Fungus among us

Mycological Society members learn to identify nature’s bounty

Posted: Thursday, August 17, 2006


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  The velvet foot, named for the fine hairs found at the base of its stalk, is a popular wild and edible mushroom that can be collected in Alaska in the fall. A cultivated version of the mushroom known as enokitake is popular in Japanese cuisine. Photo by Patrice Kohl

Steve Scott president of the Kenai Peninsula Mycological Society, distinguishes the edible puffball mushroom, bottom, from the poisonous immature amanita mushroom, at a mushroom tasting Tuesday.

Photo by Patrice Kohl

While a string of gray, wet days has left some Alaskans moping, this month’s rainy weather has not dampened everyone’s outdoor fun. Wild food gatherers who eagerly harvest mother nature’s fruits of decay every spring and fall find delight in gray skies when falling rain provides their bounty a boost.

On Tuesday, local mushroom hunters stalked yards, roadsides and forests, and with the fruits of their labor in hand, met at Soldotna Creek Park to share their bounty in a brave picnic gathering.

Members of the Kenai Peninsula Mycological Society, exchanged fungal wisdom and nibbled samples as they tested mushrooms and separated the delicious from the unpalatable or even poisonous.

There is no single test that distinguishes safe mushrooms from dangerous, instead mushroom hunters must learn to identify each mushroom, said Steve Scott, president of the mycological society.

With two experts at hand and two picnic tables piled high with collected samples, the group’s members searched for distinguishing features and slowly but surely separated their bounty by family, genus and, finally, determined which were were safe to eat.

But should you be an amateur mushroom hunter and not have an expert at hand, one’s best bet may be to start by looking for mushrooms that are the most unmushroom-like.


The velvet foot, named for the fine hairs found at the base of its stalk, is a popular wild and edible mushroom that can be collected in Alaska in the fall. A cultivated version of the mushroom known as enokitake is popular in Japanese cuisine.

Photo by Patrice Kohl

Mushrooms that fit the cap, gill and stem appearance commonly associated with mushrooms have a lot of look-a-likes and may be easily confused with poisonous varieties, said Dominique Collet, vice president of the mycological society.

As an example, Collet held up a mushroom specimen he identified as a honey mushroom. The honey mushroom gets its name from its golden brown coloration and has a rather undistinguished cap, stem and gills that make it difficult to separate from similar species. And although considered a good edible by many is not recommended for beginners, who may confuse the mushroom with a number inedible varieties.

Instead beginners might want to start their mushrooming endeavors by seeking out some of the mushroom family’s odd balls, namely the puffballs.

In appearance, puffballs share little in common with the cap, gill and stem mushroom varieties that commonly come to mind when most people think of mushrooms.

Although there a variety of puffball species they are nearly all rounded or oval in shape, lack gills or a cap and rely on a unique method of spore dispersal. Instead of raining spores down from a cap, puffballs disperses their spores when the surface of the mushroom, or spore case, ruptures and releases its spores into the air in a dark, dusty puff.

Mushroom hunters, however, will want to gather this fungal delight long before it has matured and ruptured. For eating purposes, mushroom hunters should look for immature puffballs which will reveal a solid white interior when sliced open.

But while puffballs may be identified as safe to eat, that does not mean puffball hunters should abandon their guidebooks or throw caution to the wind.

First, just because a mushroom may be identified as safe does not mean it is necessarily delicious or even palatable.

“If you look at the plant world, there are a lot of things that are not poisonous that we do not eat,” Collet said.

Similarly, there are mushrooms that taste bad or, like grass, are not particularly digestible.

And when it comes to eating mushrooms, edible can be an elusive term. What may be considered a delicious and edible to most people might have disagreeable effects on a handful of people.

For mushroom hunters sampling new varieties, Scott recommended only trying one variety at a time and waiting 24 hours after each sampling before eating more. If instead, you sample more than one new mushroom at a time and later suffer ill effects, it will be difficult to determine which mushroom is at fault, Scott said.

There are, however, some mushrooms that will make anyone sick. A number of the deadly mushrooms identified as amanita’s, for example, have been responsible for 90 percent of deaths caused by mushrooms and should be approached with great caution, Scott said.

Which reaffirms the importance of carefully consulting one’s guidebook before sampling any new mushroom, including one of the popular puffballs.

Although generally distinct, puffballs are sometimes confused with amanita eggs, immature amanita that have not yet developed the mature amanita’s cap, stalk and gills.

“This one will make you feel pretty good for about three hours and then you’ll be hanging over the throne for three days,” Scott said holding up an amanita egg that had been collected for Tuesday’s gathering.

However, mushroom hunters can quickly eliminate the risk of eating amanita using a knife and quick examination.

When cut in half vertically, the amanita egg reveals shadow-like mushroom image inside, betraying the amenita egg’s true identity.

As a mushroom hunter’s skills advance, there is no shortage of other unique and tasty mushrooms awaiting identification, as was revealed at Tuesday’s mushroom tasting. Other varieties locally collected and identified, for example, included a number of edible russulas, distinguished in part by the audible snap they make when their stalk is broken. And the king bolete, a thick-fleshed and highly sought after mushroom that is sure to please even the most distinguished of pallets.

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