Crazy About Mushrooms
Home Menu

Paul Stamets – The Intelligence of Mycelium

Editor’s Note:

In recent weeks, I’ve shared some audio files from my extensive archive of interviews with various mushroom luminaries. Today, it’s time to share some comments by Paul Stamets about the inherent adaptability of mycelium. Paul Stamets has studied mushrooms and mycelium for over 3 decades, and he serves as a thought leader in practical and scientific mycology. I have I have written Paul Stamets on this blog before, including a recent post about his plan to use mycelium to help prevent colony collapse disorder in honeybees.

Paul Stamets mycoboom
Paul Stamets placing a “mycoboom” filled with oyster mushroom mycelium in the water of the Puget Sound. Photo by Anna McHugh.

Paul Stamets is quite a visionary member of the mycological community, and in this audio segment he speaks eloquently about how mushroom mycelium educates itself genetically when it encounters new threats, food sources, and other organisms in its habitat. So take a minute to listen in on Mr. Mycelium as he explains how fungi are unique organisms with the potential to solve some of our most pressing problems.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

 Paul Stamets on Mycelium – Fungal Intelligence

It’s interesting to me that, time and time again, I struggle to understand the definition of “intelligence.” When I was a child, I observed my dog and thought he was an emotional, thinking creature, even though my grade-school science teacher insisted that he was lacking in both departments. Now, research suggests that dogs experience a wide array of emotions and thought patterns, and their capacity to comprehend and react to human communication speaks to a genetic and behavioral evolution of the relationship between canines and us hairless monkeys. Of course, it may just be because I now have a border collie instead of a chocolate lab, but I am even more convinced that dogs are intelligent than I was when I was a child.
Continue Reading →

Gomphus Clavatus – The Pig’s Ear Mushroom

Editor’s Note:

Today’s post will look at the pig’s ear mushroom, Gomphus clavatus. This is a bit of a weirdo mushroom and not everyone likes eating it, but I have had good experiences with this mushroom on the whole.

Gomphus clavatus
Gomphus clavatus, the pig’s ear mushroom, is usually fawn-brown on top with wrinkled, lilac-colored false gills. Photo by Vavrin. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

It’s kind of funky-looking, true, but it also has a pleasing texture (most of the time), and does very well when prepared with herbs that have a hint of sweetness to them, such as tarragon or oregano. The first time I ate this mushroom, it was in a creamy pasta dish with abundant aromatics and herbs, and it was quite a treat!

If you’re a novice mushroom hunter and you’re in the market for a new species to identify with confidence, Gomphus clavatus is a pretty good choice because it’s distinctive and reasonably common, and the fruiting bodies are large enough that even if you only find one or two of them, you’ll have plenty for a meal!

So onward and upward, fellow mycophiles, let us sing the praises of humble Gomphus clavatus and enjoy the fruits of this strange but tasty forest treat.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Overview of Gomphus clavatus, The Pig’s Ear Mushroom

Gomphus clavatus is a distinctive mushroom that is a good edible species for those who are transitioning from novice to slightly less novice mushroom hunting for the table. Gomphus clavatus goes by the common name “pig’s ear” because, well, it looks a bit like a pair of piggy ears in a lot of cases. Gomphus clavatus is edible and I think it’s above average when it comes to wild edible mushroom species, although I have met some people who find it bland or a little on the un-yummy side.

This mushroom is mycorrhizal, which means that it lives symbiotically with trees. The mycelium of mycorrhizal species form a network of fungus that attaches to tree roots, and each partner organism trades resources with the other.
Continue Reading →

My Favorite Mushroom Hunting Story – Damien Pack Audio

Editor’s Note:

I love sharing audio files from my archive of interviews with mycophiles from around the nation, but this mushroom hunting story takes the cake. Damien Pack was one of the coolest people I interviewed for my radio project, Crazy About Mushrooms: Conversations With Fungus Fanaticsand this mushroom hunting story is probably (IMO) the funniest tale I heard on my journey to meet the mushroom folk.

Boletus edulis
An up-close shot of Boletus edulis that shows the finely webbed reticulation at the apex of the stem. Photo by Alinja. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

So grab some porcini-powdered snacks, kick your feet up on your mushroom ottoman, and take a couple minutes to listen to the mushroom hunting story that encapsulates a very real issue: competition for king boletes.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Damien’s Mushroom Hunting Story – Competition for Porcini

For those who aren’t aware, the king bolete or porcini, Boletus edulis, is one of the most sought-after mushrooms that grows in the wilds of North America. These occasionally hubcap-sized mushrooms are common on the west coast, particularly in on the Pacific coastline of Oregon and Washington.

I’ve written about porcini before, so if you want to know a little more about why these mushrooms are so coveted by foodies and mushroom hunters, check out my previous posts on porcini species and culinary uses. Also, if you’re curious about a relative of Boletus edulis that I rate as one of the most fun mushrooms to hunt in the wild, check out my post about the spring king bolete, Boletus rex veris

So, without further ado, here’s the audio of a mushroom hunting story Damien Pack told me about a wild mushroom foray on the coast of Washington many years ago. Damien is a diehard mycophile who worked as the growing room manager at Paul Stamets’ farm (Fungi Perfecti), and whose mushroom cultivation and wild mushroom hunting experience runs deep. He’s also a splendid fellow with a flare for spinning good yarns!

 Why Do Porcini Drive Mushroom Hunters Mad?

Boletus edulis and Amanita muscaria
Boletus edulis shares habitat with Amanita muscaria in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Willy Ramaekers. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

There are a lot of wild mushrooms that inspire a great deal of myco-coveteous behavior from both novice and seasoned mushroom hunters, from the sneaky yellow morel species that hide in poplar groves and creek bottoms east of the Rocky Mountains to the large and delicious chicken of the woods (in North Carolina, Laetiporus sulfureus and Laetiporus cincinnatus).

However, Boletus edulis is a special case, even in the context of these highly popular wild mushrooms; it’s so very large, delicious, and easy to identify that it’s sought out by mushroomers of all pedigrees. Add to this the rich culinary history of this mushroom in Europe, and you have a recipe for some extremely competitive behavior around Boletus edulis. For some immigrant families, hunting for wild porcini is a tradition with deep, multi-generational roots.
Continue Reading →

How to Identify Agaricus Mushrooms

Editor’s Note:

This is yet another post in a series I am writing about identifying wild mushrooms to genus. In previous posts, I addressed Amanita mushrooms and Tylopilus mushrooms, and in the future I plan to add more.

Agaricus arvensis
Agaricus arvensis, the so-called “Horse mushroom” is an edible mushroom, but there are at least 2 distinct species that go by the name “Agaricus arvensis.” Photo by Salix. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Today’s fare is a tour of the Agaricus genus, which contains more than 300 species that grow all around the world. With a little practice, you can get very good at identifying Agaricus mushrooms because they’re easy to pin down to genus, and their species traits are well studied and rather easy to discern when you have a captive specimen to inspect.

So here’s to Agaricus mushrooms! Tally ho!

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Agaricus Mushrooms – Key Features

Before I delve into some of the taxonomical considerations and ecological traits of Agaricus, let’s run through the basics; there are a few key features that all Agaricus mushrooms (of which there are probably more than 300 or more) share that should help you tremendously in your efforts to ID them to genus.

  1.  Terrestrial and saprobic: Mushrooms in Agaricus grow from the ground and are not found sprouting off logs, trees, or stumps. These mushrooms are decomposers, and as such they digest compost and nutrients in soil to survive, rather than growing in association with plants or trees.
  2. Chocolate-brown gills and spores: When Agaricus mushrooms are mature, they have dark brown gills that are the color of a (nice) bar of chocolate, and their spores share this color. Spore prints collected from Agaricus mushrooms look like lined smudges of cocoa powder, and they usually drop an ample load of spores. When they are young, the gills of Agaricus mushrooms are pallid, pink, or even white, but as they grow and develop, this changes.

    Agaricus campestris
    Agaricus campestris, AKA the meadow mushroom or pink bottom, has pleasant pink gills when young, which eventually turn dark brown. Photo by Andreas Kunze. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.
  3. Ring on the stem: Agaricus mushrooms have an annulus (ring) on the stem. The ring is formed by a partial veil of tissue that protects the mushroom’s gills when it is young, and when the cap expands to expose the gills, this partial veil bursts and leaves behind a ring. For this reason, young Agaricus mushrooms may have a fully intact partial veil covering the gills. One of my favorite things is to find an Agaricus that’s in between these two states.
  4. Cap not brightly colored: As anyone who’s hunted mushrooms before is aware, some mushrooms are positively lurid: red, blue, purple, the list of possible mushroom colors is nearly endless. Not so with Agaricus mushrooms; most of them are some version of pale or brown.
  5. Clean-breaking stem: Agaricus mushroom stems are a little frail, and they break cleanly away from the cap of the mushroom in most instances. However, it’s worth noting that the stems of these mushrooms can be a bit on the chalky side, but they do not snap like chalk, as with Russula mushrooms. In fact, if you start to noodle around with an Agaricus, you will often find that you can strip pieces of the stem off without difficulty, which would be all-around impossible with the chunky, thick, and chalky flesh of Russula species.
  6. Gills attached or barely free from the stem: Unlike mushrooms with decurrent gills running down the stem, Agaricus species have gills that attach to the top of the stem faintly. They can also be free from the stem, in which case you will see a small ring of empty space between the top of the stem and the radially aligned mushroom gills.

Agaricus Mushroom Overview

Agaricus species are common all around the United States, and there are some nice edible mushrooms in the genus, as well as some poisonous species. The main things to consider when attempting to identify these mushrooms, above and beyond the features listed above, are whether the mushroom stains when it is bruised, cut, or handled and also the aroma of the mushroom.
Continue Reading →

Taylor Lockwood’s Quest for Bioluminescent Fungi

Editor’s Note:

Taylor Lockwood is one of those mushroom lovers who discovered the aesthetic allure of fungi and decided to dedicate himself to photographing the world’s most beautiful and rare fungi. Taylor’s quest for bioluminescent fungi in the Amazon was one of the highlights of his lengthy career as a mushroom photographer, and I discovered that Taylor is as good a storyteller as he is a photographer when I interviewed him at an Oregon mushroom festival a few years back.

Mycena singeri
Mycena singeri, a glowing mushroom from Veracruz, Mexico. Photo by Alan Rockefeller. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Taylor’s recounting of his quest for bioluminescent fungi is but one of many awesome stories that he shared with me when I interviewed him for a public radio documentary called Crazy About Mushrooms: Conversations With Fungus Fanatics

Of all the interesting and strange mushrooms in the world, bioluminescent fungi are among the most bizarre, and it’s no surprise that Taylor Lockwood decided to hunt them down. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did!

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Taylor Lockwood and Bioluminescent Fungi – Gotta Find Those Glowing Mushrooms!

In North America, we do have some bioluminescent fungi (glowing mushrooms), but species with this trait are few and far between. If you want to learn a little about America’s bioluminescent fungi, I have described two of them after the jump. But for now, tune in and listen to Taylor Lockwood’s account of seeking out bioluminescent fungi in the Amazon!

Bioluminescent Fungi in North America

Bioluminescent fungi are something of a mystery to mycologists, but as far as I know, mushrooms glow in the dark for one reason: to attract bugs. Many mushrooms are designed to appeal to insects because the buzzing and wriggling maggots and flies of the world are terrific at spreading mushroom spores far and wide. For anyone who’s ever found a stinkhorn mushroom that smells of poop in order to attract flies, or found a bolete that was riddled with maggots that were born inside the developing mushroom, it can be disheartening to discover that us mammals are not the primary target audience for certain species of fungi.
Continue Reading →

Can Mushrooms Save the Bees? Paul Stamets On Colony Collapse Disorder

Editor’s Note:

Today I want to take a short break from my usual fare and talk about Paul Stamets and his current research on using mushroom mycelium to bring a halt to colony collapse disorder in honeybees.

A honeybee, doing the good work of the world. Photo by Line Sabroe. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Colony collapse disorder’s threat to planetary and human health is almost too big to comprehend, really, because bees are essential pollinators, without whom entire ecosystems would collapse. A stark photograph of a nearly empty grocery store aisle is worth a thousand words about what colony collapse disorder might mean for our food system as well.

There are many people in the mycological community who humble me. There’s Alan Rockefeller, whose grasp of Latin makes my head spin and whose mushroom photographs put me to shame. There’s the wily and often-hilarious Gary Lincoff, who was once quite aptly described as the Woody Allen of the mushroom folk, whose work ranges from research on the Siberian relationship with Amanita muscaria to a cataloging of all the mushrooms that grow in New York City. And then, of course, there’s Paul Stamets. Paul is one of the people who sees the world quite differently than most: as a researcher, his capacity for innovative thinking has unlocked many of the mysterious secrets of the fungi, and I suspect he’s far from done driving mycological research forward into terra incognita.

Stamets’ talk at the 2014 Bioneers conference sheds light on one of his new research projects: using mushrooms to halt colony collapse disorder. I will try to sum up the essential point, but if you want a full understanding of this innovative approach to colony collapse disorder, you can view a video of Stamets’ Bioneers lecture here.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Colony Collapse Disorder – The Basics

Colony collapse disorder is a mysterious and troubling development that has wrecked havoc on North American and European bee populations since the middle 2000s. Although no one truly knows what’s to blame for the massive loss of bee hives in the last decade because of colony collapse disorder, it’s rightfully spooked entomologists, agriculturalists, and layfolk alike. Between 2006 and 2012, an estimated 10 million honeybee hives succumbed to colony collapse disorder, with population losses in the 30%+ range for most years since 2006.
Continue Reading →

11 Questions Mushroom Hunters Hear ALL the Time – And A Few Suggested Answers

Editor’s Note:

Hideous gomphidius!
Gomphidius glutinosus, AKA hideous gomphidius, is one of the most disgustingly cool mushrooms on the planet. Photo by Bernd Haynold. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Well, I’ve gone and done it again and started several different series of blog posts and haven’t really tied up all my loose ends. There’s the ongoing series about the storied past of mycophiles around the globe, the series where I outline different mushrooms to genus, the series of audio interviews with interesting mushroom folk I’ve meet, and of course the ever-growing (and largely as of yet unpublished) series on mushroom cultivation.

Mea maxima culpa! I’ve got no excuse for this scatter-shot approach to this blog, save to say that I am struck by all sorts of mycological fancies and cannot keep up with my boundless enthusiasm for starting new things.

Anyway, that’s neither here nor there, because today my mind is wandering across the series of things I’ve heard as a mushroom hunter these past few years…some of them from concerned friends, some from fellow mushroom fanatics, and some from the bewildered people who I cross paths with who cannot fathom why it is that I find fungi to be so interesting. So I figured I’d write down some of the common things you’ve no doubt heard if you’ve been a mushroom hunter for any length of time. Cheers!

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Questions Mushroom Hunters Hear ALL the Time

    1. Have you ever poisoned yourself with mushrooms? Now, I don’t hold this one against people; after all, most U.S. mushroom hunters are living in rather mycophobic communities, and it seems that lots of people assume that MOST mushrooms are poisonous. I delight in telling people about all the times I haven’t poisoned myself with mushrooms when I am asked this question. They usually wander away after an hour or two.
    2. What on earth are you doing going hiking on a day like THIS? Yes, that’s right, mushroom hunters like to hike around in the rain. It’s good for the soul. When I get this question, I like to point out that when I’m in the proper woods, I don’t need an umbrella because the trees do a good job sheltering me from the rain, and anything that falls through the canopy can easily be stopped short by my wide-brimmed mushroom hunting hat.
    3. Is this a shantrell? (shows you a fuzzy picture that could an image of a cat, a horse, or perhaps just a large hunk of snot). Well first of all, it’s CHANTERELLE, not Shantrell. Shantrell sounds like a lovely name for a child enrolled in Montesorri preschool, and the picture you’ve just shared with me may in fact BE of such a child. Anyway, yeah, take a clear picture, including a shot that includes the bottom of the mushroom. Without a photo of the fertile surface, I surely cannot tell you what that mushroom’s identity is.

      Cantharellus californicus
      A beautiful specimen of Cantharellus californicus (one of the many species of chanterelle). Photo by Alan Rockefeller. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported. If we all took mushroom photos like Alan Rockefeller does, the world would be a happier and less confusing place.
    4. So I’ve got this brown mushroom in my yard. Can I eat it? Ummm…no. I am not a malicious person and I do not dislike getting mycological questions. In fact, I love it because it gives me a chance to share my passion with someone else. That is why I will usually ask someone about 50,0000 follow-up questions when they hit me with the old “brown mushroom in the yard” chestnut. Then I tell them not to eat it anyway, but not because I am a jerk. I just don’t identify mushrooms that I cannot see.
    5. Why are you interested in mushrooms? That seems like a weird hobby. What’s wrong with NASCAR or running marathons? Why is anyone interested in anything, really? I am interested in mushrooms because…well…they’re fascinating and weird. They’re a reminder of impermanence. They’re beautiful, except on those occasions when they’re monstrous (think hideous gomphidius) or cute (think Pseudohydnum gelatinosum)! Besides, NASCAR looks really dull and I am entirely too lazy to run marathons. I’m a mushroom hunter because it gives me childlike joy to wander in the woods picking up stuff my parents warned me to avoid. I also like food! Who doesn’t like food?! In fact, let me turn this one on its head: why AREN’T you interested in mushrooms?
    6. Where are your mushroom spots? Hmm. Well, let me think about it. Yep, I definitely find mushrooms in the woods. Usually near trees. Sometimes they’re in grassy spots. You know where there are some woods, yes? Terrific! You’re halfway there. Honestly, I do often share tips on where to go mushroom hunting (evidence HERE), especially when people aren’t sure where it’s legal to collect mushrooms, but if I tell you a specific mushroom spot…yeah I won’t lie, it’s nowhere near the top of my list. Sorry, maybe I am a jerk after all.
    7. Hey man, do you know where I can get magic mushrooms? Wow, yeah, don’t ask this question of every mushroom hunter you meet. I remember one time I organized a mushroom foray with my local Meetup group, and I got a phone call from a man about an hour later asking me about my “magic mushroom business.” I laughed at him and told him I was organizing a walk to find medicinal and gourmet mushrooms, and he hung up on me. Now, I don’t know, but I assume he was either really stupid or a cop, or maybe a little of both Column A and Column B. Either way, most self-proclaimed mushroom hunters are not going to help you with this. I might engage you in a conversation about theories that the Greeks used magic mushrooms at the Eleusinian Mysteries or the Oracle at Delphi, or I might chat with you about the research of R. Gordon Wasson and John Allegro, but I am not going to hook you up with trippy mushrooms. I’m far more likely to give you advice on what kind of butter tastes best for poaching chanterelles.

      Paxillus involutus
      Paxillus involutus, AKA the poison pax or brown rim-roll, is a mushroom I will never eat. Or anything that looks like it. Photo by Joansfr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.
    8. Are you ever afraid you’ll end up dead because of poisonous mushrooms? No, I don’t. Honestly, where do people get the idea that mushroom hunters just go around gobbling up potentially dangerous mushrooms? Of course, I have sadly encountered and read about people who did just that, but it’s rare that those people were dedicated mushroom hunters. More often than not, it’s someone who failed to find someone to answer question #7 above and decided to go it alone, or someone who heard that wild mushrooms are tasty and didn’t do (any) of their homework. This is tragic, but I don’t lose sleep over my own mushroom-munching ways, because I am extremely careful and only eat gourmet species that I feel really confident about…and even then, I keep a couple specimens and only eat a little bit the first time I try something new. That doesn’t mean I am foolhardy and believe I will never EVER make a mushroom identification mistake, but I am pretty darn conservative about what goes in my mouth…and as for “ending up dead,”…yeah no. If I ever feel sick after eating wild mushrooms, I won’t wait to seek medical help, and you can bet your butt I’ll bring some of the mushrooms in question to the ER with me. Anyway, I worry about this concern no more than those who commute to work in cars worry about dying in car crashes on the Interstate – it’s not that it couldn’t EVER happen, but I practice defensive mushroom hunting and that’s good enough for me.
    9. Could you identify this mushroom for me? Yes, I will do my best, and thanks for bringing it to me! I love it when people bring me mushrooms, send me pictures, and generally bombard me with questions about the things they find. It’s best if you bring the mushroom in person, because that way I have a much better chance of giving you a good answer.
    10. Should I be worried about this mushroom in my yard/garden/basement? Well, when it comes to the mushroom in your basement, it really depends. My stepmother once sent me a snapshot of Peziza domiciliana that was growing in the basement on concrete, and I did, at that time, tell her not to worry too much about it besides removing it if it was offending her. Of course, if you’ve got oyster mushrooms growing OUT OF YOUR PORCH (like my older brother does), then yes, it’s probably time to consult a professional because you’ve got a fungus eating your home. However, the normal answer to this question is simple: NO. The mushroom is not hurting anything, and in fact it may well be growing in partnership with your garden plants and is doing a fine job helping your green friends survive and thrive. This question comes up frequently with this little yellow dude called Leucocoprinus birnbaumiiwhich grows in garden pots and is so brilliantly colored that the mycologically disinclined almost always notice them and get upset. Well kiddo, the news is good in this case: that little yellow mushroom is just digesting some of your mulch and won’t harm anything, and if it bothers you just don’t look at your plant for a day or two and it’ll be gone as suddenly as it appeared.

      Leucocoprinus birnbaumii
      Leucocoprinus birnbaumii, just chilling out and not bothering anything. Photo by Dan Molter. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.
    11. Is picking mushrooms going to make mushrooms go extinct someday? What? No. Just no. Think of the mycelium as similar to an apple tree, and the mushroom is an apple. Of course, you want to harvest apples carefully to keep that activity from harming the tree, but taking the apple in and of itself isn’t going to cause the tree to die, and once you take that apple off someplace, the seeds might get to land in a new spot and make a new sapling sprout where there was no tree before. Now, this is not to say that over-harvesting of ANY forest product is a good idea, but when it comes to the danger posed to mycelial organisms, deforestation and habitat destruction are of far greater concern and potential harm than mushroom hunters taking a few fungal fruits now and then…and besides, when we move mushrooms around, we spread spores far and wide!

Amanita Muscaria and the Koryak – Mushrooms in Siberia

Editor’s Note:

Amanita muscaria, AKA the fly agaric mushroom, has made a couple of appearances on this blog to date, in large part because it’s one of the most recognizable mushrooms in the world and has a loyal following among mushroom fanatics who like to snap photographs of these exceptionally beautiful fungi. Furthermore, it is the focus of several ethnomycological studies, and some authors have opined that it was used spiritually by the Aryans in ancient India, as well as possibly the Greeks and pre-Christian fertility cults.

Amanita muscaria
Amanita muscaria is one of the world’s most iconic mushrooms. Photo by Holger Krisp. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Much of the scholarship related to ancient mushroom use (magic and otherwise) has escaped the attention of mainstream historians and anthropologists, but that may be changing. The fact that the Red Lady of el Miron, an upper Paleolithic woman who lived nearly 19,000 years ago in the northern reaches of the Iberian Peninsula, ate mushrooms has drawn out questions about mushrooms’ importance in ancient times, and Mesoamerican use of psychoactive mushrooms in the Psilocybe genus is well-documented fact.

Although some theories about magic mushroom use in the ancient world have never been substantiated, one thing is clear: Koryak tribesmen in Siberia had a special relationship with the psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria, and this discovery shocked scholars and explorers who traveled to Siberia in the 18th century. Read onward for a tale of mushroom-munching reindeer, wry and witty caterpillars, and Koryak shamans that (hopefully) will amuse you.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

The Koryak and Amanita muscaria

Before the advent of vodka, the steppes of ancient Siberia rang with the riotous laughter of mushroom-addled tribesmen who ate the intoxicating fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) to alleviate the boredom of endless cold nights and to foretell the future. The fly agaric is probably the most common mushroom image shared in the human imagination.

Amanita muscaria is an inebriating mushroom that was consumed spiritually and recreationally in Siberia since ancient times. The best documentation of its use regards the Koryak, a tribal group from the Kamchatka Peninsula on the coast of the Bering Sea. Koryak folklore venerates Amanita muscaria as a sacred gift from Big Raven, the first shaman and the progenitor of the human race.
Continue Reading →

A Quick Tour of the Tylopilus Genus

Editor’s Note:

Tylopilus violatinctus
Tylopilus violatinctus is a beautiful mushroom that has whitish pores when young and is a cheerful, pleasant violet color. Photo by Christine Braaten. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

This post will focus on the mushroom genus Tylopilus, which contains some intriguing and very pretty mushrooms. Tylopilus mushrooms are common in the eastern United States, although there are a some species that occur in the western U.S. as well.

This is the second in an ongoing and intermittent series of blog posts about identifying mushrooms to genus; the first addressed Amanita mushrooms, and in the future I will add more common genera.

The purpose of this approach is to help novice mushroom hunters get a handle on identification to genus because at that point, you’ll find that using a field guide becomes a lot less of a hassle. Once you grasp the gestalt of a mushroom genus like Tylopilus, getting to a correct species identification becomes much easier.

I figured I would write about Tylopilus because mushrooms of this genus are common and fairly easy to set apart from other bolete-type mushroooms, and although Tylopilus mushrooms will never make it into my top 10 edible wild mushrooms. Furthermore, some of their traits are enticingly similar to delicious Boletus mushrooms, but sadly they’re not the real McCoy (more on this below). Nonetheless, Tylopilus mushrooms are visually striking and quite abundant during mushroom season, and many of them grow in yards, parks, and playgrounds, because evidently they are not nearly as shy as some of North Carolina’s more secretive mushrooms, such as morels and black trumpets. So with no further ado, let’s dive in and talk Tylopilus!

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Tylopilus Mushrooms – An Overview

Although not exhaustive, here are 5 key features that many Tylopilus mushrooms share that should tip you off that you’re likely in possession of one. More detail is provided below.

  1. Pink, lilac, or purplish spongy flesh under the cap that often starts out white or pallid: If you’ve got a mushroom with a spongy layer of fertile tissue under the cap and it’s tinged with these colors, you probably have a Tylopilus of some sort.
  2. Dry cap: Tylopilus mushrooms typically do not have slimy, goopy cap surfaces. Several of them are finely velvety when young, and a few also have a bit of powdery white material on them when they’re babies (this is called a bloom).
  3. Lack of a ring on the stem: Mushrooms in this genus lack a ring on the stem
  4. Purple, brown-purple, violet, or lilac cap when young: Although not universally the case, lots of Tylopilus species have cheerful purple-pink coloration. As they age, they often turn dingy, so it’s best to find young specimens to figure out what the “original color” of the cap was.
  5. Bitter to taste: Again, this is not absolute, but many of the 70+ species of Tylopilus are bitter to the taste. A few are edible and mild, but if you taste a bolete-type mushroom with some of the above features and it makes you go ICK BITTER, there’s a darn good chance it’s Tylopilus.

Continue Reading →

Asian Mushrooms – More Mushroom History!

Editor’s Note:

This is the 6th post in a series about the history of mycophilia (a condition characterized by an extremely loving and covetous relationship with mushrooms), where I will at last turn my attention to Asian mushrooms.

Xi Wang Mu
Xi-Wang Mu, the Taoist diety called “Godmother of the West” with a Ganoderma lucidum (ling zhe) mushroom in hand. Photo by Dr. Meierhofer. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

I have previously written about mushroom-lovers worldwide, mushroom use in paleolithic times nearly 20,000 years ago, the Aztec love affair with mushrooms, the Greek and Egyptian relationship with fungi, and the Romans. Now it’s time to turn our attention to the rich history of Asian mushroom lovers in China and Japan.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Asian Mushrooms – A Brief History

The Chinese and Japanese are particularly known for their ardent mycophilia, and to this day particular mushrooms convey social status to those lucky enough to enjoy the fruits of fungi. Chinese and Japanese herbalists employed mushrooms to resist disease and prolong life.

Unlike the Mesoamericans, Siberian tribesmen, and possibly classical European cultures, Asian mushroom lovers do not have a tradition of using psychoactive mushrooms and have little fear of wild mushroom poisoning. Instead, they are seen as food and medicine that universally improve the human condition. This fundamental difference makes fungi less terrifying and repugnant to Asians, who tend to view mushrooms as beautiful and refined.

Mushrooms of all sorts appear Asian paintings, tapestries, literature, and sculpture. Moreover, Asian history is marked by deep respect for fungal organisms that stands in stark contrast to the dim view that Westerners have adopted regarding the humble mushroom.

Large-scale mushroom cultivation did not begin with the boring, white button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) that the French grew in caves in the early 1800s. More than a thousand years earlier, Japanese laborers used the “soak and strike” method to get shiitake mushrooms to grow on wood.

“Soak and strike” is a simple and rather unreliable technique wherein logs that are colonized with shiitake mycelium are soaked in cold water. After a good long bath, the shiitake log is forcefully struck with a sledgehammer, which was intended to encourage the mushrooms to fruit. To inoculate new logs, shiitake farmers placed colonized logs next to freshly felled logs in the hopes that the desirable mushroom would migrate from one to the other.

By the 16th century, Asian mushroom gurus were cultivating huge quantities gourmet fungi and had developed a rich literature about identifying and using beneficial fungi.

Ganoderma lucidum, Reishi and Ling Zhi

The reishi/ling zhe mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is a dusky red wood conk that grows on logs and stumps. The Chinese call it ling zhi (often written “lingzhe” or “ling chi”), or “The Spirit Mushroom,” and the Japanese refer to it as mannentake or “The 10,000 Year Mushroom” because those who partake in it enjoy wisdom and longevity. The Japanese common name for Ganoderma lucidum is reishi. As medicinal mushrooms go, Ganoderma lucidum is among the most treasured fungal organisms on the planet. Fortunately for North American mushroom hunters, there are plenty of places to find Ganoderma lucidum, as well as several other “reishi” species, including Ganoderma tsugae, Ganoderma curtsii, and Ganoderma sessile, which are common in the forests of the eastern United States.

Ganoderma lucidum
Ganoderma lucidum, commonly called reishi by the Japanese and ling zhe by the Chinese. Photo by Аимаина хикари. Public Domain photograph.

According to Chinese legend, the semi-divine culture hero Shennong invented medicinal mushrooms around 5,000 years ago, along with agriculture, the calendar, and the farmer’s market. Academics are pretty well convinced that Shennong is a mythical character, but 2,000-year-old historical writings document several imperial quests for ling zhi, notably one conducted by Wu of Han, who sent forth hordes of minions in search of the mushroom in the hopes that it would grant him immortality.

Shennong and Wu of Han are not the only Chinese culture icons associated with Ganoderma lucidum, either. Guanyin, the goddess of healing, is often depicted holding Ganoderma lucidum. Another deity associated with this special mushroom is Xiwang-mu, the great mother goddess of the west, who rules over an eternal garden of life and gifts wisdom to the worthy beings of the earth.

Today, Ganoderma lucidum is a staple of Chinese and Japanese herbal medicine. Typically, the fruiting bodies of the mushroom are dried and chopped up, and thereafter boiled for 15-20 minutes into a medicinal mushroom tea. In addition, numerous tinctures and supplements containing reishi mushrooms are sold by the ton worldwide, and scientific study of the different salubrious effects of this mushroom reinforce its traditional reputation as an Asian mushroom that packs a punch of immune-boosting power.
Continue Reading →