The Fungus Among Us

Mushrooms are a source of mystery, fascination, and even fear. They appear suddenly, and are gone just as quickly. They come in a diverse array of colors and shapes, growing in dark, out-of-the-way places as well as on front lawns. Their usefulness as food and medicine has spawned a legion of mushroom aficionados.
An edible morel mushroom grows on a California lawn. Other fungi—like the Amanita muscaria below—are poisonous. Christopher Nyerges' width=
I began actively studying mushrooms, from books, in the early 1970s. Then, while attending a lecture on the native plants of Southern California, the speaker mentioned that the Los Angeles Mycological Association (LAMA) would be offering a class through UCLA extension. “Mushrooms: Fact and Fancy” was led by Robert Tally, a leader of LAMA at that time. I then joined LAMA and attended numerous field trips with lifelong mushroom experts. Field study with experts is an absolute must if you desire to eat wild mushrooms. Why? If you make a mistake and eat the wrong mushroom, you die.

Some of the people I met through LAMA were outright fungus fanatics. One evening while Tally was holding a mushroom class at his home, he answered a phone call and came back to tell the class that large numbers of morels—a highly-prized edible mushroom—were popping up somewhere near San Francisco. Certain members of the room were audibly gasping, nearly fainting, as they heard the news. At least a third of the people there dropped everything they had to do the next day and drove several hundred miles to hunt morels!

When I was living in rural Ohio in the mid 1970s, I learned many common wild mushrooms from farmers and Amish people. Still, I was cautious and always checked things out that I was told.

One of the most common edible wild mushrooms is the field mushroom, or pinky (Agaricus campestris), so-called because of its pink gills. This is one of the easiest for amateurs to identify because it is a close relative of the cultivated Agaricus found in stores. Look for the white cap, stout white stem which detaches easily from the cap, and the pink gills, which turn brown as the mushroom matures. This mushroom is popular and tasty. I have enjoyed it raw, in salads, sauteed, in soups, dried and in countless other dishes. Some years, this is so common that collectors easily fill bushel baskets with them in minutes.

One autumn in Ohio, I noticed a huge field full of the pinky mushrooms as I was driving by. I pulled over, and my brother and I began filling our basket. I picked one that looked like all the rest, but then I saw it had white, not pink, gills. This wasn’t a field mushroom, but a species of Amanita. The stem was narrower and a bit longer, the ring on the stem was more substantial, and it had the telltale cup at the base of the stem. We tentatively identified it as Amanita verna or Amanita virosa. Either way it would have painfully killed us had we eaten it.

A few members of the Amanita genus are actually edible, and I have eaten them. On the other hand, mycologists generally agree that the most poisonous mushrooms are a few species of Amanita, called Angels of Death or Death Cap. Because of the slow action of the toxins, most victims do not get proper medical treatment. Then, a day or two later, when the vomiting, diarrhea and painful cramps occur, the toxins are already at work destroying the liver, kidneys and nervous system. Even with organ transplants, virtually everyone who eats such mushrooms dies in five to 10 days.

In most cases, poisonous mushrooms are eaten by overenthusiastic collectors who said “they looked edible.” In one widely publicized case in 1985, four illegal immigrants who came into the San Diego area from Mexico died afer they ate poisonous mushrooms. There is no shortcut for determining if you can eat a wild mushroom. Though most shortcuts have some basis in fact, there are too many exceptions.

Nutritious and Medicinal Properties

Of the 38,000 known species of mushrooms, about 50 are poisonous while 50 have medicinal value and 700 are used for food, according to Shari Lieberman and Ken Babal in Maitake Mushroom and D-Fraction. Lieberman and Babal write that, although there is variation, mushrooms are generally rich in minerals, vitamins (including B1, B2 and B3) and amino acids. They contain vitamin D2, which is not found in vegetables, and they are high in fiber and low in calories.

Many mushrooms have antibiotic properties as well. Because of their beneficial effects on overall health and the immune system, several mushrooms have long been prized by Chinese and Japanese healers, including the polypores Ganoderma lucidum and Grifola umbellata and the shitake mushroom (Lentinus edodes). The Japanese maitake mushroom (Grifola frondisa) contains beta-glucan, and it may therefore fight cancer and improve the health of people suffering from HIV, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol and obesity. Because so little is actually known about the medicinal properties of fungi, ongoing research is almost certain to reveal more benefits.

Mushrooms For Beginners

Once you take a class, go on a few field trips and practice with a good field guide, you”ll see that it is very possible for an amateur to collect and safely use any of a dozen or so wild edible mushrooms. These are characteristic enough to make identification a snap, and common in urban as well as rural and wilderness areas.

Examples include the field mushrooms, the inky caps (so-called because they turn into a black, inky-like substance when they decompose), oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus, so-called because they taste remarkably similar to cooked oysters), fairy ring mushrooms (Marasmius oreades, which always grow in circles), chanterelles, boletes (especially the giant bolete, Boletus edulis, which tastes like eggplant when cooked), puffballs, morels and chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus, which really does taste like chicken). The flavors and textures of wild edible mushrooms are so diverse that you need to check books for cooking details and recipes.

With care, it is possible to harvest wild mushrooms with little environmental impact, because the edible part exists only to produce spores. By treading lightly, collectors can ensure the survival and propagation of the underground “mycelium,” which is the main body of the fungus. You can also purchase a wide variety of mushrooms from food stores or companies like Albert’s Organics, Highland Harvest and Maitake Products.

To find a mushroom club or organization in your area, check your telephone listings or call the botanical departments of local colleges. Next, check with plant or gardening societies.