A Note to Readers: Autumn arrived precisely at 4:44 P.M last Sunday, but well before the Equinox, I could tell that fall was nigh. The hay-scented ferns had already started to turn the color of straw, there was yellow in the bittersweet and red in the poison ivy, and on a few evenings, after thunderstorms had broken the heat and humidity, the sky took on a sharpness in keeping with the nearly-here season. Normally, in honor of autumn, I would devote a column to the signs of the times—an entry of the Journal that would be about the passage to time. But during the past week, I’ve been engaged in marking another species of passage—my wife Pam’s 50th high school reunion in Terre Haute, Indiana—so the Naturalist did not have the leisure time to sit down and write. What follows then, is an edited and updated column that first appeared on September 3, 2010. It’s on mushrooms, which are one of fall’s finest harvests, and one of my favorite pursuits.
One afternoon three years ago, I was in my office, where, instead of doing anything particularly useful, I was watching the angry looking clouds avoid dropping any rain. We were then in a pretty serious drought, and as yet another prospect of relief disappeared, I was getting mad enough to spit. Fortunately for my office decor, I restrained that impulse.
As I wrestled with low precipitation anxiety, which comes from being dependent on a well, I noticed that a new e-mail had made its way through the ether.
The subject line read, “Deathly?”
Too much of my e-mail then and now consists of increasingly dreary and shrill appeals from fundamentalist politicians to a) buy my book, b) buy my version of the impending apocalypse, or c) die in agony because you failed to purchase either. Perhaps this new missive was one of the end-of-days appeals, but I recognized the sender as a friend. What confronted me as I opened the Deathly e-mail was no nefarious ruse. Instead, on the electronic page were three images of mushrooms. My friend included no text, but he knew that I would know what he wanted to know, which was this: If he ate these—and he is nothing if not an adventurous gourmand—would he experience ecstasy or agony?
In short order, as I knew it would, the phone rang.
Now, as is true of the contents of most e-mails, so it is with all too many incoming phone calls. We still rely on a landline—cell service here is spotty—and since the vast majority of our calls are identified by our talking phone as “Call from Toll-Free Call,” we let lots of attempts to contact us go unanswered.
But unless my e-mail scammers had joined forces with the Toll-Free cartel, this call supposedly came from the e-mail writer I knew. He was definitely someone I wanted to talk to—and someone I wanted to school on mycology. Fast.
“Don’t do it,” I said. “Don’t eat those!”
“That bad?” he replied.
“Well, actually, without a lot more work, I really don’t know,” I said. “But I’ll tell you what I’ve told all the students I’ve worked with on mushroom identification over the years—and all my readers: Just Do It may be a good motto for sneaker makers, but for budding wild mushroom eaters, a better motto would be, Don’t Do It—unless you’re absolutely certain about what you’re doing. And even then, don’t ingest until you’ve signed this waiver releasing, me, my heirs, and the heirs of my heirs from legal responsibility in perpetuity, or at least until the advent of the Toll-Free Apocalypse.”
September ushers in the start of what for us is the major mushroom season, and since we’ve now received a lot of rain, there are numerous species of fungi sprouting almost everywhere you look. Some of these, such as meadow mushrooms, chanterelles, black trumpets, puffballs, and hens of the woods, are delectable, while others, the aptly named destroying angel, and the death cap, among them, will either kill you outright or cause permanent organ damage. (The poisoning that results from ingesting other species, while not fatal, may make you wish you’d died.)
Fortunately, the delicious mushrooms are relatively easy to tell apart from the bad actors, and while there are plenty of reliable books and websites—a list follows—on fungus identification, I’ve always recommended that you learn the ropes from an actual human expert, preferably an older human expert who’s been at this a long time. Practice makes more than perfect. It makes for teachers with discretion who will counter the natural enthusiasm of the acolyte—teachers whose sober appraisal of the mycological world may have even prevented people I knew from swallowing a batch of mushrooms they identified as edible based on little more than the fact that these hippies thought the fungi emitted “good vibes.” (I wasn’t present for the ingestion, but, when I heard about this, I was the person who begged them to visit, immediately, the nearest hospital emergency room. There, they were relieved of their stomach contents and, I’m pretty sure, granted a kind of salvation.)
I didn’t have to worry about my friend, who was dutifully cautious. It took me a while to determine, using the mushroom pictures he sent in the hopes of harvesting dinner, the species, but after some study, I was pretty sure that he’d found Climacodon septentrionale, the northern tooth fungus. According to mushroom expert Tom Volk (see his very informative site, tomvolkfungi.net/; while it hasn’t been updated in several years, it remains a reliable source of information), this species is “an interesting parasite of trees, predominantly maple trees, and especially sugar maple, Acer saccharum. The fungus causes a heartrot of the tree (growing in the central heartwood) often weakening the tree enough so that strong winds can snap the trunk and blow it over.”
To be sure, C. septentrionale grows in large clusters, and, at first glance, these resemble a lush congregation of oyster mushrooms, which are true delicacies. Alas, says Volk, these tooth mushrooms—the common name describes their underside, which bears tiny teeth-like flesh rather than gills—are “bitter and too tough to eat.” This is a pity, I concurred with my friend. “There’ll be others, though,” I said. “Just don’t expect me to identify them over the phone and guarantee they’re fine to eat—even if you sign the waiver.”
A Note to Readers: I’m offering the following information with no guarantees, either; you’re on your own, so please be careful. But I can tell you that these sites—all of them current—are useful. Be sure to check out David Fischer’s americanmushrooms.com, which includes a link to his masterful book Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America; and the Boston Mycological Club, www.bostonmycologicalclub.org/ , a great group that sponsors field trips and authoritative instruction sessions. Among my favorite books are the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, by Gary H. Lincoff; the Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America, by Kent and Vera McKnight; and The Mushroom Hunter's Field Guide, by Alexander H. Smith and Nancy Smith Weber. And if you’re interested in sampling fungal delights, the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, CT, is sponsoring its 12th Annual Wild Mushroom Festival on September 29; here’s a link to the Nature Center site: www.dpnc.org/index.html