Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fungus Fever in Arizona

A basketful of boletes and Amanita cochiseanas.

Are you somewhat bored with life and looking for excitement? Do you feel a strong desire to wander around in wooded landscapes? Do you have an obsessive personality? Well, have I got a “hobby” for you! Mushroom hunting! It’s like gold prospecting but doesn't require dynamite, picks, shovels, or mules. 

One of the most ancient organisms on earth is fungus. It has had at least a billion years to spread out and ramify into over a million species. There are molds, yeasts, and mycelia. They all serve as Nature’s composters (along with bacteria). In the case of some mycelia, they also work with the root systems of other plants to help nurture healthier trees and shrubs. Life on Earth would probably be unrecognizably different without fungi. (See Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.)

Mycelia are thread-like organisms that produce the “fruit” we commonly refer to as mushrooms. Mushrooms are found throughout the temperate regions of the world.

Often we notice mushrooms only by chance encounters; relatively few people go looking for them. In our culture, mushrooms are considered cryptic and dangerous. But to really appreciate mushrooms, one must go to the forest and take the time to marvel over the great abundance and diversity of species that grow in a relatively small area. (I can walk a few hundred yards in a damp pine forest and be astounded over how many different mushrooms there are – sometimes growing side-by-side.)
Amanita muscaria

Some people think that Arizona isn’t much of a place for hunting mushrooms but that's not true. Certainly the arid low desert lacks fungal variety even though there are a few desert-specific mushrooms (Podaxis pistillaris, Montagnea arenarius, and Battarrea phalloides) that are common to see after a rain. It’s in the mountains where you get the full mushroom effect. In the right season - which is the monsoon season between mid-July to late September - mushrooms are plentiful in the high country.

This year, mushroom season has come to Arizona about one month earlier than usual. On social media sites, foragers are all a-buzz with July’s profusion of boletes, chanterelles, and "oysters".

Hunting for edible mushrooms is not something to be done lackadaisically. You must be engaged and able to identify certain characteristics of mushrooms before entertaining the thought of eating them. Does the mushroom you found have gills, pores, or “teeth”? If there are gills, are they attached to the stem or not? Is there a collar encircling the stem? What kind of trees are around the mushroom? If you aren’t absolutely sure of the species you collected, DO NOT EAT IT. Although this is common-sense advice, we all know that common sense isn’t necessarily common. 

Amanita phalloides? I think so.
 There are some regional mushrooms that will likely kill you if you eat them – Amanita phalloides and Amanita ocreata. They may not be abundant, but you only need one to die. Then there are quite a few mushrooms that will make you sick – the frequently seen Amanita muscaria, Cortinarius spp., Lepiota spp., Rubroboletus satanas, etc. There are also many mushrooms that are simply inedible due to bitter taste. And finally there is the confusing fact that many edible mushrooms have poisonous look-alikes. Clearly you have to be aware of what you are doing before you ever consider collecting mushrooms for the table.

For now, I encourage you to look at the beauty and diversity of mushrooms without worrying too much about eating them. Mycology can be a rewarding hobby if you dedicate yourself to a little study and pay attention to detail. After you become familiar with the world of fungi, you will never again be able to pass forest or field without wondering what might be growing therein. (I confess that I often think about mushroom collecting throughout the year. Is it a healthy preoccupation or some kind of neurosis?  Hmmm, I’m not sure.)

Information related to mushrooms is readily available online. There is also a Facebook page – Arizona Mushroom Forum - where you can see exactly what people are finding in the highlands of Arizona. Too, I recommend three books for your library:
All That the Rain Promises and More by David Arora
Mushrooms and Truffles of the Southwest by Jack States
A Field Guide to Mushrooms of Western North America published by California Natural History Guides

Good luck on what might become a fever the doctors can't cure.
-  T. Stone

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)

Lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum)