Sauteed or fried, from a restaurant or supermarket, found in a souffle or Alice in Wonderland movie, the mushroom is a science, hobby and favorite food all in one. Area enthusiasts had an opportunity to identify and gather the fantastic fungi on a wild mushroom expedition to Tustumena Lake with Kenai Peninsula College biology teacher Boyd Shaffer last Saturday.
"I usually go on a couple (mushroom hunts) each season," Cathryn Zerbe of Soldotna said.
She and her husband, Gary, both are mushroom enthusiasts.
"The conditions have to be right for them, but there's plenty of them around," she said. "We've got a really good location on the peninsula for that kind of thing."
With August nearing its close, Shaffer said, prime mushroom season is fast approaching.
"They're always at their very best during moose hunting season," he said. "It just happens that way, when mushrooms have nothing to do with the hunt. But by that late in August, I've never known when it wasn't wet. And that's what we're talking about -- wet."
Boletus edulis, or the king bolete, is prized by many mushroom hunters.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Mushroom hunters are at the mercy of the weather, Shaffer explained, because the fungi grow best in dark, moist environments with a temperature of about 50 degrees.
"Just the kind of weather we normally hate," he said.
Another plus to picking this late in the year is the decreased chance of insect infestation. Mushrooms tend to generate a lot of interest with Mother Nature's creepy crawly critters. Certain species of beetles, flies, wasps and gnats consume or even lay eggs in mushrooms.
"Insects have a definite life cycle, and it's wearing itself out now," Shaffer said Wednesday. "Within another week, the mushrooms that come on will have less and less bugs. Generally speaking, the last mushrooms you harvest at the end of the season will be bug free."
Mushrooms are a fungi (pronounced fun-ji, not fun-guy) that thrive in a dark and wet environment.
"It only takes a few hours for mushrooms to get big," Shaffer said. "Under proper conditions, growth is really rapid. You can almost watch the things grow."
Mushrooms reproduce by releasing spores, up to five billion per minute for an
average sized mushroom with a 3-inch dia-
meter cap, according to Shaffer. These spores are so minute they can float in the atmosphere until they become saturated and settle to the ground with rain.
Experimenters examined microscopic material taken from a flat roof in Europe and found the spores of every known mushroom in the world. They're found everywhere, Shaffer said, from the atmosphere down to a living room.
The gypsy mushroom is a common edible.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"There's no such thing as the 'mushrooms of Alaska,'" Shaffer said. "They should say the world's mushrooms because all but a few are found everywhere. I had a group of people from Australia tell me they were finding the same kinds of mushrooms they had at home. If the habitat is there and the food is there for them, they will be there."
Mushrooms are the fruit of a plant that lives by feeding off dead organisms. Many of them are organism-specific, meaning a certain kind of mushroom grows on decaying cottonwood, while a different mushroom grows off of moose droppings or decaying owl feathers. Needless to say, this adds a degree of difficulty to identifying and classifying the already mystifying mushroom.
"There are so many mushrooms that only two-thirds of them have ever been described scientifically. I wouldn't even hazard a guess (as to how many mushrooms there are)," Shaffer said. "There's such a vast number that I don't believe anyone could ever learn or memorize even a third of them in a lifetime. You can't pick them all."
So how do connoisseurs go about distinguishing which mushrooms are which without becoming ill or worse? Shaffer advises people to just stick to the good edible ones.
"Get to a point where you can identify those real good mushrooms and forget the rest, unless you want to make mycology you're life's study," he said.
Shaffer has four criteria when picking mushrooms. To meet his standards, a mushroom must have no history of poisoning anyone, be easy to identify, be found in abundance and have its own unique flavor.
Out of all the mushrooms Shaffer has seen, only 35 worldwide measure up to these standards, and they all exist in Southcentral Alaska.
"It's that easy-to-identify thing that blows you away," he said. "And that's always the case."
For instance a cortinarius mushroom, which is poisonous, closely resembles the edible gypsy mushroom; except the cort doesn't have the veil or ring on its stalk like the gypsy does.
Add to that the tendency for mushrooms to change color and shape depending on weather, age and growing conditions, and mushroom hunting can get downright complicated.
"What I do is get to know a couple of species and those are the only ones I really look for," Zerbe said. "I only go for the ones that are really obvious and don't have any poisonous look-alikes."
Zerbe said she especially likes the boletus edulis mushroom.
"They're usually big, have a flavor that's completely different than other mushrooms, and (they've got) kind of a crunchy texture," she said. "They're definitely better than store-bought mushrooms."
A good field book with color pictures and text descriptions on the same page helps, Shaffer said. He recommends "Mushrooms of North America," by Orson K. Miller.
Another rule is to always rely on the mushroom's scientific names.
"Common names are meaningless," Shaffer said. "One was named, for some dumb reason, 'man on horseback.' It's absolutely stupid -- what bearing does that have on it? Scientific names will be recognized all over the world and will be in any good book. They're not used to appear pompous, they're so we all know what we're talking about."
Once an edible specimen has been identified, Shaffer pulls it out of the ground, cleans off the dirt and checks it for bugs.
"Always collect with a knife," he said. "I never take anything out of the field that I haven't worked first. That way I don't bring home garbage."
To be included on a mushroom hunt, contact Boyd Shaffer through the Botanical Society's Web page at www.wildlifeartprints.com/kpbs.htm and sign on to the the e-mail notification list.
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