stalking mushrooms

"The sudden appearance of mushrooms after a summer rain is one of the more impressive spectacles of the plant world." --John Tyler Bonner, botanist

For me, referring to finding mushrooms in their natural setting as a hunt gives the impression of elusiveness. But we’ve all experienced discovering fascinating fungi that suddenly appear at the edge of our yards, in local parks, or along a rural pathway. During an end of summer rain-sogged hike through the deep cool mossy forest in the far north woods of Minnesota, the extraordinary number of mushrooms that decorated crumbling logs or lined the slippery trails dumbfounded me. But with my meager knowledge of what I stumbled across, I settled for a photo safari rather than a culinary one.

So we invited ourselves to tag along with good friends and colleagues, Michael Karns and Todd Overland (of maple syrup fame), on a dedicated hunt for late summer forest mushrooms. Michael, who is certified through the Wisconsin County Extension Service to identify and sell edible mushrooms, has the foraging creds to put us at ease. And the fact that he freely admits there are hundreds of mushroom varieties he can’t identify (“LBM’s” or little brown mushrooms litter the forest floor—fun to look at but best left behind) underscored our confidence in his knowledge. It's the people who think they know everything that get in trouble.

Also known as a sulfur shelf, chicken of the woods always grows on wood, often climbing high up damaged oak trees in the Midwest or conifers in the Pacific Northwest. A parasitic relationship, this type of mushroom thrives on and breaks down cellulose. Without fungi that perform this important task, our woods would be overfilled with broken trees and logs. Chicken of the woods, besides sporting its dramatic color and shape, has a dense, meaty texture, making it a prized find for cooking. Like all mushrooms, they are nutrient-dense and are luscious sautéed in a rich sauce as a meat substitute. All wild mushrooms must be cooked to be safely edible.

These mid-size mushrooms, with the distinct look of Sunday morning pancakes, have a similarity in texture to what we'd know as domesticated button mushrooms. One of Michael’s favorite fun facts for novice mushroomers, is that the conventional white button mushroom that's ubiquitous in the grocery store is the same variety as what are perceived as fancier portabello and crimini mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus)—the difference is solely based on age and exposure to UV light. A pretty nice example of brilliant marketing!

The bolete family of mushrooms is filled with extravagantly delicious members, notably the ones we know as porcini and cèpes. Others are quirky, containing a compound that reacts to exposure to oxygen. This blue-staining bolete spontaneously turns a deep indigo when broken open, a startling and delightful biochemical reaction that does not affect the mushrooms edibility. But beware, other boletes that are red or also turn blue when bruised may be toxic.  

Michael was introduced to tramping about for wild mushrooms as a kid, but wasn’t bitten by the bug. Years later he heard a radio story about searching for spring morels, igniting his curiosity. A successful weekend wander seriously hooked him, along with some close friends like Todd who join him for long jaunts through fields and forest over the course of the summer and fall. Michael cites amateur mycologist Michael Kuo (www.mushroomexpert.com) as a trusted resource, having authored field guides and study manuals about hundreds of mushroom varieties. Along with David Arora’s book, Mushrooms Demystified, and an Audubon field guide phone app, both Michael and Todd embrace the challenges of identifying varieties they've never seen before.

Chanterelles grow gregariously, according to Michael. Once you identify one of these enchanting golden mushrooms be assured there's a vein of them, flowing gently like a meandering river through the woodland undergrowth. They are basically the fruit of what's called a mycelium mat that grows on soil or other organic matter and can spread out over large spans of land. Michael and Todd used sharp pocket knives to cut the stems of the chanterelles cleanly, then hope that bugs haven't worked their way up the stems, leaving trails and holes in the edible caps. "I can't stand the heartache," Michael says.

It's easy to see how a cache of black trumpets can be overlooked; even with my mushrooming eyes turned on they resemble old, dried leaves. But stoop down and peer straight along the forest floor and they become easier to spy. Of all the mushrooms we gathered, these were among our kitchen favorites with their fruity aroma and rich flavor.

The street name for the hedgehog mushroom relates to its unique texture on the underside of the cap. This is an especially pristine specimen as they tend to collect dirt in the rough surface as they are gathered. 

PearShapedPuffBall.jpg

Aging puffballs send up a marvelous cloud of “smoke” when kicked or poked, actually spreading the spores that ensure a viable new crop in the next season. A large puffball is said to release upwards of 20 trillion spores.

Giant puffballs regularly grow to the size of a human head and are often found on the ground in clusters or scattered groups in pastures, meadows, orchards, and woodlands. They were once morbidly called "tête de mort" in French, since they look like human skulls from a distance. When at their peak, baseball-sized or larger, they should be firm and have some slight give when pressed,  similar to a cushiony marshmallow. Trimmed and thickly sliced, they're like an umami-rich steak when fried in butter.

Also known as a maitake, hen of the woods is like a reliable friend and can be counted on to fruit in the same place year after year. "Maitake mushrooms are known in Japan as 'the dancing mushroom.' According to a Japanese legend, a group of Buddhist nuns and woodcutters met on a mountain trail, where they discovered a fruiting of maitake mushrooms emerging from the forest floor. Rejoicing at their discovery of this delicious mushroom they danced to celebrate." --Paul Stamets, American mycologist

Some of our discoveries were astonishing--ruffly jelly leaf (Tremella foliacea) that climbs up fallen logs, spindle-shaped yellow coral (Clavulinopsis fusiformis) that truly looks like sea coral reaching up from the forest floor towards the filtered sunshine, and Russell's bolete (Boletellus russellii) with its long wood-like striated stipe and perfect small cap. Exquisitely unique, they make Dr. Seuss seem like he had no imagination.

The infinitely diverse world of wild mushrooms showers the woods with enough look-alikes that serious hunters learn techniques like spore printing--slicing the cap off the stipe (or stem) and turning it gills-down on a piece of white copy paper. Covered and allowed to stand for an hour or two, the spores will drop from the cap. The color of the spores are a clue to identity, as well as becoming a natural work of art.

Hunting mushrooms is addictive. It’s like any other pursuit that taps into the natural pattern of seeking, a primal part of our brains. It’s a very cathartic, almost Zen practice as long as one doesn’t get too attached to the idea of success. Mother Nature determines when the mushrooms will show themselves. The best piece of advice I can give for finding mushrooms is to just get into the woods as often as possible. Even if you’re not successful one can never consider a day in the woods a waste.” --Michael Karns