(Note: This is part 1 of a series of posts, length yet to be determined.)
"Nothing more than mushroom
identification develops the powers of observation." - John Cage
Mycology - the study of mushrooms and other fungi - has always fascinated me. While I may often attribute my interest to my intense enjoyment of their earthy, springy flesh - sauteed in butter, folded into risotto, or simply popped in the mouth with a sprinkle of sea salt - I think I'm truly drawn to the world of fungi by one key aspect - one tiny mistake and they can kill me.
Morbidity notwithstanding, one must admit the allure of such a flagrant disregard for self preservation. I liken the appeal of wild mushroom hunting, and consumption, to the desire for exotic dishes like fugu. Both require an inordinate amount of skill to prepare (or in the case fungi, identify) and an equally extraordinary amount of sagacity (or lack thereof) to consume the finished product.
And so it was with this sense of adventure I placed myself in the knowing hands of Phil Carpenter and the staff of Garland Ranch Regional Park for my first foray into the labyrinthine world of wild mushroom hunting. Carpenter is a longtime officer of the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz and has been featured regularly as a mycological expert in numerous publications throughout the Central Coast region of California. In Good Times Weekly, a Santa Cruz newsletter, Carpenter warns of the toxic Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) mushroom. In the San Francisco Chronicle Carpenter helped identify a rather extra-terrestrial looking fungi that was plaguing a local nursery owner. And in Monterey County Weekly Carpenter lent his expertise in the Big Sur Chantarelle Cook Off. Lead by such a master of his field it was hard to feel even a little anxious as Carpenter easily rattled off both the scientific and lay terms for each specimen of fungi our class found.
Before we bravely tromped through along the trails, and frequently off (much to the chagrin of Educational Director Joe Narvaez - the anxiety at the possible damage done to his park was visible - sorry Joe!), Carpenter sat us all down in the Garland Ranch Regional Park Museum for a lecture on the benefits, and possible perils, of wild mushroom foraging.
Before ever attempting mushroom foraging learn this:
First on the docket was the Death Cap mushroom. Carpenter explained that before you learn anything else about mushroom foraging, before you even contemplate identifying edible mushrooms, learn to identify the Death Cap.
The Death Cap is a rather benign looking piece of fungi that is the "most common cause of deadly mushroom poisoning in the United States." The Death Cap is prevalent in many locations throughout the world including Europe, Russia, Poland, Ireland, and even Morocco. It is also commonly found throughout the United States. Typically poisonings result from misidentification because the Death Cap so closely resembles its edible genus members.
As Carpenter warns, learn to identify it above all other types of fungi, and then steer clear.
What is a mushroom?
A mushroom is technically the fruiting body of a mycelium organism. The mycelium is a web or net-like mass of thread-like hyphae. A single spore is capable of germinating into a mycelium, but until it comes into contact with an identical spore it is incapable of reproducing. When the spores meet, and "mate," they are then capable of producing the fruiting body, or the tasty (or poisonous) bits we find poking through the leaf litter or popping up on a dead log.
While the idea of finding an identical spore may seem rather simple, one must only realize that there is speculated to be about 3.5 million types of fungi alive in the world today - makes Sex and the City seem kind of trite, eh? Of the millions of fungi only a few hundred thousand have been categorized and named. Mycology is quite the exciting scientific frontier, ripe with possibility of discovering a new specimen at any time.
Up Next: Mushroom Identification
It is here that I feel obliged to add a disclaimer for all very stupid people who might get the wild idea of mushroom foraging on their own after this post, or any one hereafter. Do NOT do this. It is the very definition of stupidity to attempt to forage fungi on your own, without the help of a knowledgeable mycological expert.