The Curious Behavior of Mushroom Hunters

Morel mushroom. Photo by Rastoney (Flickr)

Reprinted from the Forest Stewardship Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall 1994

By Ellen O'Donnell

If you know any mushroom hunters, you probably have encountered their rather curious behavior at certain times of the year. Serious mushroom collectors will go to great lengths to keep their favorite picking grounds private, so much do they relish these fleshy fruits of fungi. It seems hard to imagine that fungi can inspire such devotion, but the more I learn about this fascinating kingdom, the more I find myself intrigued by the vast variety and edibility of these multifarious organisms.

On an early fall day, a walk through the woods will reveal an abundance of fungi in many forms. Some look lace-like and delicate, others are brightly colored and thickly structured, and some, like the Jack O'Lantern mushroom, actually glow. Mycologists describe fungi variously as resembling corals, tongues, orange peels, petals, jelly, ears, and unbelievably, even Danish pastries. (Whoever wrote that last description must have been hungry at the time.) A quick glance through a mushroom guide turns up fungi with widely varying caps, stalks, gills, hairs, odors, colors, veins, fringes, spore surfaces, tastes and so on. It is easy to see why serious mushroom hunters warn amateurs not to eat any wild mushroom that is not positively identified by an expert.

Avid mushroom collectors talk for hours about the varying flavors and culinary delights of their fungal finds. "Chicken-of-the-woods," for example, is purported to have an excellent flavor, although not necessarily reminiscent of chicken as its name implies. Also known by the name "sulphur shelf," the bright yellow and orange hues of this bracket fungus make it almost impossible to misidentify.

Of the thousands of North American mushroom species, only six are known to be deadly poisonous to eat. However, many produce toxins that cause mild to severe gastrointestinal upset and some have hallucinogenic effects. Contrary to some folklore beliefs, touching mushrooms will not produce poisoning, rashes or warts.

Fungi are classified in a kingdom of their own, because, unlike green plants, they cannot harness the sun's energy to make their own food. Some fungi grow on simple sugars - they use them as sources of carbon and get their nitrogen in the form of inorganic nitrates or ammonium compounds. Others are the ultimate recyclers, releasing enzymes that digest molecules in dead plant and animal matter, and turning them into simple nutrients which they then absorb. Still others are parasitic or symbiotic and rely on living plants and animals for their sustenance. Although fungi range from unicellular organisms, such as molds, to higher forms with complex hyphae (fine, thread-like structures), such as mushrooms, all reproduce by spores. These spores are as variable in size and shape as the seeds of green plants.

Despite their small size and relatively low profile, fungi play a very important role in the forest ecosystem both as decomposers and as food for many species of birds and small mammals. Some fungi establish mutually beneficial mycorrhizal associations with certain trees. Through sheaths surrounding tree rootlets, the fungus obtains moisture and protection, while the tree receives nitrogen, phosphorous, and other unavailable nutrients.

Most common higher fungi are called Basidiomycetes because their spores are produced externally in spine-like projections called basidia. These structures are supported on the short-lived "fruiting bodies" we know as mushrooms and toadstools, which raise the spores above the ground and leaf litter on either "gills," "fingers," or "teeth," so the spores can disperse in the wind. Puff balls are also Basidiomycetes, but their spore masses are contained within their fleshy exteriors. Kids (and adults, too) love to kick these big, balloon-shaped mushrooms, because they release puffs of powdery spores on impact. Although the mushrooms of fungi may disappear only a few days after they mysteriously appear, the supporting structure of the fungus may remain for years. It is made up of a network of hyphae that often spreads for many yards through the soil or wood.

Morels, truffles and yeasts belong to another major group of fungi - the Ascomycetes. They produce their spores internally in sac-like cells called asci. Morels are probably the best known and most sought after of all the edible fungi. Their brown-chambered tops, which often resemble pine cones, are actually spore-bearing surfaces. Since true morels fruit in the spring, any morel-like fungi encountered in the summer and fall are probably false morels and should be avoided.

In most cases a fungus will attack only a certain type of organic matter. Panaeolus separans, for example, is a widely distributed poisonous mushroom that lives only on horse dung. Some species are quite versatile; the "Shaggy Mane," for instance, is able to live on buried wood and other organic matter anywhere on earth. Very often a mushroom will fruit each year on the same stump or log or under the same trees. An understanding of what the mushroom lives on is therefore essential to successful mushroom hunting. Examining the mutually beneficial relationships between certain fungi and higher plants enables us to predict where certain mushrooms will exist. For example,Gyrodonmeruioides is always found near species of ash; Chroogomphus rutilus is found under or near five-needle pines; and Suillus luteus is found under larch. If you understand these associations, you can distinguish a beneficial fungus from one that is a parasite and a potential threat to its host.

One of the most reliable ways to identify mushrooms with certainty is to take a "spore print." This is done by removing the stem, or stipe, and placing the cap, underside down, on white paper. In two to six hours, you will have a colored print reflecting the architecture of its underside. The color of the spore print that results will help distinguish between mushrooms that closely resemble one another.

The art of mushroom gathering has an extensive history, and is an important part of many cultural traditions. As naturalist Sy Montgomery points out, mushrooms have provided food for the peasant, drugs for the psychedelic and even weapons for the murderer. “A pot of mushrooms changed the history of Europe,” Voltaire declared. Eminent victims of poisonous mushrooms have included Roman Emperor Claudius in 54 A.D. and German Emperor Charles VI, whose death sparked the war of the Austrian succession in 1740. Mushroom collecting is such a part of some traditions in Russia, in fact, that forbidding children to go mushroom hunting is a common punishment for misbehavior.

Besides their value as food, fungi are also known for their distinctive smells. The blue-green Clitocybe odora, for instance, is known for its anise-like smell; the little brown garlic mushroom, often found on rotting oak leaves, smells, appropriately, like garlic. Mushrooms also can serve as warning signs. The fan-shaped "woody artist's conk," whose white underside bruises brown when scratched, is a shelf-like fungus that only grows on dead or dying trees. This big fungus, which can grow to 55 inches across, may warn you when a tree might fall: those afflicted with it blow over easily. If one appears on a tree near your house, pay close attention.

As you are out and about, take the time to investigate the abundant forms of fungi that grace your woodlands. Collect, touch, and smell these wild mushrooms to your heart's content; just don't taste any without the advice of a knowledgeable forager.

References:The Curious Naturalist Nature's Everyday Mysteries, by Sy Montgomery; The Way Nature Works,Macmillan Publishing; Mushrooms of North America by Orson K. Miller, Jr.