March 23, 2015

On Wild Mushrooms

By Karlene Schwartz, Volunteer

Lobster mushroom
Copyright Karlene Schwartz
A mushroom is the above ground reproductive structure of some fungi. People hunt wild mushrooms for food, medicine, and dyes on all continents except Antarctica. Where a mushroom is rare, collectors must leave sufficient numbers of mature mushrooms to scatter their spores and initiate new colonies.

People who gather wild fungi may deplete the food supply of wildlife that derives nutrients from fungi. Animals detect irresistible aromatic compounds given off by fungi. Flying squirrels, deer, and red squirrels feed on mushrooms. Wherever the animal defecates, undigested mushroom spores land and may begin a new colony.

Some wild mushrooms are deadly. The edibility of thousands of wild mushrooms is unknown. Never, ever eat a wild mushroom unless you are positive of its identification. The only identification rule is that there is no rule; no simple test proves the edibility of a wild mushroom. To identify a mushroom with certainty, you must determine its color, shape, appearance, structure, spore color, habitat, and season.

The respected mycologist Nicholas Money suggests picking wild mushrooms may be bad behavior. Just leaving the mycelium, the feeding structure of a mushroom, may not suffice to ensure the fungus population. Destruction of woodlands and of undisturbed grassland surely destroys mushroom habitat. A Swiss study showed that weekly picking or cutting of all mushrooms in a plot did not affect the species richness or abundance of edible mushrooms. But trampling did reduce species richness and yield. Tread lightly when you gather.

Copyright Karlene Schwartz
If you’d like to learn to gather wild mushrooms and truffles, experienced teachers abound. City dwellers can join an urban guided mushroom walk. The North American Mycological Association ( brings together interested amateurs with skilled teachers to learn mushroom identification. A foray is a guided walk to an area during which you learn to identify mushrooms and mushroom habitat. In northern Michigan, an annual morel festival draws enthusiasts for guided morel forays, seminars with experts, and morel dining. Wherever you live, you can learn mushrooms basics, ecology, mushroom conservation, evolution, and taxonomy at a natural science center, adult and teen summer camp, mushroom club, in mushroom books, and on the web.

Hunting truffles (underground fungi) with animals dates back at least to 1481. Bartolomo Platina, author of a treatise on Italian gastronomy, mentioned that sows were unequaled for locating the potato-shaped truffles. To a sow, the truffle’s alluring aroma smells like an attractive boar. The female pigs wore muzzles to prevent them from eating their fungal finds. Also dogs can be trained to sniff out truffles. A truffle dog is distracted with a treat while its person digs up the truffle. If you are interested in having your own dog trained, the North American Truffling Association can link you and your pup to a professional truffle dog trainer.

Wild pecan truffles were discovered in orchards of southern Georgia in 1987. As their name implies, these truffles grow near pecan tree roots and are harvested from the top inch or two of soil. The gnarled pecan truffle has a marbled interior and sells for about $100/pound. University of Georgia biologists are developing pecan truffles’ potential as a delicious, precious crop.

Since its early years, Karlene has enjoyed volunteering at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. As a biologist/author/ photographer, she has written docent cards describing the natural history of eastern coyotes, fishers, mink, red foxes, weasels, barred owls, black bears, bobcat, white tail deer, river otters, skunks and beaver. Hiking with friends, kayaking, participating in BioBlitz, and caring for conservation lands each in its own way teaches her more about the fragile natural world.

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