The good, the bad and the ugly

Pay attention all you readers out there who are dying to “get into” pot-hunting for wild mushrooms; this may be my last column on the subject.

Pay attention all you readers out there who are dying to “get into” pot-hunting for wild mushrooms; this may be my last column on the subject.

Increasingly now, whenever I do a mushroom column, particularly on morels in May, my inbox bulges and my phone goes ballistic with requests and inquiries from excited would-be fungaphiles, possibly even a few fungicides going somewhere to sicken, maybe even die.

I can’t handle the pressure, take the responsibility of long-distance “mentoring” in an exciting and satisfying activity that is also challenging and potentially the most dangerous outdoors recreation there is.

Veteran mushroom hunters are generous with their harvest, but don’t ever ask them — or me — exactly where they found them and expect any answer, other than generalities regarding the kind of habitat each species prefers. Now that I am no longer able to hunt and harvest those habitats, I enjoy the generosity of pot-hunting friends, but if I told you exactly where they found the morels, they’d include some poisonous false morels, (Gyromitra esculenta) in my next goodie bagful, or find some more merciful way of disposing of me.

Increasingly, novices just go somewhere, gather a bagful of mixed fungi, and then expect me to identify what they’ve got by vague verbal phone or email (never a picture!) descriptions, a recipe for a witness gig at a coroner’s inquest, maybe even a lawsuit.

Individual responsibility is the basis of the first rule for the wild mushroom pothunter: You never eat a mushroom that you, personally, cannot positively name and are sure is safely edible. To do that you need to know the time of year your chosen quarry appears, in what kinds of habitat, maybe even its Latin name, and certainly what it looks like from clear colour pictures. Frankly, it alarms me how few of my callers and emailers own or have even looked at any of the many excellent mushroom field guides. Back in my beginner days, it was a gnawing suspicion that they were too misshapen to be morels and a look at a good field guide that spared me from eating a simmering panful of those poisonous False Morels.

I have too many mushroom books and guides, but that at least qualifies me to mention my two favourites: first and foremost, and most practical for, and specific to this area, is Mushrooms of the Boreal Forest by Eugene F. Bossenmaier and published by University of Saskatchewan Extension Press. Next is All That the Rain Promises and More by David Arora, and published by Ten Speed Press.

Much help and mentoring is available from the Alberta Mycological Society website: wildmushrooms.ws. Joining has many benefits, among which are field trips, sometimes to the Rocky Mountain House area, and identification seminars.

I have mixed feelings about the value of mentoring in the field. Many times I have stopped and told my beginners that there were half a dozen black morels (Morchella elata) within five feet of me, and nary a novice saw fungus one until I pointed right at it. The vision and visual memory must be trained.

Another time, at the request of a Stump Ranch neighbour, I showed him several specimens on his own land of the deadly Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), the red capped with white scales “toadstool” so often pictured in books of fairy tales, and told him “you don’t even touch one of those.”

Three years later he fried up and ate a panful, then got hauled off to the hospital in Rocky Mountain House where he didn’t die, but admitted there were moments when he prayed he would.

No, he wasn’t trying to commit fungicide, “I just didn’t key them out to the last step.” Obviously he didn’t just look at a colour picture instead of the tedious scientific identification keys, or even consult his own memory.

Fungi are the second largest group of organisms after insects, with 1.5 million species, of which only five per cent. have been described. The boreal forest is a mushroom paradise; I have spent 40 years trying to learn about the many species on my 200 acres of it. All are fascinating to the amateur mycologist, but the pot-hunter can ignore all but maybe a dozen edible and delicious species and two that are deadly poisonous, most of which are easily identifiable from the colour pictures and descriptions in a good field guide.

They may be hard to see, but both species of spring’s morels are easy for most people to identify, once they have found a few.

The same can be said for the somewhat later oyster mushrooms “leafing” from aspen trunks, and the meadow mushrooms and puffballs growing, mostly in grazed pastures. In the fall, the orange-topped aspen boletes, or rough-stems, stand out in the forest and on the table, and the shaggy manes stand at attention in regiments alongside forest and parkland roads and trails. Learn these few, and enjoy!

Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.

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