A certain mystique surrounds mushrooms.
Often adding bright colors to the drab forest floor, some species are sought for their pictured beauty while many are craved for their flavorous attributes by culinary masters around the world.
Some are purported to yield an intoxicating effect, while others are drop-dead deadly.
To be able to discern between the poisonous and the edible, about 30 peninsula residents gathered around mushroom expert Dominique Collet in Soldotna Saturday for a day of hunting, harvesting and identifying mushrooms found here.
Sponsored by the Kenai Watershed Forum, the mushroom workshop was one of several summer programs offered free to the public. For those who missed it, another is planned for next year.
Collet, a naturalist who has done extensive work on local flora -- especially mushrooms -- encouraged people into carload-sized groups and dispatched them to mushroom hunting grounds in and around Soldotna.
"Look for diverse habitats," Collet said, suggesting the people return at lunch time with as many different species of mushrooms as they could find.
"Go to forested areas with birch and spruce, which we have the most of, and look for areas with pine trees, or meadows or fields and yards," he said, adding that folks should respect private property.
Gatherers were to return three hours later, at noon, to River City Books and Charlotte's Cafe, where Collet would undertake the identification process after lunch.
By 1 p.m., a dozen cardboard boxes brimming with mushrooms, fungus and lichens had been brought back to the patio behind Charlotte's where Collet had set up two tables draped with white paper onto which the mushrooms were piled.
As people would quickly learn, Collet was not about to simply hold up samples and say, "This is edible. This is not."
No, the lesson would be that each individual picking mushrooms must know, without a doubt, what it was they were considering eating.
With that said, Collet embarked on his mission of teaching basic information about the structure of fungi, how they reproduce and many identifying characteristics of various species.
Collet had carefully cut the caps of several species of mushrooms from their stems and laid them on the white paper to create spore prints as one technique of identification.
Then mushrooms were divided into groups including the common puffballs, the milky or Lactarius mushrooms, Russulas, Cortinarius, Amanitas and Boletes.
Upon closer inspection, Collet described how some mushrooms could be identified if their stems snapped in two or if the stems were more fibrous, not allowing them to be so simply broken.
Others had fin-like gills under the caps and some had tubular spore cells that actually resembled sponges when inverted.
Some characteristics of the Amanitas included a ring or annulus that appeared on the stem beneath the cap after the mushroom opened in maturity, and an outer veil that completely covers the button stages of the mushroom allowing it to be easily confused with a round puffball.
Almost without exception, every group of mushroom hunters that day returned with one or two samples of the brightly colored Fly Agaric, or Amanita muscaria. Perhaps the most unmistakable of toadstools, this yellow-orange- to scarlet-capped mushroom with white spots is widely believed to be poisonous.
Another mushroom brought back in abundance by the day's novice harvesters was the King Bolete or Boletus edulis.
Among the most frequently eaten of all mushrooms in Europe, this Bolete is widely common on the Kenai Peninsula, growing in peculiar proximity to the Fly Agaric, according to Collet.
The King Bolete is often described as the best-loved of wild mushrooms.
Collet could not stress enough the importance of knowing exactly what it is one is collecting when gathering mushrooms and suggested learning to positively identify only a few for the table, avoiding the others.
While many species readily available here are edible, Collet likened their preference to that of other plants.
"Some plants are very good, such as fruits and vegetables, and some, like grasses and weeds, are not poisonous, but you wouldn't want to eat them," he said.
Most collectors seemed thrilled to learn that the plentiful King Bolete was edible and choice, and the folks who spent the day under the tutelage of Collet were sure to exercise caution while in pursuit of the delectable offerings on the Kenai forest floor.
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