Fungus among us

Bob Beyfuss of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Agroforestry Resource Center examines a mushroom in Acra, N.Y. AP Photo/Mike Groll

With moist conditions come mushrooms, and for that wild bunch of 'shroomers passionately dedicated to the delectable flavors of feral fungi, this year is shaping up to be a veritable smorgasbord.

This summer's inordinately heavy rainfall in much of the country has mushroom enthusiasts tramping through woods and pastures looking underneath trees, on rotting logs, and in a few other well-fertilized hotspots.

"It's been a banner year so far," said Jay Justice, of the Arkansas Mycological Society, a division of the North American Mycological Association. "I don't remember seeing anything like this. Stuff I maybe only see one good collection of once every year or every two years, I'm just stepping all over out here."

The National Weather Service's 2008 hydrologic assessment reported that much of the U.S. saw deep snowpack from heavy winter snows and above average rainfall in the spring. Add to that flooding and hurricanes over the summer, and across much of the Midwest, the Northeast and parts of the western mountain states, the climate has been ideal for mushrooms.

According to Bob Beyfuss, Agriculture & Natural Resources Extension Educator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Agroforestry Resource Center in Ithaca, N.Y., mushrooms grow best in temperate climates, and, he stressed, need "lots of rain!"

"I seem to be observing more mushrooms this summer and fall then even after other rainy seasons," said Beyfuss.

"Strains of mycelium ... will produce mushrooms when conditions are right, often after a rain or a rise and fall of temperature coupled with rain," Beyfuss said. "Adequate moisture is crucial."

Jay Justice said he'd had reports this August from members of the Mycological Society of early blooms of ringless honey mushrooms (Armillaria tabescens). And, he says, if moisture levels stay high, the fall should not disappoint.

"The moisture that the hurricanes brought in can only help the situation," said Justice.

Of course, the inundating rains that passed through the southeastern part of the United States with Hurricanes Gustav and Ike were a destructive force in many human communities. For fungi, however, heavy and consistent rainfall patterns provide ideal conditions for spores to germinate, "sprouting" into mushrooms.

"They are spread by air; some are forcibly ejected or shot out of the mushroom, and many are spread on shoes of woodland walkers," said Beyfuss. "They sprout in moist conditions and grow into threadlike networks of mycelium that may be quite extensive, sometimes covering 40 acres or more, all underground!"

Known as one of nature's decomposers, mushrooms feed on and break down rotting plant matter and animal refuse, but have also been prized by mycophiles in different cultures and different eras: Romans, Chinese, Aztecs and Egyptians each favored various types of mushrooms for their taste or their spiritual properties. While mushrooms are still enjoyed today for their flavor, they are also being tested for industrial uses like breaking down petroleum products.

Many of the over 5,000 mushroom species found in the United States are common throughout the country, according to Jay Justice. Wild mushrooms usually grow in undisturbed, shady older growth forests with mixed species of softwoods and hardwoods.

Due to differences in climate and temperature, mushroom season's timing and length varies by region. "I've picked edible mushrooms on New Year's Day before, and we can at least go through Thanksgiving before the first killing frost comes," said Justice.

Chanterelles and oyster mushrooms, in particular, are examples of edible species found almost anywhere in the U.S., but Justice cautioned most edibles have poisonous look-alikes, some of which can be deadly.

Picking safety

If nasty folkloric names like "The Sickener," "Poison Pie," and "Death Cap" don't deter you from striking out on your own to do some fungal foraging, knowing the effects of eating them should.

"In the southeast, we have a mixture of eastern flora and southern flora," Justice said. "We have a lot of the genus Amanita, and that's the one that contains our White Amanita species — some of them are deadly poisonous; they're called the 'Destroying Angel'."

Each year reports emerge of people dying from picking and eating wild mushrooms without proper knowledge or training in how to identify them. This summer, a woman in New York died from eating Destroying Angel mushrooms she picked off the side of the road. According to an Associated Press article, "Zoila Tapia found the white mushrooms in a wooded area near a rest stop on Interstate 684 on July 6." She wound up dying in the hospital four days later.

An academic paper by Larry F. Grand of the Plant Pathology Extension at North Carolina State University states that "some 98 percent of all mushrooms are not poisonous," however the report goes on to say that allergic reactions and interaction with alcohol can cause mild sickness even from ingesting commonly edible mushrooms.

Justice said that the recommended method of preparing mushrooms is to cook them in order to destroy hydrazines, molecules in mushrooms related to ammonia synthesized for use in rocket fuel and are proven carcinogens.

What's Justice's advice? "Cook them gently." And he cautioned that if you do eat them raw, do it sparingly.

"Most field guides say that it's better to cook them because it makes them more digestible," said Justice, adding, "if you don't cook them a very long time, the flavor will stay intact."

Worldwide, a majority of mushroom poisoning deaths are linked to the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides), which, like many mushrooms, can closely resemble edible varieties at different stages of its development. Though mushroom poisoning doesn't often kill, it typically causes symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, hallucination or kidney failure.

Recently in Great Britain, Nicholas Evans, best-selling author of the novel, "The Horse Whisperer," was stricken with a case of mushroom poisoning that landed him in the hospital for an extended regimen of dialysis and may possibly include surgery for a kidney transplant.

The UK's Telegraph put Evans' plight this way: "A carefree foraging expedition while on holiday at his brother-in-law's Scottish estate ended in disaster and dialysis, after the party apparently mistook deadly webcaps (Cortinarius rubellus) for chanterelles and ate them."

Evans' agent confirmed that, "amongst the mushrooms they had eaten, there were examples of a rare and highly toxic variety called Cortinarius speciosissimus. The toxins attack the kidneys in particular."

Cortinarius species are common in Great Britain as well as on the West Coast of the U.S., Justice said, as are chanterelles. He also noted that among the mushroom enthusiasts he has encountered, a significant percentage are either European immigrants or first-generation Americans with a European-born parent or parents.

"Europe," Justice said, "has a long history of a great love affair with fungi. One of the activities they [Europeans] would do on the weekends was to go out to the countryside and pick wild mushrooms. So, even if you find someone whose parents lived in Europe, they will likely have an appreciation and a passion for hunting wild mushrooms."

As for the type of people who are passionate about hunting mushrooms in this country, "Mainly, across the country, they're just people that appreciate nature," said Justice.

"They're cognizant of ecology and have a reverence for nature. It's a fun group of people, I'll attest to that."