Anna’s Mushroom Hunting Obsession Checklist: Are You A Fungus Fanatic?

Editor’s Note: There Is No Cure for My Mushroom Obsession. That’s Just How I Like It.

The first time I went on a mushroom hunting expedition, I realized immediately that it was going to become a passion bordering on obsession for me. The date was December 5, 2008, and by some glorious good luck, me and my mushroom hunting buddy found a tremendous load of Pacific Northwest golden chanterelles (Cantharellus formosus) in the coastal mountain range of Oregon, just an hour and change west of my then-home city of Portland.

A family of mushroom fanatics. Photo by Anna McHugh.
A family of mushroom fanatics. Photo by Anna McHugh.

Beyond my excitement about finding gourmet food, for free, from the forest floor (which inspired a sincere and enthusiastic “HOLY SH&* HOW COOL IS THIS?!” sentiment), I was enamored by the adventure of mushroom hunting and knew in my bones that mycology was a great hobby for me.

As time went on, I became more and more dedicated to mushroom identification and my other mycological pursuits, and now it’s hard to imagine the PMH (that would be “pre-mushroom hunting”) era of my life.

If you’re trying to gauge your own mushroom obsession, read onward, because I have compiled a goofy list of some traits and behaviors that fungus fanatics tend to share. Of course, this is all tongue-in-cheek, but I have done all of these things at one time or another. If you like, share your own mycophile “tells” or stories in the comment section!

Yours in Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Mushroom Hunting Obsession Checklist: A Compendium of Mycophilic Behaviors

Cantharellus formosus
A Pacific Northwest golden chanterelle (Cantharellus formosus). This is one of the first wild mushrooms I ever found (and ate!), making this specimen one of those that sealed the deal on my mushroom obsession. Photo by Anna McHugh.

There are a few simple, self-explanatory mushroom freak characteristics that you can look for right off the bat when evaluating yourself or a loved one for acute mycophilia. Here are just a few of them, with detailed descriptions of some of the worst (or best, depending on your point of view…) fungus fanatic “tells.”

  • You Occasionally Suffer from PMSD (Post Mushroom Season Depression). Do you get depressed when it’s too cold, dry, or otherwise too nasty outside for mushrooms to fruit? I know that I certainly do. When mushroom season draws to a close each year, I get a wicked case of PMSD that can last a few days up to several weeks. Suggested treatments include cultivating gourmet mushrooms at home, brewing beer, and using dehydrated mushrooms in your meals. Symptoms include looking at Mushroom Observer too much, excessive sighing, and wistfully staring at spots in your yard where mushrooms typically fruit.
  • You Go Out of Your Way to Visit Your Favorite Mushroom Spots, Even Though You Know They’re Not Fruiting. There is one tree in Raleigh that produces massive lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) mushrooms throughout the fall. I start visiting that tree on at least a weekly basis in July, even though I know in my bones that it’s too early to expect mushrooms to be fruiting. If someone were to decide to cut that particular pin oak, I would probably become an activist tree-sitter, in spite of my fear of heights.

    King oyster mushrooms
    King oyster mushrooms for sale at Far West Fungi in San Francisco. If you would feel compelled to touch each one of these mushrooms before committing to buying some, you might be a mushroom nerd. Photo by Anna McHugh.
  • It Takes You More Than 2 Minutes to Select Mushrooms in the Store. If you shop at a place where they sell mushrooms in big bins and you find yourself touching Every. Single. One. before you decide which ones to buy, you might be a mushroom fanatic. Bonus points if you travel to more than 2 stores to find more exotic mushrooms like king oyster or enoki.
  • Your Family and Friends Have Trouble Finding You During Mushroom Season. If it’s the middle of chanterelle season and your significant other complains that they can never reach you because you’re out hunting, you might have a mushroom problem. I know one fellow who was throughly traumatized because his girlfriends would always dump him during mushroom season, even though they would often rekindle the fires of love once the fruiting fungi went into hibernation each winter.
  • You Own Lots of Mushroom Swag. I cannot tell you how many mushroom tee-shirts, lamps, mugs, and other weird fungus-emblazoned accessories I own. The reason for this is that when my loved ones see strange, mushroom-themed objects at stores and yard sales, they sort of feel like I need to own it. I am thankful, but I suspect this is a significant sign that I am mushroom-obsessed.
  • You Know Whether You’re A Lumper or a Splitter. You’ve thought about it, and you know what sort of mycologist you are: a lumper or a splitter. Maybe you’re a little of each. One way or the other, if you’ve thought about your personal philosophy on mushroom genetics, you’re likely a fungus fanatic.

You’re Always Mushroom Hunting…Even on the Interstate.

This one is amazingly common. When I started mushroom hunting, I quickly discovered that I cannot “turn it off,” as it were, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. Once you become familiar with different wild fungi, your eyes can’t tune them out, even if you’re doing 60 mph on the interstate. Most avid mushroom hunters I have interviewed at mushroom forays shared with me that, at a certain point, their better judgement became irrelevant and mushroom hunting behind the wheel almost became inevitable, because no matter what is happening, a mushroom addict’s eyes are always looking for fungi!

Spring King Porcini
This haul of spring king porcini (Boletus rex-veris) was gathered through motorized mushroom hunting. Photo by Anna McHugh,

Of course, seeing and chasing mushrooms wherever you go is not limited to road trips. It may be that you’re walking the dog and you notice some cool mushrooms in a neighbor’s yard, and you are sore tempted to investigate, even though you’re aware that it might look really conspicuous and weird (pro tip: take the doggie home beforehand, and just go and knock on the lucky homeowner’s door and ask them if you can look at their mushrooms. Worst case scenario, you get an odd look and a sketched out “Umm…no,”…best case scenario, they tell you to take the mushrooms and invite you to remove fungi from their property in the future).

If you find yourself scanning the landscape whenever you drive through a forest or meadow, you might be a mushroom fanatic. If you’ve ever swerved off the road and left your car idling on the shoulder to go investigate something mushroom-shaped that ended up being a piece of litter, you’re definitely a mushroom fanatic.

Although I discourage people from DWMH (Driving While Mushroom Hunting), I must confess scoping the habitat from a moving car can be a viable strategy if you’ve got a carload of mycophiles who can safely look for mushrooms, while the driver (hopefully) keeps his or her eyes on the road.

To wit: Once upon a time, two of my myco-geek friends and I decided to eschew mushroom hunting for porcini on foot altogether. Instead, we cruised around the National Forest at about 20 mph with two of us hanging out the windows, eyes trained on the landscape. We were rewarded for our lazy, motorized mushroom hunting strategy, and picked up a 20-odd pounds of spring king porcini (Boletus rex-veris) that day!

Yellow morels
Do morel mushrooms freak you out? Me too! Photo by Anna McHugh.

Morel Season Geeks You Out…BAD.

Morel mushrooms cause some fairly serious emotional deregulation for me. When I am stuck inside on a beautiful day that I would much prefer to spend hunting for morels, I can get rather despondent and snippy, and also a little jittery and excited about the next time I will get free from my work-a-day existence to get out in the woods.

Morel mushroom season can cause a wide array of emotional swings that you may be familiar with if you’re a true mushroom nut. Some mycophiles go through a series of emotional frenzies before, during, and after morel season…before it starts, everyone is hopeful and impatient, simultaneously chipper and antsy in anticipation of the first sighting of the season’s first black morel mushroom. Mushroom-related social media is abuzz with lots of “Oh, I went out today and didn’t find anything, HAHA but I don’t mind…HAHA it’s too early anyway…RIGHT GUYZ?!”

Then the season starts, and the mood changes to one of intense focus, giddy triumph, and (sometimes) avarice and secrecy. People who can get out in the woods whenever they want are envied, and those who have not yet found a single morel occasionally start to feel a little panicky, wondering whether or not this will be the morel season that they got TOTALLY SKUNKED, jeez that would be horrible, I shudder to think…Then the season ends, and everyone takes a deep breath, tallies up their yellow morels and black morels, and brags about their numbers when and where appropriate.

If you have a morel mushroom fixation like I do, you probably dream about the little bastards, and spend a lot of time feeling giddy and excited about them, but also a little freaked out about the prospect that they might evade you. Once you succeed, however, and fill your basket with mushrooms and tote them home to make some delicious, creamy morel sauce, the joy cannot be adequately described. It’s sort of like riding a unicorn through a field of lollypops while a 7-piece brass band serenades you with your favorite victory melody from the Lord of the Rings.

Mushroom costume
Nice partial veil, lady! Mushroom fanatic in Amanita attire, spotted at the Telluride Mushroom Festival. Photo by Anna McHugh.

You Dress Up Like a Mushroom…And People Aren’t Surprised.

If you’re a real fungus hound, it’s likely that at some point you will find yourself making a mushroom costume…and then wearing it in public. Somehow, your friends and loved ones will not be surprised by your behavior, and in fact they may act relieved, as though they were wondering when you’d just go ahead and get it over with so they don’t have to wonder anymore whether your dignity can withstand the pressures placed upon it by a ridiculous mushroom costume. This is especially true if you’ve taken the time to explain your mushroom fixation to them and they’ve adopted a benevolent and tolerant attitude toward your mycological pursuits.

Maybe it will be on Halloween, or perhaps a mushroom festival you’re attending. No matter the circumstances, if you’re a really crazy about mushrooms, there’s a good chance that you will find yourself strapping an oversized cap to your head, donning a veil, and celebrating your mushroom-freak-hood with an appropriate outfit.

I will confess that I’ve never worn a full-on toadstool costume…largely because I am not terribly artistic and tend to be very lazy when it’s time to create cool stuff to make myself look (even more) ridiculous. When I walked in the Telluride Mushroom Festival parade, all I managed was a cardboard sign that said:

“Will work for Hydunum Hydnum…and Latin lessons!”*

*Note: this is a bad joke about one of my favorite genera of edible wild fungi, the hedgehog mushroomsHydnum rapandum and Hydnum umbilicatum.

Even though I’ve never worn a mushroom costume for a holiday, I think I engaged in a parallel activity some years ago when I visited my mother for Christmas, and we decided that instead of a tree, we wanted to create and decorate a  papier mache Amanita muscaria. It was very festive, and when I suggested the project to begin with, my mother was not one bit surprised, although she was immensely amused.

Christmas Amanita muscaria
My mom and I made this Christmas Amanita muscaria for grins. Photo by Anna McHugh.

You Believe That Some Mushrooms Are Sexy, Drop-Dead Gorgeous, or Cute.

Although holding the opinion that mushrooms are beautiful is not really a determining factor in whether you’re a diehard mycophile, you might want to consider the possibility that you’ve crossed into fanatic territory when you start to develop a nuanced appreciation for the looks and behaviors of certain mushrooms. The more colorful your adjectives, the more likely it is that you’ve become obsessed with fruiting fungi!

Two of the people I interviewed for my documentary about mushrooms had distinct experiences with thinking that certain mushrooms are gorgeous, adorable, or alluring. Taylor Lockwood, one of the world’s foremost mushroom photographers, told me a story about how he began his journey into the world of mycology.

“I ended up in northern California on the coast, in a little town called Mendocino. And outside my cabin, there were these beautiful mushrooms…so I bought a camera and started taking pictures. I just wanted to take their portraits. One of the greatest things that happened to me, as a mushroom photographer, was discovering bioluminescent mushrooms…it’s just so so exciting to walk down a trail and to find these gorgeous, glowing mushrooms…when you see them and kneel down, in the dark, and pull one of these things up and look at the green, glowing gills, it is really, I would say, a religious experience. And it’s such a completion to know that these things are out there, and then to find them, like a fabulous treasure hunt for people who really like to live on the edge of life!”

Another interviewee, Damien Pack, was also forthcoming about his appreciation for the cute and sexy side of certain mushrooms. It was he who first drew my attention to the fact that the very words Volvariella volvacea is one of the sexiest phrases in human language. Try saying it in your best Al Green or Marvin Gaye voice, and see if you agree.

When I asked him about his favorite mushrooms, Damein shared this fun little bit with me, which promptly led into a discussion of each of our all-time cutest mushrooms.

tiny mushroom
When I shared this image with some mushroom hunting campmates, they all responded with something like “AWWWW, that’s ADORABLE!” You might be a mushroom freak if you feel the same way. Photo by Anna McHugh.

“Gosh, people always ask, ‘What’s your favorite mushroom?’...and it’s really hard to say. It’s funny because I’ll say, ‘My favorite mushroom to FIND? Or my favorite mushroom to EAT?’

“My favorite mushroom to find is edible, but most people don’t really eat it…it’s called Pseudohydnum gelatinosum…and it’s this liiiiitle jelly fungi, and it’s clear, so you can sort of see through it. And when you touch it, it wiggles it jiggles…it’s just so silly and sweet, and it has, like, fairy energy…yeah, I love finding that mushroom. It’s such a sweet little thing!”

Long story short, if you find yourself thinking, “That’s freaking adorable!” when you see a fairy ring mushroom (Mirasmius oreades) with its wavy little edges and nipple on the cap, you might be a mushroom fanatic. If you come across a fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) and think to yourself, “Now that there’s a sexy, leggy redhead of a mushroom,” you’re almost certainly a fungus freak. If you see a greening goat’s foot (Albetrellus ellisii) and think something along the lines of, “Well isn’t he and eccentric-looking character…he’d look great in paisley!” Then guess what: you’re obsessed with mushrooms!

What Are Your Mushroom-Related Behaviors?

Naturally, the list I’ve compiled does not do more than scratch the surface, and I am always curious to hear from folks about their own symptoms of mushroom fanaticism. If you think I’ve missed something, please add your own thoughts and observations in the comments!

 

 

 


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