Wait, you’re the mushroom guy?”

Well, I’m no expert, but I know just enough to get me into trouble.”

Would you mind taking a look at a few specimens I found?”

This how my conversation went when I talked to a particularly unique hiker. When he found out I know something about mushrooms, he wanted to learn as much as possible. I don’t blame him, either (especially because I was the same way when I first started learning about mushrooms!). In fact, I can’t help but get a bit of satisfaction knowing that I am teaching others about one of my passions and getting them interested too.

Hen of the Woods September 8 2017

A Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) that was 7 lbs.

During our discussion, the man went out to his car and brought in a few specimens. As the conversation went on, he told me a bit of his history. He and his parents went hunting for morels like most other hunters in my area, which really inspired his love for the fungi kingdom. He told me he used to be an “outdoors-y” person and would go hunting often, but can’t do that much anymore. Instead, he told me, he now forages for mushrooms.

I prefer mushroom hunting over actual hunting,” he said. “It’s much more fun.”

I pondered that statement for a long while after we finished our conversation. Here was a man who saw two ways to hunt in the woods and preferred one over the other. Why? The more I thought, the more the answer became apparent…

First of all, hunting has a complicated set of rules/procedures and is expensive (obtaining tags, weapon upkeep, ammunition, etc.) while mushroom foraging is relatively simple and inexpensive. Once a person knows which mushrooms are safe to consume and where/when they grow, it is only a matter of finding a place to harvest them.

Next, hunting requires a lot of patience, which is a rare commodity in our era of instant gratification. A hunter may trudge miles while schlepping their gear, just to find the “perfect” spot, and will sit there for hours on end waiting for his/her prey to walk unwittingly into range. That’s not to mention that hunting usually occurs in fall or winter, so those hours are probably going to be brisk. On the other hand, mushroom hunting is the exact opposite. It is an active past time because, last time I checked, mushrooms were not considered mobile. So people who want to forage for mushrooms have to hike and be on the lookout for specimens. In addition, most edible mushrooms grow in the spring, summer, or fall and not in winter. That means mushroom foraging is usually warmer than hunting.

Last, certain groups, like animal rights activists, see hunting as a violent past time. Personally, I find it interesting that people protest the killing of an animal but are perfectly fine when a plant is killed for consumption. Is that due to the fact that a plant won’t audibly cry out when it is destroyed? Do plants have emotions? Can plants feel? Is hunting a violent activity or does it connect us to our ancestors? These questions might be better asked in a laboratory or philosophy class. In any case, nobody cries foul when a plant or fungus is picked for consumption.

Is mushroom foraging better than hunting? Although there are pros and cons to each past time, I don’t think one is better than the other. I think it’s more important that people are finding different ways to get outside and enjoy the outdoors. And for that, I am glad. Until next time, happy hunting or foraging (whichever you prefer)!

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Shroom Spotlight Sunday: Calvatia craniiformis

As I pulled in my driveway one August evening, I noticed a white blob in the center of my yard peeking out from the grass. I wasn’t sure what it was, especially because it wasn’t there that morning. Thinking it might be a mushroom, I hastily exited my car to get a closer look. I wasn’t disappointed when I inspected the specimen because it was clearly a puffball (Calvatia) or earthball (Scleroderma). I was shocked that this mushroom grew about 4 inches wide in the matter of half a day.

But what type was it? Puffballs are usually edible when young, but can look like their poisonous earthball counterparts. There are ways to determine what a specimen is when it is young, but that involves picking and slicing into the mushroom. I didn’t want to do that with my fungal friend though. Instead, I decided to let it mature and photo-document the entire process. As it grew, its shape gave away its identity.

Skull Puffball August 12 2017

Evening of August 12, 2017

Profile:

Name: Skull-shaped Puffball (Calvatia craniiformis)

Color: The entire fruiting body is white to light tan in the early stages of its growth. As it matures, the mushroom will begin to turn a tan to brown color. When it becomes older, the brown will become darker.

Size: The fruiting body is 8–20 cm wide and 6–20 cm high.1 Some guides list it as growing as large as 25 cm wide.2

Growth Type & Location: The Skull-shaped Puffball is listed as a saprobic species (a decomposer). It can grow in grasslands and hardwood forests alike.3

Range: North America

Description: The Skull-shaped Puffball’s fruiting body has a top and a bottom section. The top part of the fruiting body is taller and wider than the lower section, thus giving it a skull shape. There is a ridged texture on the top part of the fruiting body while the thin, lower section tends to be smoother. Occasionally these puffballs will have deep wrinkles or ridges, making it look more like a brain than a skull. Once the puffball becomes old enough, cracks will begin opening on the top of the fruiting body to allow the spores to disperse. Once the top part of the fruiting body decays, the base of the fruiting body will remain for some time afterward.

Season: Summer–Fall

Skull Puffball August 22 2017 evening

Evening of August 22, 2017

Thoughts:

Although this mushroom is listed as edible, I didn’t trust my identification enough to try it myself. Personally, I thought the young, snowman-shaped mushroom was too interesting to pick anyway. I’m glad I didn’t, either, because photo-documenting the specimen was a lot of fun. Watching the changes in the mushroom as it matured was surprising to say the least.

As I stated in my “About” page, I have always been fascinated with the fungal kind, and perhaps even more so with puffballs and earthballs. I never could resist stomping on the large specimens. Watching the purple or brown spores fly out like a dust cloud was always satisfying. Thankfully, self-control came with age and I was able to resist kicking over this mushroom. But there is something about puffballs that draws the eye. Perhaps it has to do with their unique shape, their bright color compared to their background, or their method of spore dispersal. Whatever the case may be, people love hunting, photographing, and eating puffballs.

If you would like to look at the timeline of photos I took, follow this link:
https://themushroomweb.wordpress.com/2017/09/03/gallery-calvatia-craniiformis/

Next time you take a walk around your neighborhood or in the woods, look for this strange ‘shroom. Until then, happy hunting!

 

1 Gary H. Lincoff, National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 822
2 Teresa Marrone and Walt Sturgeon, Mushrooms of the Northeast (Cambridge: Adventure Publications, 2016) 42
3 Kuo, M. (2017, May). Calvatia craniiformis. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/calvatia_craniiformis.html

Gallery: Calvatia craniiformis

Featured Book Review: Mushrooms of the Northeast

Mushrooms of the Northeast by Teresa Marrone and Walt Sturgeon was the book that got me interested in mushroom hunting. Although this book is mainly for identification, there is a really informative section for amateurs at the beginning, guiding them through the basics of mycology, the biology of mushrooms, and the proper ways to identify them. This book laid the foundation for the knowledge I would acquire through the rest of my mycological studies. Overall, I think it is a good beginner’s book for mushrooms and a decent field guide. Despite being lacking in certain areas, it is a good reference guide, especially when used with other books and websites.

 

Pros:

  • Pocket sized. This is a major selling point for those who want to use their guides out in the field. Many identification books are large and cumbersome, but this one is not.
  • Fully colored with great photographs. I can’t understand why some mushroom identification books are in black and white. Part of mushroom identification is the coloration of a mushroom. So when a guide is in black and white, it won’t help with that aspect.
  • Simple identification guide. I’ve seen identification books that group mushrooms together based on spore types. Dragging a microscope along into the field to identify mushrooms is not practical, and neither is grouping mushrooms together by spore type for a field guide. This guide gets it right when it groups similar-looking mushrooms together.
  • Leads to other helpful resources. In the back of this field guide, there are other books and websites recommended by the authors. This allowed me to track down other good mycological resources.
  • Top edible and toxic sections. The first identification section in this book deals with the top edible and highly prized mushrooms in the Northeast. The next identification section deals with the most toxic mushrooms in the area. Both sections alert an amateur.
  • Excellent descriptions. Each mushroom listed in this book has a common name, scientific name, habitat, visual description, spore print color, season, other names, look-alike mushrooms, and various notes. Each description is well-written, and within these descriptions, the text of the important information is bold and colorized. This makes it quick to find needed information.
  • Great for beginners. Like I said in my introduction, this book taught me the foundations for mushroom hunting. It does not overload the reader with scientific terms that only a scientist would care about. It is a good introduction book to the world of mycology.

 

Cons:

  • Lacking for certain species and not exhaustively extensive. This book does not have all of the mushrooms a person would encounter in the wild. Although it may guide you to do more in-depth research about those mushrooms and refers you to other sources, it does not give an account of all the mushrooms in the Northeast. But as a pocket-sized field guide, that is understandable.
  • Only for the Northeast. Although the title explicitly says this book is only for the Northeast to mid-Atlantic region, I want to make it a point. It is understandable that the authors did not want to make a pocket guide for all the mushrooms in America, but for people outside the areas listed, this book won’t do much good. There are other books in the same series for other regions in America, though.
  • Great for beginners, nothing new for experts. For those who already know their way around the fungal kingdom, there isn’t much to glean from this book. I understand the authors’ intent by writing a book as a beginners guide, but it leaves the experts wanting more.

 

Final Thoughts:

When comparing the pros and cons, it is apparent the authors knew what they were doing while compiling and writing this book. It was meant to be a “grab and go” guide for beginners that introduced them to the complex and vast world of mushrooms of the Northeast. It was not meant to cover all of America, nor was it meant to cater specifically to experts. Although experts may not gain anything from reading and studying this book, it is still a good reference guide and can be used with other resources. Despite these praises, it still is lacking in some species of mushrooms, so I can’t give it a perfect score. Overall, I highly recommend this book.

 

Overall Score:

4/5 – If this book were a mushroom, it would be an edible specimen in its prime.

If you would like to purchase this field guide, some national and state parks carry it. Alternatively, you could order it from Amazon:

Shroom Spotlight Sunday: Cantharellus cinnabarinus

When I first started foraging for edible mushrooms, I was extremely wary of chanterelles. This was in part due to the fact that I never had anyone teach me the proper way to identify them. Of course, I knew about the “false gills” of chanterelles and their funnel-shaped caps, but there were other mushrooms that had similar characteristics. After all, the False Chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca) looks an awful lot like edible chanterelles to the untrained eye, and the various funnel cap mushrooms could be mistaken for chanterelles too. For that reason, I stuck to the mushrooms that I could easily identify. But I just couldn’t resist researching these tiny, mysterious, red mushrooms…

Cinnabar red chanterelle side August 7 2017

There were multiple clusters of these little, red mushrooms.

Profile:

Name: Cinnabar-red Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus)

Color: Cap is generally orange-red to red, becoming light orange to pink with age. False gills are lighter than the cap, usually a pink color. Stem is the same color as the cap, but becomes whiter near the base.

Size: Cap is 1–4 cm in width while the entire mushroom is 1–4 cm in height.1

Growth Type & Location: The Cinnabar-red Chanterelle has a mycorrhizal association (a symbiotic relationship) with hardwood trees. They will grow from the ground under hardwood trees, favoring oaks and beech trees.2

Range: Eastern United States

Description: The cap of these small mushrooms ranges from the typical chanterelle funnel-shape to flat to convex. Under the cap are folds and wrinkles of false gills, and on bigger specimens, cross-veins can be seen between the false gills. The false gills partially descend down the stem like other chanterelles.

Season: June–November

Thoughts:

Any mushroom forager will tell you that there are highly prized and greatly favored mushrooms people search for specifically. Well, the Cinnabar-red Chanterelles are not considered to be in that category. However, they are a nice find while looking for other “big name” mushrooms. While you are out foraging for the top edibles, keep your eyes peeled for these small treats.

My experience with these mushrooms was favorable. They had a subtle fruity smell combined with their earthly scent. The ones I found were densely clustered together in multiple patches. I read that another forager likes taking coffee cups with him while he forages for the favored mushrooms just so he could have a safe way to store these tiny mushrooms until he could cook them up.3 I followed his advice and ended up with two coffee cups worth of Cinnabar-red Chanterelles in a matter of fifteen minutes.

Cinnabar red chanterelle top August 7 2017

The caps of these mushrooms are less than two inches wide.

When I came home from foraging, I knew these tiny chanterelles would dry out quickly if I did not cook them soon. I noticed that cleaning them was easy because bugs left them alone. I didn’t have to soak them in salt water brine, either. A quick rinsing off of dirt and debris using gentle, cool water did the trick. I turned on the stove to a lower heat setting, put margarine in a skillet (oil and butter works too) and let it warm up, then sautéed my mushrooms. Since they are so small, it only took about three to five minutes to cook a batch. Cooking them was pleasant because my entire kitchen was filled with their fruity and earthy aroma!

As every person should do when sampling a new food, I only tasted about five to make sure I wouldn’t get sick, have problems with my intestinal tract, or have an allergic reaction to them. In fact, I have a pretty sensitive gut, so I proceeded with caution. As it turns out, I had no adverse reactions at all. The chanterelles were chewy and had a texture that could be compared to calamari. They didn’t have much of an initial taste either, but had a slight biting or peppery aftertaste. I ended up putting them over a steak and would definitely recommend that to others. I know others use them as ingredients for omelets, mushroom soup, and pizza.

Despite not being the best mushrooms out there, I would highly recommend Cinnabar-red Chanterelles. They are easily identifiable once you know what to look for and where to find them. Cleaning them is quick, and they can be used as accents in a multitude of dishes. So find someone who can show you what these treats look like and have a great time foraging. Happy hunting!

 

1 Gary H. Lincoff, National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 388–389.
http://www.mushroomexpert.com/cantharellus_cinnabarinus.html
3 http://www.silysavg.com/naturespickings/mushroomreport/red_chanterelle.html

What is THAT?! Part I

WOAH! What is THAT?!

When I show people the interesting fungi pictures I have taken in the past, people usually respond similarly. Although the preface may change to a “cool” or an “eww,” the age-old question of “what is that” remains the same. And with good reason, I suppose. We often have a mixture of fear and awe when we encounter something we’ve never experienced before, and mushrooms are no different. We have a weird fascination with these things that look like lifeforms from a distant world. But fungi aren’t alien invaders, are they?

Humans, for as long as they have encountered things in nature, have tried to explain, as best they could, what they saw. When they didn’t understand or couldn’t find a reasonable explanation as to what they saw, they turned to the supernatural for answers. Myths and legends about fungi sprouted up that ranged from evil spirits to fairies. But as time progressed, people started asking more questions.

Hairy Rubber Caps August 12 2017

These Hairy Rubber Caps (Galiella rufa) definitely look out of this world.

Scientific thinking took hold and people began to explore the natural world with a more critical mind. They began to group similar things together in an attempt to classify them. Although they knew mushrooms were different from plants, they decided mushrooms would best fit in the plant kingdom. This does make a bit of sense. Plants and mushrooms generally grow from the ground or from other plants. Plants also tend to have a root system, and mushrooms have a “root” system too (more on that in Part II). Mushrooms even look a little like micro-trees. It seemed fungi found a cozy home in the plant kingdom. That was, until the mid-1980s.1

In the ’80s, scientists began to reevaluate the classification of fungi and noticed a few stark differences between plants and their fungi companions. One of the things they examined was the lack of chlorophyll in fungi. Some plants lack chlorophyll too, so that isn’t necessarily the best indicator for a classification. However, plants don’t have chitin within their cells, while fungi have cell walls made out of chitin. Chitin is also present in a number of animal species, such as the exoskeletons of insects. That makes fungi more closely related to animals than plants.

Chlorophyll, without getting too technical, is what gives plants their green color and allows them to photosynthesize (make food for themselves).

The revelation that fungi could be closely related to animals left scientists scratching their heads. Scientists pondered how they should classify our fungal friends. They established that fungi didn’t belong in the plant kingdom, but at the same time, the fungi weren’t that closely related to animals either. Realizing that fungi were a kind all their own, they created a new kingdom just for the fungi and aptly named the kingdom “fungi.”

Skull Puffball August 13 2017 morning

Mushrooms come in all shapes and sizes!

So there you have it: they aren’t plants or animals. Fungi are fungi. In What is THAT?! Part II, we are going to look at the different parts of fungi to get a better understanding of the fantastic fungal kingdom. What are fungi? Are they different from mushrooms? Do toadstools and mushrooms differ in any way? And what is the big deal with spores?

Until then, happy hunting!

 

1 Gary H. Lincoff, National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 11-13. Although this is the 2000 printing of the Audubon guide, the original introduction has remained the same since the 1980s printing. The reader can see mushrooms being referred to as plants.