Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: What I did on my vacation: Mushroom Identification for New Mycophiles

cwlogoBy Jeanne Christie, Executive Director, ASWM

During my summer vacation this year I spent a week learning about “Mushroom Identification for New  Mycophiles: Foraging for Edible boletemushroom081116and Medicinal Mushrooms”. I had become interested in mushrooms for a couple reasons.  Learning about foraging for wild foods has become a topic I’m interested in and mushrooms are part of that.  Also, the role of mushrooms/fungi in sustaining and restoring ecological landscapes including wetlands is poorly understood and possibly very important.

The Maine Mycological Association hosts a series of forays around Maine throughout the summer.  I’d attended a couple of these.  People meet, go out, gather mushrooms, and then come back to identify and share information about the classmushrooms081116mushrooms collected.  For a rank beginner, it’s overwhelming.  The folks are very encouraging and helpful, but I was out of my depth.  I needed a class.

I was acquainted with Eagle Hill Institute located in Steuben Maine.   It holds a whole series of courses and workshops focused on natural history topics hosted each summer.  Their summer weeklong courses offer a unique opportunity to dig in and study natural eaglehill081116history topics such dragonflies, lichen, beetles, slime molds, seaweeds, stream processes and, of course, mushrooms.

The setting at Eagle Hill is rustic: shared lodging, family style meals and open air classrooms.  Most classes spend part of the day inside and the rest out roaming for real life examples of the topic of the week.  For me it is a quintessential Maine experience complete textbook081116with fabulous scenery, eccentric personalities, and ‘gently used’ architecture – all experienced with my fellow students who generously share their knowledge and enthusiasm for exploring the world of nature.

I had a fabulous time: our instructors, Greg Marley and Michaeline Mulvey know their mushrooms and are articulate teachers.  We had a full class of 16 or so and we all got along and enjoyed each other immensely. They were a very special group of people.

But the mushroom part was tough.  There are hundreds of species of mushrooms in Maine and some have never been described. There is no single comprehensive publication keying out those that have been described for the Northeast.  Our ‘textbook’ was Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to Fleshy Fungi by David Aurora written mostly for California and the Pacific Northwest, but covering many species from New  England and other areas of North America.  Finally, for me at least, the dichotomous keys used to identify fungi were very, very challenging.

toothmushroom081116I loved going out with the group looking for mushrooms– just meandering slowly through the woods seeking specimens to collect.  I did learn to distinguish between some of the major groups of fleshy fungi.  I can differentiate between teeth fungi and corals; boletes and chanterelles as well as gilled mushrooms, polypores and puff balls.  And I know some of the important dinnereaglehill081116distinguishing characteristics between members of these different groups—veils, staining, spore colors, etc.  I understand some of the mycorrhizal relationships between some mushrooms and trees as well as some of the biology of mushrooms. There are probably 4-5 edible mushrooms that I would or could (with some practice) feel comfortable gathering and eating.  These are things I did not know before, but I have a lot to learn before I could identify the genus and species of mushrooms common in our woods.  At least now I can participate in the Maine Mycological Association forays and build on the knowledge gained from the week at Eagle Hill Institute.

For those of you interested in gathering or purchasing wild gathered mushrooms to eat, here are a few takeaways:

  1. Take your time to become fully acquainted with the mushrooms you’d like to harvest, where they grow (and don’t grow) time of year they are around, etc.  Our instructors generally spent 3-4 years observing and identifying mushrooms species before harvesting them to eat.  There are many mushrooms that cannot be identified down to the species level in the field. Spore prints are often necessary to key out mushrooms.
  2. Be certain that the mushrooms you gather are very fresh and are processed to eat or store right away.  Examine carefully the quality of any purchased at farmer’s markets. Mushrooms are insect magnets and quickly get infested. Mushrooms in the classroom deteriorated a lot in just 24 hours.  We saw a lot of insects including maggots during our fungi dissections.
  3. Always cook wild gathered mushrooms before eating them.  Eating raw mushrooms can lead to gastrointestinal distress.  Also, don’t eat too many at once for the same reason—a small handful is enough.
  4. Be sure you know how to distinguish the edible species from their look-a-likes.  Some look-a-likes are poisonous and even if they are not life threatening, they may lead to prolonged and intense gastronomic distress.

The world of mushrooms is rich and diverse.  The week-long class was just a start in understanding and appreciating this diverse part of the natural world.  I can understand now why people are inspired to wander through the woods observing, collecting and studying fungi. I am looking forward to becoming one of them.

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