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Fungus hunting can add interest to any country ramble

  • Alan Muskat, aka The Mushroom Man, leads foraging walks to showcase the food and medicinal values of mushrooms. (Courtesy Alan Muskat/MCT)

    Alan Muskat, aka The Mushroom Man, leads foraging walks to showcase the food and medicinal values of mushrooms. (Courtesy Alan Muskat/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amanitajacksonii mushrooms feature brilliant colors. (Courtesy Norfolk Botanical Garden/MCT)

    Amanitajacksonii mushrooms feature brilliant colors. (Courtesy Norfolk Botanical Garden/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Alan Muskat, aka The Mushroom Man, leads foraging walks to showcase the food and medicinal values of mushrooms. (Courtesy Alan Muskat/MCT)
  • Amanitajacksonii mushrooms feature brilliant colors. (Courtesy Norfolk Botanical Garden/MCT)

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — There’s always a fungus among us — in lawns, gardens and woods

“Fungi are part of our everyday lives,” says Theresa Augustin, curator of natural areas at Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk, Va.

Fungi help us in many ways, she explains. They break down organic matter in the soil, break down toxic materials in contaminated soil into nontoxic components, provide vital medicines like penicillin and provide bubbles in beer and bread.

“Mycorrhizal fungi form a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of plants,” she says.

“This enables the plant’s roots to have a wider reach in soil. The fungus enables the plant to absorb nutrients such as phosphorus and inorganic nitrogen. The plant provides the fungi with moisture and carbohydrates.

“Plants languish without this relationship.”

Fungi and its relationship with plants at the botanical garden took center stage recently when Alan Muskat, known to fungi fans as The Mushroom Man, recently led a foraging walk at the botanical garden. He discussed the value of mushrooms for food and medicines.

A mushroom hunter in western North Carolina, where the Asheville Mushroom Club is popular, Muskat is a Princeton graduate with a degree in philosophy of ecology. His formal training commits him to spirituality and self-help writings and programs, as seen on his website www.alanmuskat.com. His website, No Taste Like Home, promotes naturally found foods like edible flowers, greens and leeks, as well as mushrooms through foraging walks, catered dinners, recipes and a blog.

Muskat wants people to experience and appreciate what wild foods are out there, just waiting for perfect pickings.

“No Taste Like Home is not about how to get more,” he says, referring to the mission statement at his website.

“It’s about appreciating what we already have.”

For Muskat, it’s about appreciating the diversity of mushrooms found in the forest. Mushroom are beneficial and far less dangerous than many Americans believe, he insists. To start with, it’s safe to handle or even smell any mushroom - take a sniff and you’ll find they smell like almonds, cucumbers, garlic, raw potatoes, seafood, maple sugar and so on. The matsutake mushroom, known both for its flavor and medicinal value, smells like a cross between red hots and dirty socks, according to his e-book. The jack-o-lantern mushroom glows in the dark.

“Fungophobia aside, out of several thousand types of mushrooms on this continent, only five or six are deadly poisonous,” he says.

“However, there are a few dozen more that won’t kill you but will make you wish you were dead.”

Certain mushrooms are a good food source and certain types — truffles, for example — can command thousands of dollars, adds Augustin.

In general, Muskat recommends you eat mushrooms cooked, in particular wild ones. Yes, you eat button mushrooms raw, but wild ones won’t necessarily be as forgiving.

Western North Carolina is home to 3,000 types of mushrooms and counting, according to Muskat. The best season for mushrooms runs July-October, although oyster mushrooms are found in winter and morels in April. Lobster mushrooms, which look and taste like lobster, are the most common and popular. Chicken of the woods taste like chicken breast, while honey mushrooms are sweet and tangy, he says; he found and sold a 50-pound chicken of the woods cluster to several restaurant for a total of $150.

For Muskat, mushroom hunting is the best sustainable food shopping there is. When you pick a mushroom, the fungus that created it is still there, he says, so you preserve what nature can create again.

Asked to name his favorite mushroom, he hesitates, but finally says he likes the young reishi mushrooms found in June.

“Just as there is no right or wrong way to garden, there are no good or bad mushrooms,” Muskat says.

Fungus among us

Mutinus elegans, or dog stinkhorn. Saprophytic, meaning it decomposes dead wood. Commonly found in chipped hardwood mulch. Does not have a noticeable foul smell like some stinkhorns. The slimly goo at the tip of the mushroom are the spores. Flies and other insects are attracted to the foul smell, land on the goo, pick up the spores and deposit them around.

Calvatia cyathiformis, or purple-spored puffball. Saprophytic, commonly found in lawns. Outside starts out white when fresh becoming brown with age. The inside spore mass also starts out white and becomes purple-brown when mature. When you step on a mature puffball, the “smoke” you see is actually the spores being released.

Laetiporus sulphureus, or sulphur shelf or chicken of the woods. A type of polypore that is both parasitic and saprophytic on hardwood. Bright orange-yellow when fresh and fading with age.

Large specimens are striking with multiple shelf-like layers.

Ganoderma sp., or conk mushroom. A type of polypore that is both parasitic and saprophytic. Starts out knoblike becoming more shelf-like with age. It is very hard and corky rather than fleshy. When young, the caps are shiny and mahogany/reddish in color. New growth occurs on the outer edges and can be whitish to yellow producing concentric rings.

Amanita rubescens, or blushing amanita. Mycorrihzal, meaning it has a beneficial relationship with tree roots, especially with oaks. When young, cap is whitish with pinkish-brownish warts and will turn a darker pink-brownish color when damaged - it “blushes.”

Amanita jacksonii. A complex group of mushrooms with this species being considered the North American version of the more European Amanita caesarea. There are several similar (sister) species. Mycorrhizal with oaks and pines. When young, the mushroom cap is brilliant red and appears to be emerging from an “egg.” As it matures, the cap fades to an orange-yellow and remnants of the “egg” are still present at the base of the stalk.

— Theresa Augustin, curator of natural areas, Norfolk Botanical Garden

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