Moralea Milne October, 2006
When the summer gardens begin to lose their glory and long hot days give way to cool misty weather-the first autumn rains drench the baked earth and set in motion the emergence of many forms of mushrooms. Invisible throughout most of the year, unknown to many and yet stretching like the veins of life almost everywhere that plants grow, mushrooms evoke both delight in the subtle pleasures of autumn and a sense of dread to the uninitiated.
If you compare mushrooms to marigolds, the underground, threadlike portion of the mushroom or mycelium can be compared to the stem and leaves of the marigold and the mushroom as we recognize it, is like the flower holding within it the potential of reproduction. And it is that “flower” or fruiting body, that can be relished as an epicurean delicacy or feared as a deadly poison.
By decomposing organic matter to free up essential nutrients or by supplying these nutrients through a mutually beneficial relationship with other plants, mushrooms and their kin contribute to the well-being of our planet. The health of almost all plants from the mighty Douglas fir to the stately white pine forests, from Scottish heathers to wild blueberries, from red barked arbutus to exquisite orchids, depend on relationships with mushrooms.
Jelly babies, dead man’s foot, purple fairy club, witch’s butter, turkey tail, destroying angel and shaggy mane are some of the evocative names used to conjure the myriad shapes, extraordinary colours and fearsome properties you can discover on an early autumn journey through your local woodland. Remember to bring a small sketchpad or a camera to capture the magic of their variety.
To many people the first question is: is it safe to eat? At one time toads were considered to be poisonous and by just sitting on a toadstool, they could imbue it with their toxins. The old distinction that mushrooms were safe and toadstools were poisonous has been debunked and they are now all considered mushrooms. If you are interested in exploring the fungal world, buy a field guide, go on several field trips with an specialist to thoroughly acquaint yourself with the different varieties and, to save your sanity, leave the LBJ’s or little brown jobs to the experts.
Although mushrooms are commonly associated with fall rains, the end of winter also heralds the appearance of some well known spring “fruiting” mushrooms. Investigate our local forests and exclaim over the colourful and poisonous Amanita muscaria, upon which the caterpillar of “Alice in Wonderland” fame was pictured (Blinkhorn Lake Nature Park), search diligently for the delectable black morels (Morchella sp) occasionally associated with the incomparable calypso orchid (often found in burnt over open spaces) and investigate small humps in the forest duff for that other black gold-truffles, sometimes found under oak trees. In fall, explore carefully near spruce and hardwoods such as birch and oak for king Bolete (Boletus edulis) prized in Italy as the porcini mushroom, sniff the gills of the pine mushroom (Armillaria ponderosa) for it’s cinnamon-like defining scent and in our Pacific Northwest, the coniferous forests are the preferred habitat of chanterelles, one of the most favoured mushrooms in North America.
Whether you search as a beginner or an expert, for food or for interest, mushrooms can beguile you with their beauty, their astonishing forms and their palette of colours, extending from the understated and subtle shadings of cream and brown to the obvious and vivid, yellows, reds and greens. A feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.
This piece was originally written for my sister, April Cornell. She has given permission to reprint.