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Stalking the Wild Mushroom
by Alan Muskat

Originally appearing as "Stalking the Wild Mushroom" in New Life Journal,
December 19, 2003

On meadows, where were wont to camp
White mushrooms rosy gilled,
At dawn we gathered dewy-damp
Until the basket filled.


I was driving home yesterday and the chief UN weapons inspector was on NPR. He was going to retire next month, back to Sweden, and he seemed glad to be leaving his post. He also seemed glad to be done with the interview when they asked him one last question: "What are you going to do now?" He said, "The first thing I¹m going to do is go pick some blueberries and some mushrooms."

There are few things that can lift the spirits like a walk in the woods, especially after a late summer rain. For that¹s when mysterious mushrooms emerge. Look there! Three orange polka-dot umbrellas... snow-white icicles in a hollow tree... purple sea corals and giant puffballs! From the jack-o-lantern (which glows in the dark) to the velvet earth tongue and the club-headed beetle-eater, nature's premier recycling system is a source of endless fascination. A romp in the forest in search of mushrooms can make anyone a child again. That's literally what rejuvenation means.

What a delight it was to ramble through the clean, fragrant woods, filling our baskets. When I was almost eight and my sister was nearly seven, we were already proficient mushroom gatherers...When we were naughty, our mother would punish us by forbidding us to go mushrooming.

Valentina Wasson, Mushrooms, Russia, and History.

Most of the world delights in wild mushroom looking and cooking. Lucky for us, our region is home to the greatest variety of “fun-guys” in the U.S., and now is the time to find them.

But what about the danger of deadly mushrooms? Here's a chance to test your mushroom knowledge. True or false:

  1. Most mushrooms are poisonous.
  2. Even experts often cannot tell the edible species from poisonous look-alikes.
  3. All poisonous mushrooms are deadly.
  4. It is dangerous to touch or smell a poisonous mushroom.
  5. Mushrooms have little nutritional value.
  6. Wild mushrooms are better than ice cream.

The truth is that mushrooms are far more beneficial and far less dangerous than many Americans believe. For one, it's perfectly safe to handle or even sniff any mushroom. You'll find that mushrooms can smell like almonds, anise, cucumbers, garlic, raw potatoes, maple syrup... you name it. The matsutake, prized for its flavor and medicinal value, smells like a cross between red hots and dirty socks!

Fungophobia aside, the fact is that out of ten thousand species of mushrooms in North America, less than ten are deadly. Several of these are quite common, but once you know what to watch out for, they are as easy to pick out as broccoli from cauliflower.

Granted, there are a few common mushrooms that won't kill you but will make you wish you were dead. But most "poisonous" mushrooms merely cause mild to severe stomach upset. So how many species are "better eyed than fried?" Again, out of ten thousand varieties on the continent, only 400 are even suspected of being poisonous. Of these only twenty are common (Benjamin, 1995).

What about the other 9,600? As far as we know they're harmless, though we don't know everything. At least two hundred of these are worth eating, depending on who you ask. And some are not only edible but incredible: the chanterelle, morel, porcini, meadow mushroom (or wild portabello), and chicken of the woods, to name a few.

The funny thing is that a number of mushrooms that we couldn't imagine eating in this country are actually highly medicinal. In 1993 the Chinese women's track team broke nine world records thanks to Cordyceps sinensis (see illustration). This mushroom munches on living moth larvae, eventually mummifying them (much like the monster in Aliens did to humans). It is now marketed in tinctures and extracts as a "super-tonic," one that builds physical stamina, mental energy, and sexual power. Always the ones to make their medicine their food, the Chinese traditionally enjoy Cordyceps (moth ball and all) roasted in the stomach of a duck. How about that for next Thanksgiving?

Another less-appetizing entry into the herbal world comes to us from the Former Soviet Union. Inonotus obliquus, or chaga, is another parasitic fungus (this time on birch) that looks like a burnt canker sore. The remarkable thing is that it looks just like melanoma, or skin cancer, and guess what it's good for? In fact, chaga has shown anti-tumor activity for a number of cancers (Hobbs, 1996). The fungus is simply ground and brewed like coffee. It's not commercially available, but it is common in the Northeast and in our area at very high elevations. It actually does taste like a coffee substitute, and just last week, I served what was probably the world's first "chagalate ice cream" to a class of herbal students. And it was well received.

These are just two of the many medicinal mushrooms we're just learning about in the West. Several, like Grifola frondosa, the "hen of the woods," have long been considered choice delicacies. I supply high-end restaurants around Asheville, NC with a number of immune-boosting mushrooms, and their medicinal value is not why they buy them!

Mushroom-hunting is a balm to both body and spirit. Wild mushrooms are as nutritious as they are delicious, plus they're all local, organic, fresh, and free. So, to rejuvenate yourself, head for the woods and try hunting for fungus. It'll grow on you.