How many types of mushrooms can you name? Unfortunately, for most of us, our knowledge is limited to what the grocery store can offer – usually three or four commercial varieties. Yet, nature offers hundreds of species – many of them edible, and some of the best available in the Pacific Northwest.
So I went to a mushroom workshop outside Salem at the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center to get schooled. The forest center itself provided a perfect learning environment, as the center is remotely located among the Cascade Mountains – a perfect region for mushrooms. The mountains trap the weather systems moving in from the West and cause large amounts of rainfall. Rain and moisture are essential for mushrooms to grow. Once you bring in other factors – such as elevation, flora and fauna – what you find on a mushroom hunt can be quite varied. The center itself prides itself as being a steward of the land – it not only uses its educational program to foster sustainability but also offers a rare low-impact energy use system.
On our first hunt, we found Chantrelles, Winter Chantrelles, a Hedgehog Mushroom, Lacluster Lacaria, and Lobster Mushrooms – all edible!
On the hunt, it is good to have a knife, a brush, and a basket for placing the mushrooms into. The knife helps cut the dirty or undesirable part of the mushroom away, the brush helps further clean it before putting it into the basket. It is helpful to have them as clean as possible before they are placed together with other mushrooms they could possibly dirty.
Mushrooms aren’t only good for eating. Mushrooms are well-known for their halucinagenic properties but many aren’t aware how they make great natural dyes for color. After filling a pot with a certain variety and then boiling it for hours, we then had a dye that we could place yarn, fabric, and other materials into. As can be seen, the colors produced can be quite stunning.
Not much later, Eugene hosted a Mushroom Festival where hundreds of species were on display. The Cascade Mycological Society, the local mushroom club, had gathered the species and provided on-hand information on the fungi. Mycological Societies are great ways to begin learning about mushrooms – most regions have one where you can join regularly scheduled “forays,” where members take a group trip out into the wilderness to go search and identify.
They also invited mushroom expert, David Arora, to speak. Arora is most well known on the West Coast for his companion books, All the Rain Promises and More and Mushrooms Demystified. All the Rain Promises acts as a great guide while you’re in the field, fits nicely in the pocket, and is recommended for novices, while Mushrooms is more of an authoritative text for serious hunters.
Little brown mushrooms at the mushroom festival
As one begins to recognize certain species, it becomes easier to approach, and less daunting. The amount that society has scared people with stories of death from mushrooms is not necessarily untrue – there are a few varieties that are deadly poisonous and they’re aren’t always easy to identify.
Deadly poisonous mushrooms like this Amanita can change over time, making for difficult identification
Yet just because the deadly ones can be difficult to identify doesn’t mean that all the edible ones are that way too. Every singe mushroom I have picked and saved can be considered beginner-safe in that they are varieties so unique in shape and character that it is very difficult to confuse it with anything else.
The califlower mushroom, seen here winning best of show in the festival, is one of the mushrooms difficult to misidentify
We have much to learn from mushrooms, says the just-released zine, Radical Mycology (read my review on the IPRC blog.) Authored by the self-identified Spore Liberation Front, the primer states in its “call to sporulate:”
The complex life of mushrooms provides profound and novel examples of networking between different species and environs not exhibited by most other life forms. These actions show a sentient concern for not just the mushroom involved but for the surrounding environment as well. We believe that as one learns more about these habits, and the ways in which they can influence our own human behavior, one quickly begins to perceive the interconnectedness of life surrounding them all the more clearly.
The SLF are referring to one of the major forms and life stages of mushrooms: mycelium. The mycelium is the “vast underground web-like structure” that is the hidden vegetative body that produces the mushroom “fruit.” Many mushrooms you see above ground can be part of the same mycelium below. In fact, one single mycelium network in Eastern Oregon has been identified as possibly the largest living organism in the world, stretching over 2,400 acres! Mycelium have recently been understood to act as kind of underground economy for their habitat, not only providing nutrients for surrounding organisms, but actually acting as a middleman between them!