Knife drawn, I stray from the trail and wade through salal and sword ferns in the Douglas fir forest. The crunch of dead twigs elicits chatter from a red squirrel, and a stellar jay shrieks his raucous call. The hunt is on.
I scan the forest with hungry eyes, sniff the air and catch a scent on the breeze; the sweet scent of my favourite forest fungi, the chanterelle. She’s hiding, but I’m determined to catch and eat her.
And hiding she was. I stood for 10 minutes at the spot, photographing another fungus, before a white ruffle in the moss caught my eye. I peeled back the moss to uncover a white chanterelle as big as my hand. Into the basket with you – I triumphed.
Chanterelles are friends of the forest. Hidden underground is their "body", a network of threads called mycelia. These fungal threads form partnerships with tree roots, providing mineral nutrients in exchange for tree sugars. As such they are vital to forest health.
Another common edible, the oyster mushroom, has a completely different life strategy. Growing on dead hardwood trees, the oyster decays wood, returning nutrients into the soil to feed the next generation of trees and plants. As a decomposer, this fungus also plays a vital role in forest health.
A third life strategy is that of the parasite. The lobster mushroom, a bright orange, pimply yet choice edible, attacks and grows on other living mushrooms, usually a Russula or Lactarius. Although some Russulas are poisonous and cause vomiting, lobsters are edible and are sold, dried, in grocery stores.
Poisoning, followed by a horrific death, typically jumps to mind at the suggestion of eating wild mushrooms. A few types of mushrooms, like Destroying Angels, cause death upon the ingestion of a single mushroom. Despite widespread fungophobia, less than a dozen of the thousands of species of North American mushrooms are deadly. Other poisonous mushrooms can cause varying degrees of gastric upset (and you might wish you were dead). Even choice edibles may cause allergic reactions in some people.
A healthy respect and knowledge of poisonous mushrooms is an essential first step towards the successful consumption of wild edibles. There are many species of delicious and nutritious edibles, and my strategy has been to carefully learn one or two of the easiest to identify each year. Six years later, I dine on ten types of wild mushrooms, and am researching and gaining comfort with identifying four others. Hunting and eating wild mushrooms is a joyful fall activity that reminds me of my part in the web of life.
Here are some valuable guidelines to eating wild mushrooms:
• Be 100% confident that every mushroom you plan to eat is accurately identified as an edible species.
• Never eat raw mushrooms. Cooking improves digestibility and eliminates any harmful bacteria. Cooking will NOT make poisonous mushrooms edible.
• When trying an edible mushroom species for the first time…eat only two cooked teaspoons and wait at least 24 hours before eating any more. It is possible to have an allergic reaction to one particular mushroom species, and not others. Keep a whole, uncooked sample of the mushroom species in your refrigerator in case the identification needs to be confirmed later.
1. Cascade Mycological Society www.cascademyco.org
2. All That the Rain Promises and More by David Aurora
3. The California Poison Control System http://calpoison.org/public/
Jessica Snider is a biologist, educator and photographer. She offers workshops on edible mushrooms and berries and can be reached at (250) 722-2292 or via email at email@example.com