Top 4 Things Wild Mushrooming Taught Me

Editor’s Note:

Well kids, it’s been a pretty fruitful fall wild mushrooming season here in North Carolina, which may account for the lack of posts this past week. Rest assured, I will be putting up more posts on mushroom identification soon, but I ended up with a windfall of maitake and lion’s mane and have spent the better part of 5 nights cleaning and storing them, which put a bit of a drag on my writing schedule!

Lion's mane
One of the reasons I haven’t been blogging as much as I usually do. Lion’s mane! Photo by Anna McHugh.

Today, I want to share a few key insights that I’ve gained from my wild mushrooming adventures. It is a rare thing to find something you’re deeply passionate about, and when I discovered wild mushrooming, it was like someone had snapped on the attic light and gone to town with the feather duster, clearing out a multitude of attitudinal dust bunnies and cognitive cobwebs. Anyhow, here are the top 4 things I’ve learned from wild mushroom hunting.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

4 Things I Learned From Wild Mushrooming

Learning about fungi and their role in wild ecosystems has taught me countless things about nature. If I were to list all the weird stuff I’ve learned since I took up wild mushrooming, I’d have a book in short order. Today I am going to focus more on those big-picture things that truly changed my perspective about life, the universe, everything, and (of course) the number 42.

Life is Mysterious

Before I got into wild mushrooming, I was in a bit of a rut: I was working in the juvenile court system and had gotten myself into a very troubling mindset whereby I felt like everything was too predictable, too immutable, and life had lost a considerable amount of its zest and mystery.

Then, along came the mushrooms. At first it was just idle curiosity and a desire to know more about the natural world, and since I was living in the Pacific Northwest, mushrooms were an indelible part of the landscape. I looked for canonical resources that would tell me everything I’d need to know…and promptly realized that no such resources existed. Even the most authoritative guides on mushrooms frequently are at odds with one another, and the constant stream of mycological discoveries, while once daunting to me, became a source of excitement…because we, as a mycophilic collective, are uncovering new mysterious fungal behaviors all the time!

One example that springs to mind is the curious case of the underwater mushroom, Psathyrella aquaticaThis strange little bugger is a classic cap-and-stem mushroom that, yes, grows in freshwater rivers, completely submerged. Which is just inherently strange. After all, fungi require oxygen to breathe and generally rely on air currents to spread their spores, and so the very idea of a mushroom growing underwater is…well…counterintuitive.

Snow plant
The mycotropic snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) relies on a fungus partner to survive; it cannot produce its own food through photosynthesis. Photo by Anna McHugh.

When it was first discovered, mycologists assumed that the specimens of Psathyrella aquatica found in the Rogue River of Oregon were somehow freaks of nature, outliers of an otherwise terrestrial species. However, with further study, it became clear that Psathyrella aquatica is indeed a water-loving species that produces fruiting bodies so tightly bound to the mycelial mat that they can withstand significant currents. I am always delighted that, of all places, Psathyrella aquatica was discovered in the Rogue River, because it reinforces my belief that mushrooms are tricksters, always able to befuddle us with their mysterious behaviors and lifestyles.

The Art of Noticing

Few things have opened my eyes to the natural world more profoundly than my obsession with wild mushrooming. Although there are plenty of times that I go foraging and return a little soggy and decidedly empty-handed, I never fail to enjoy a mushroom foray because it’s almost impossible to spend time in the woods searching for fungi and not see something remarkable.

For example, my quests for spring king porcini (Boletus rex veris) and morels in the Sierra Nevada were not always successful, but in the process I became familiar with a brilliant white and red heterotrophic/mycotrophic species called the snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea). This strange and beautiful species steals nutrition from plants and fungi, and although it looks a good bit like a tropical plant in some ways, it’s completely without photosynthetic activity. Spending time in those forests, looking for mushrooms, introduced me to a strange and beautiful thing that I might never have encountered but for my wild mushrooming adventures.

In North Carolina, I have similarly become enamored of the Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), which in its prime is a snow-white or pinkish white hetrotroph that, like the snow plant, requires an association with plants and fungi in order to survive. This species is gorgeous, but not terribly noteworthy if you’re simply on a hike in the woods, storming along at a mile-devouring pace. When I hunt for mushrooms, I am required to slow my stride and notice the little things, which has enriched me deeply.

Monotropa uniflora
Indian pipe, Monotropa uniflora, ranges from snow-white to pinkish. Photo by Sage Ross. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

Another thing about the art of noticing: I am convinced that mushroom hunting has improved my visual acuity, because it requires me to search in all parts of my field of vision. Anyone who’s spotted porcini from a speeding car or caught a glimpse of a chanterelle patch at a distance knows what I am talking about: you start to examine your surroundings on multiple levels: both right at your feet, in the middle distance, and quite far away. By shifting my gaze between these states, I am able to find a lot more mushrooms than I would if I simply stared at what is directly ahead. In this culture, where screen time is difficult to limit and one’s focus is often trained on a glowing surface that’s a set distance away, I think that the art of noticing things and shifting one’s attention about rather chaotically is good for the eyes and the brain.

Finally, the art of noticing is spiritual. When I am out wild mushrooming, I leave a portion of my humanity at the car, and I am simply submerged in the experience of seeing what is really around me. Even visiting blasted burn zones in search of morels out west has taught me to appreciate the beauty of broken habitats that are regenerating before my eyes, as a succession of species take up residence in a place deeply damaged by the ravages of wildfires. One way or the other, the art of noticing is profoundly enriching to me and gives me an opportunity to exist in a place outside of human time, if only for a little while.

You Don’t Know Until You Go

Perhaps my favorite mushroom hunting adage, “You Don’t Know Until You Go” sums up how I feel about most experiences in life. Although one can spend countless hours studying wilderness maps, rainfall projections, and the writings of great mycologists, you simply cannot predict what you will find (or not find) when you dive into the world of mushroom hunting until you get out there and explore, and this insight has spread across all domains of my life like mycelium colonizing a log.

The number of times I’ve laced up my boots and headed out on a day that was decidedly “crappy for mushrooms” and come home burdened with great loot is extraordinary, and in the spirit of that, I rarely pass up the opportunity to visit the woods. Of course, you don’t always “win” and end up with a ton of great stuff to study and eat, but even the most unsuccessful outings are worthwhile, because they’re a chance to be in nature and appreciate the ephemeral legerdemain of the ‘shroom (now you see me, now you don’t!).

This sort of thinking is, in my opinion, a precursor of courage. If you’re willing to sally forth and explore despite your misgivings about rainfall or a certain habitat, or are willing to slide down a hillside on your bum to take a gander at something you spotted from on high, you’re often rewarded for your efforts. Also, this is the way that I have built my own personal stockpile of mushroom-related wisdom. There are loads of good things to be gained from formal study of the work of brilliant mycologists, no question, but one of the things that is rarely easy to discern from guide books and articles is the true nature of fungal behavior. An identification field guide will surely give you a list of a certain species’ traits, including some basic behavioral notes, but finding a certain mushroom over and over will surely give you a better grip on what it likes and dislikes far better than perusing books.

Bitter boletus mushroom
A blue-staining bolete. I slid down a very steep hill to be united with this specimen. Photo by Anna McHugh.

For instance, I have come to notice that maitake/hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) really doesn’t do as well in deep forest as it does in spots where it can get some sunlight. This realization came about this very mushroom season, when I decided to pop in at a park that I rarely visit because I had in the past deemed it too wide-open and busy to yield interesting mushrooms (and boy, was I ever wrong on that score!).

I have learned that if you’re looking for morels in a logged site out west, you really need to flip over downed wood and sheets of pine bark and search underneath, because the mushrooms often sprout just below the surface of the slash. In the same vein, one of our North Carolina blond morels (Morchella virginiana) almost always grows near or alongside downed hickory and tulip poplar branches. Verpa bohemica, the false early morel, comes up in swampy thickets near the Columbia River right when the grass snakes hatch in the spring. All these discoveries have come about out of experience and my willingness to stash my expectations and book-learning in the back of my mind, always at the ready, but always subject to amendment and reassessment.

This is also why, when you start to read mycological literature and forums, you’ll find a lot of folk wisdom and science that places people at odds with one another. The old adage “the morels sprout when the oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears” is hotly contested each season, as proponents weigh in on how their granddaddy’s morel wisdom is never wrong, and contrarians lodge complaints that their own experience was just different this year.

Benign Neglect, or, Leave It The Hell Alone!

Mushrooms really don’t need us and certainly don’t give a rat’s bum about what we humans want, and so each time I encounter a fungus when I am wild mushrooming and take a second to appreciate it, because it’s an encounter with an organism that is doing just fine without my intervention, thank you very much. When it comes to cultivating or hunting mushrooms, I am not alone in my belief that the best plan is to adopt an approach of benign neglect, because mycelium is completely capable of living out its biological destiny without my meddling.

A perfect example of this is the humble and simple oyster mushroom. When I first read about them, I learned that they are primarily decomposers (saprophytes) that eat wood and other plant debris. However, when I got my first oyster mushroom grain spawn, I discovered something that amazed me. You see, mushroom mycelium is very hardy and produces a ton of antifungal and antibiotic compounds in order to protect itself from foreign invaders.

At this particular point in my life, it was summer and I was spending most of my free time at the Yuba River, being a lout and lounging on large slabs of granite basking like a lizard and swimming in the crystal-clear snowmelt off the high Sierras. So when I came into possession of this oyster mushroom spawn (which was in a Mason jar with no lid), I stuck it in a Ziploc and set it in a warm spot on the deck. I promised myself I would do something productive with it, but each day that I woke up and decided that today is the day, I simultaneously heard the siren song of the river and its inviting cool pools.

Fast forward 2 weeks, and I hesitantly visited my oyster mushroom spawn and discovered that it was coated in Aspergillus, a common green mold that is the bane of mushroom cultivation. I was disheartened but could see that underneath all the mold, the spawn was still white and, presumably, alive. So I zipped it back up and proceeded to spend another 3 weeks ignoring it, pretending that I was doing so out of microbiological curiosity.

Oyster mushrooms
This mushroom spawn was once completely infested with green mold, but the oyster mushroom mycelium destroyed it. Photo by Anna McHugh.

When I reopened the bag 3 weeks after initially discovering the mold situation, I was astounded. Instead of a greenish fuzzy mass, the oyster mushroom spawn was completely white and looked extremely healthy; the only sign of the Aspergillus was a few little dots of mold that was surrounded by yellow pools of oyster mushroom metabolite. You see, mycelium is inclined to fight for its life when assaulted by a competitor, and in this instance the oyster mushroom mycelium had pumped out a profusion of antifungal compounds that completely wiped out its unwelcome guest.

Now, up until this time, all the mushroom cultivation guides I’d ever read indicated that at the first sign of Aspergillus infection, it was best to just compost the project and start anew, because mold is tenacious and, according to most documentation I’d read, entirely likely to win the battle with a mushroom-producing fungus. To this day, the miraculous Battle of Aspergillus is a touchstone memory to me, because the mycelium completely upended my expectations and, in its own mysterious way, had pulled through against all odds.

Winning at Wild Mushrooming

I will admit to having a competitive streak. I have never been so distressed as when a huge basket of morels vanished from the campsite table before I had a chance to show off and gloat about it with my fellow foragers, and I was profoundly relieved when I discovered the culprit who had hidden it from sight and replaced it with a few sad, sorry trimmed stem butts.

However, when it comes to wild mushrooming, victory is not a matter of outshining your peers or always having something to eat when you get home. The very act of getting out into nature and appreciating its beauty, mystery, charm, and complete disregard for human desire and intention is, in my opinion, the biggest win of all.


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