Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Kingdom of Fungi

We explored a magical kingdom yesterday...a kingdom filled with mystery, danger, humor, healing, and beauty. It is the kingdom of fungi.

Our mushroom foray guide was Britt A. Bunyard, PhD, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of FUNGI magazine. He gave some quick hints for collecting mushrooms: never use plastic bags, use a knife to dig up the base of the mushroom, and learn your trees. Plastic bags will make the mushrooms sweat and spoil your dinner; the mushroom’s base may hold the key to its identification; and certain species of fungi prefer certain species of trees.

The woods at the Forest Lodge Nature Trail, ten miles east of Cable, WI, are mixed with such a hodge-podge of trees, that we simply spread out to scour the whole area. The roots of an pine might be sprouting mushrooms near the base of a maple, while the interspersing dead wood and moss hold a variety of mycelia with the potential to grow many species.

Soon the contents of everyone’s baskets and bags created a rainbow of fungi on a picnic table at the trailhead. Instead of starting with the brilliant orange and yellow specimens, where all of our eyes focused, Britt held up a large, drab, chunk of oak bark. Mysterious black shoestrings clung into the furrows on the brown slab. “These are the rhizomorphs of the honey mushroom.”

The honey mushroom uses rhizomorphs to spread and infect live trees, live and dead roots, and stumps. The stringy, black, root-like rhizomorphs can grow at a rate of one meter per year, and transport a fungus that can girdle a tree and kill it. The mycelia, (the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae) can lie hidden for years, before bursting forth a cluster of choice-edible mushrooms.

Just don’t mistake the white-spored honey mushroom for the dark-spored, aptly named, deadly galerina. Death from mushroom poisonings is less common than shark attacks, but Gary Lincoff, author of the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, cautions that “Any mushroom is edible once.” The danger of eating wild mushrooms is sometimes played down by experts. True, only a couple species will actually kill you, but I think the pros love the feeling of defying death through their own wit and expertise.

To caution us further, Britt pulled another chunk of bark out of his basket, this time with a group of small, globular, light brown fungi attached. “Who recognizes these?” he challenged. “Puffballs!” several of us exclaimed, excited to see an edible we could identify. While somewhat bland, many folks love them fried in butter and garlic.

“No!” interjected Britt, “and this one could kill you.” Deaths from the common earth ball, Scleroderma citrinum, are rare, but it does cause severe gastric upset. The tough, scaly skin on these small, rounded, stemless mushrooms makes them look a little like old potatoes. Descriptively, it is sometimes called the “pigskin poison puffball.” Britt whipped out his European-made mushrooming knife and sliced the earthball in half. A thick rind of a slightly different shade of white surrounded whitish flesh, but in the center was a hard, inky purple stain.

If you’ve eaten the true puffballs, you know that the center must be pure white and undifferentiated.  If not, you risk eating a disgusting puffball past its prime, or a poisonous look-alike. True puffballs, like the one we thought Britt was showing us, release their spores through a single opening in a cloud of greenish-gray dust. Perhaps this is where the earned their scientific name--Lycoperdon pyriforme. In Greek, “Lyco” means wolf, “perdon” means fart, and “pyriforme” means pear-shaped.  It is a pear-shaped wolf’s fart puffball. Who said mycologists don’t have a sense of humor?

While laughter may be the best medicine, some mushrooms are almost miracle cures in themselves. The chaga, a pathogenic mass of fungal tissue and wood from its birch tree host, is purported to have compounds that can be used to treat cancer, HIV, and diabetes.

The ugly black and rust-brown mass of the chaga contrasts with the delicate earth-toned rainbows of turkey tail fungus. We found a log filled with remains of last year’s dried and crumpled crop. Soon, with fall rains, the common polypore “bracket” fungi, found throughout the world, will sprout anew. This little wonder has been shown in clinical studies to improve cancer patients’ immune systems after chemotherapy. When my Aunt Nan was battling uterine cancer, she put little ice cubes of turkey tail tea into all her food.

Some mushrooms heal us just with their unexpected beauty. Shining like jewels, brilliant orange waxy caps poke their tiny heads out of soft moss. Nearby, the scarlet caps of Russulas sit atop pure white stems. Under the bark of a tree, a “green elfcup” fungus leaves its turquoise stain on the wood.

In her poem, “Mushrooms,” Mary Oliver writes: “astonishing in their suddenness, their quietude, their wetness, they appear on fall mornings…those who know walk out to gather, choosing the benign from flocks of glitterers, sorcerers…

Ah, that magical kingdom of fungi...

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