A Shroom of One's Own
Following the fungi trail with local mycophiliacs.
For the record, mushrooms are fungi, not plants. But anything that pops up in my garden with such supernatural boldness — then disappears faster than a genie — makes me wonder if mushrooms were conjured by moonight or ascended from hell.
Indeed, a mushroom's appearance is often hobbit-y and peculiar. Their features can be skeletal, scaly, colored, ruffled, utterly space age or thrillingly beautiful.
Then there's the poison stigma — an issue that escaped my childhood development entirely. Instead, I embraced the image of the animated mushrooms in Walt Disney's Fantasia, who performed the Chinese Dance to Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite."
More than likely, it is the poisonous label that compels many people to kick mushrooms out of the landscape. But I leave them alone. They are temporary occupants that gift the soil with rich organic matter.
As retired Silver City mycologist Dr. Keller Suberkropp points out, "A primary role of many fungi in ecosystems is to decompose organic compounds. The branching, threadlike body of most fungi is called mycelium. Under the proper environmental conditions, a mycelium growing in the soil will fruit and produce mushrooms."
He adds, "Whether you pick the mushrooms, throw them in the compost pile, or leave them in your garden, the mycelium will continue to grow, decompose plant litter and enrich your garden soil."
Suberkropp is currently president of the local Native Plant Society (Gila chapter) and taught mycology for 20 years at the University of Alabama. He is also a wood carver, and mushrooms frequently appear in his craft.
Mycologists and experienced mushroom gatherers know that the toxicity of mushrooms can vary according to species, habitat, age, etc. A morel mushroom, for example, should never be eaten raw, as its toxins are degraded by heat in cooking.
Before eating a wild mushroom, you need to know what species to prudently avoid. For example, Suberkropp advises beginners in our area to avoid the genus Amanita.
Make sure that the mushroom you long to add to an omelet is correctly identified. Even if a species is thought to be nontoxic, human responses to it may vary, including gastrointestinal and allergic reactions.
Like myself, Suberkropp remembers seeing "safe," boxed white button mushrooms at the grocery as a child.
Eugenia Bone addresses button mushrooms in her book, Mycophilia — Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms (348 pp., illustrated, Rodale 2013, $25.99), where she writes about the Kennett Square Annual Mushroom Festival in Pennsylvania, "the event celebrating the white button mushroom."
Besides tracing the history of mushroom growing in the United States ("we are the world's second largest producer following China"), Bone reports on the plethora of mushroom items available at mushroom festivals. These include T-shirts that say, "Shitake happens."
Although shitake mushrooms are not found in our area, the summer's extraordinary rainfall fostered the emergence of many other species. In a way, I identify with a mushroom's proclivity for shade and moisture. Hot, arid summers have that effect on the psyche. Perhaps a bond exists between humans and mushrooms solely on the basis of body composition — for, like ours, theirs too are composed mainly of water.
Similar to their fungi cohorts, mushroom folk also materialize when days are moist and misty. A downpour on a Monday evening portended well for my first-ever mushroom hunting trek the following morning.
My companions, Brian Hillman and Michael Lacey, are both seasoned hunters of champignons who met in the early 2000s at a Cherry Creek campsite.
Hillman grew up in New York's Adirondack Mountains and is a former trout fisherman. He is a white-hair-pulled-back-in-a-pony-tail septuagenarian and naturalist, who once worked as a zookeeper in the herpetology division at the National Zoo.
Lacey, a native of Scotland, favors books by mushroom expert David Arora, including Mushrooms Demystified and All That the Rain Promises and More (a field guide to Western mushroom species). Lacey studied Russian at the University of Oregon, and buys and sells foreign language books. A lover of the West, he decided to retire in Silver City, although he was seriously tempted by Tombstone, Ariz. "Where else," Lacey asks, "can you get shot by a gunslinger every day at noon?"
Both men hunt mushrooms because they "like to eat 'em."
No drudgery was involved in this mushroom-hunting sortie. The morning was cool and clear. A mushroom's habitat preferences — in this case pine forest — are conducive to my own. Wildflowers abounded and ferns grew thickly on mounds. Taking a stumble meant landing in the soft, caressing duff of pine needles, decayed leaves and twigs.
Camouflaged in the lovely duff are mushroom shrumps — domes where some mushrooms emerge. A lucky forager may find mushrooms in their early flowering stage when they resemble eggs. Depending on the species, this can be the prime time for edibility. In other shrumps, one may find mushrooms munched on by animals or infested with fungus gnats.
Depending on the light quality and a hunter's spotting experience, mushrooms can also be seen from the road. Lacey credits his brown-tinted sunglasses as a mushroom-spotting aid: "Higher contrast allows me the ability to see mushrooms more easily," he reports.
Basic hunting supplies consist of a stick, knife, brush, basket and field guide. Neither trained pigs nor truffle rakes are needed in New Mexico.
You can use the stick as both a walking aid and tool for checking under shrumps and leaves. A sharp knife enables you to remove the mushroom from the ground, while the brush serves to remove the soil clinging to it. A basket transports what you find while providing ventilation.
Several edible species can be found in our vicinity. Boletus edulis grows thick and tall. Even raw, they smell like simmering beef bourguignon. This species is called ceps in France, and porcini in Italy.
In three hours' time, several edible mushroom species were collected on my mushroom hunting spree. Both Lacey and Hillman described the morning's bounty as "the best in several years."
- Mycologist Dr. Keller Suberkropp will give a WILL-sponsored lecture every Thursday in October (1:30-3 p.m.) on "Molds, Mildews and Mushrooms — Their Importance to Us." Contact the Western Institute for Lifelong Learning for details, www.will-learning.com.
- The New Mexico Mycological Society has been around since 1984. Field trip and membership information is listed on its website, NewMexicomyco.net.
- Fungi Perfecti, owned by mycologist and author Paul Stamets, supplies organic mushroom kits and medicinal mushroom supplements made on his farm in Washington. The online catalog is interesting. See www.fungi.com.
Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.