuchico.edu/biol/Herb/Events.html

"This workshop will be useful for rank beginners as well as for people with some knowledge of mushrooms. We will start the day with an hour or so of introduction to the subject – how to get started, what you need to be concerned about in doing identifications, and a question and answer period. After that, we will go into the field to gather mushrooms, following the advice provided in the introduction. When we return from gathering mushrooms we’ll get into the identification part of the workshop using the field guide Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora. After an introduction to the process of identifying mushrooms, participants will be guided through hands-on use of the book with actual mushrooms to practice the process of identification. The class may close with taste testing of the edibles we find to give participants an idea of how to start cooking with them."

Photos: Some useful characteristics with which to describe the structure of a mushroom, both from "Mushrooms Demystified" by David Arora.

The Shasta Chapter of the CNPS often offers a mushroom walk in the winter months, watch the Calendar of Regional Gardening Events for one later this winter.

California chapters of the North American Mycological Association

Bay Area Mycological Society
PO Box 164?San Leandro, CA 94577?Phone: 510.430.9353?web: www.bayareamushrooms.org?email: incredulis@yahoo.com ?Member since: 2006 | Club Trustee: David Rust

Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz
PO Box 82?Santa Cruz, CA 95063-0082?web: www.fungusfed.org?email: lkyboletes [at] baymoon.com? Member since 1990 | Club Trustee: Lee Yamada

Humboldt Bay Mycological Society
PO Box 4419?Arcata, CA 95518-4419 ?web: http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/h-b-m-s/?email: h-b-m-s [at] yahoo.com?Member since 1990 | Club Trustee: Joann Cilley Olson

Los Angeles Mycological Society
4907 Maymont Drive ?Los Angeles, CA 90043-2031 ?web: www.lamushrooms.org?email: rasmith49 [at] aol.com?Member since 1984 | Club Trustee: Dick Smith

Mycological Society of San Francisco
c/o The Randall Museum?199 Museum Way?San Francisco, CA 94114-1499 ?web: www.mssf.org ?email: hfshaw@yahoo.com?Member since 1983 | Club Trustee: Henry Shaw

Sacramento Area Mushroomers
c/o Bob and Barbara Sommer?626 Georgetown Place?Davis, CA 95616-1822?web: http://sacmush.com/?email: basommer@ucdavis.edu ?New member 2010 | Club trustee: Barbara Sommer

San Diego Mycological Society
c/o Bonni Mackintosh ?PO Box 1982 ?Lemon Grove, CA 91946 ?web: www.sdmyco.org?email:
burrogb@aol.com? Member since 2006 | Club Trustee: Bonni Mackintosh

Sonoma County Mycological Association
PO Box 7147?Santa Rosa, CA 95407-0147?web: www.somamushrooms.org?email: somainfo@somamushrooms.org ?Member since 1994 | Club Trustee: John Wheeler

Also try: Mycology Society of America

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To submit plant/gardening related events/classes to the Jewellgarden.com on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events, send the pertinent information to me at: Jennifer@jewellgarden.com

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

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6 Responses »

  1. Jennifer, what an informative article. In my backpacking days, I loved photographing mushrooms, but many, like the chicken-of-the-woods, I didn't realize they were considered mushrooms. I just called them fungus, and never would have dreamed they were edible. I've always considered myself a "brown thumb", and have never been able to grow anything. Since I've been reading your articles here on ANC, I feel like playing in the dirt. Maybe I could start with herbs in pots. Is it possible to do so at this time of year?

    • You can get started with seeds in a pot on your windowsill just about anytime, Canda. Give it a go! Put your seed pot in a window with a lot of light but not direct sunlight, which will be amplified by the glass and make your pot too hot and dry out too fast. Keep your seeds damp until they sprout. A nice new adventure for the New Year, I think. Have fun with it.

  2. Jennifer,

    Really delightful article. I am so completely inspired and motivated by your article I'm planning on buying a book and learning more about mushrooms and how to pick them.

    Thank you!

  3. Very enjoyable and information-filled article. It was a wonderful autmn for fungi of all kinds up here in Trinity County -- amazing diversity and numbers -- a beautiful display of shapes and colors at a tiem when most of the color has faded or flown south. You can see what I was enjoying at http://patsnaturenotes.tumblr.com

  4. Chicken-of -the - woods is what we have growing on a pile of oak tree shavings left from the removal of 4 large oaks that fell on our garage a couple of years ago. We have a huge pile of them. If anyone is intersted in identifying them as an edible variety...you are more than welcome to come and harvest them. Give me a call at 530-221-2961

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