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How to Find, Identify, and Understand Wild Mushrooms
Finding wild mushrooms in Illinois is incredibly easy. They're everywhere. But that's the problem. There are so many mushrooms—and, to the untrained eye, they oft en all look alike, or all look different, with different colors, shapes, and sizes. Mushrooms grow in your yard, in the park, or on your neighbor's tree. They grow in wood chips beside the mailbox. Mushrooms are everywhere.
You probably have no idea how many different species of mushrooms exist in Illinois. Nobody does, really—at least, not yet. Scientists known as mycologists continually add to the list of known mushroom species they've documented in Illinois, and it's estimated there are hundreds of additional species—possibly species new to science altogether—waiting to be documented in Illinois.
But here's one encouraging fact. People have been picking and eating wild mushrooms for thousands of years. We're all living proof that certain wild mushrooms are, in fact, edible, regardless of those undocumented ones. This chapter covers what those millennia of experience taught mushroom hunters—how to find and identify certain well-known edible species.
1. Never Eat a Wild Mushroom You Cannot Positively Identify as Being Edible
This should be obvious—like "Never poke a fork in your eye." It's common sense. But people do stupid things sometimes. And if you think you're an expert after thumbing through this book, you're not. What this book will give you is the confidence to begin picking and eating certain wild mushrooms found in and around Illinois. But don't get cocky about it. One of the tragic mistakes people make after they've learned how to identify a few edible species is their foolish willingness to eat a mushroom they're only pretty sure is the right one.
Stick with what you know, positively. Look carefully at each mushroom you pick to make certain key traits match their scientific description. If not, toss it. No mushroom in the world is so delicious that people should risk their life eating a species they're only pretty sure won't kill them.
2. How Can You Tell if a Mushroom Is Poisonous or Edible?
There is no simple way to recognize which mushrooms are poisonous and which ones are edible. None of the basic sayings or rules of thumb you might have heard about identifying poisonous mushrooms (or edible ones) can be trusted. None of them.
The truth is, looks can be deceiving. Even some attractive, nice-smelling mushrooms can be deadly, and ugly mushrooms might turn out to be perfectly safe and delicious. Or vice versa. There is no one-size-fits-all rule to identify poisonous versus edible mushrooms. The only way to know which mushrooms are poisonous is to learn to recognize those species of mushrooms. Learning to recognize those mushrooms requires attention. But it can be done, and it's really no more trouble than learning to identify the edible ones in this book. It's something you should want to learn because it's important that anyone who collects and eats wild mushrooms also knows what poisonous mushrooms look like.
3. What Is a Mushroom?
You only think you know the answer. Most people think mushrooms are basically plants that have no chlorophyll, and mushrooms therefore feed on living or dead things. You may also know that mushrooms, unlike green plants, cannot produce their own energy from sunlight through photosynthesis. You probably remember that from science class.
But what you don't know is that mushrooms are far more than freeloading parasites or decomposers. Based on DNA and chemistry, we now understand that fungi belong in their own kingdom—the Kingdom Fungi—and are neither plant nor animal. But what's more surprising to many people is the fact that mushrooms popping out of the ground or wood are only a small part of the entire organism. The "mushroom" is the fruiting structure that produces spores, the reproductive progules that are equivalent to the seeds of plants. Thus, they are more similar to apples on the tree than to the entire tree. So the mushrooms we find on our lawn or sprouting from a log are only the tip of the fungal iceberg. Connected to the base of all mushrooms is the rest of the fungus living underground, inside wood, or on any other suitable host. That much-larger, unseen network of microscopic fungal threads is what the tree is to the apple, and it's what produced the mushrooms we see.
4. Why Do Mushrooms Exist?
Such questions actually are a subject of great importance to everybody on earth. Fungi—some of which produce fruiting bodies we call mushrooms—perform a staggering number of minor and major jobs in our environment, and they exist in many different forms. As yeasts, they produce the CO2 that puts bubbles in our beer and give rise to bread. As producers of antibiotics, they save human lives from deadly infection. Milk could never become blue cheese without fungi, and thus Roquefort and Gorgonzola would be unknown to the world of cheese eaters. "Stonewashed" denim—that fashionably well-worn look we pay extra for in jeans—actually is the result of a fungus that has been allowed to munch on the cotton material before being washed away in factory tanks (without the help of stones, we should point out).
More important for mushroom hunters is the role of fungi outdoors. Fungi are commonly known as "nature's recyclers" because they serve as the wrecking crews that move in when (or before) plants die to dissolve and disassemble the plant tissue, thereby releasing and converting precious nutrients that can once again be used by other forms of life. Nutrients that are essential for plants to flourish aren't available in limitless supply in the soil, so plants grab what they can when they are available—and there is great competition for these elements of life. Unfortunately, nutrients extracted from the soil while a plant was alive don't magically return to the soil when the plant dies. It's why farmers have to fertilize fields artificially, inserting nutrients that were hauled away with last fall's harvest.
Well-known wood eaters such as termites or carpenter ants help disassemble a forest. But fungi play the greatest role in converting the raw material of plant structures—lignin and cellulose—into "food" for other living things. If no fungi existed, trees (which are full of nutrients) would fall over dead and lay on the forest floor for ages, along with fallen leaves, sticks, acorn caps, and every other plant cell that ever died. Marauding insects alone, even with bacteria and other microorganisms, couldn't keep up with the accumulation of plant material. Very little in the way of available nutrients would ever get returned to the soil.
Of course, that would never happen because forests would cease to grow long before that theoretical doomsday. Because all of the nutrients absorbed during the tree's life would remain locked inside the dead wood, like unopened cans of food in a pantry, new plants would starve in the empty soil. Fortunately, fungi release those nutrients as they break down old forests, and new generations grab those liberated elements of life and start the process all over again.
But fungi don't merely destroy old plant material. Many fungi often live in symbiotic cooperation with living trees, attaching themselves to tree roots, encasing the root, and/or growing among the cells of the root. The host trees welcome this amazing partnership. This mutually beneficial partnership is called mycorrhiza (Greek for fungus root).
Although not all fungi do this, some species of fungi are adapted to form partnerships with the roots of specific trees. In Illinois, chanterelle mushrooms, for example, tend to be found only around oak trees. It's because Cantharellus (the genus of fungi that includes various chanterelle mushrooms) almost always form partnerships with the roots of oak trees—and only rarely with others. In other regions, however, different species of Cantharellus are adapted to live with other trees, including pines and other conifers. There might be a number of different species of fungi living with or within the roots of an Illinois tree. For reasons that aren't yet fully understood, fungi and trees link only with their chosen partners. And that partnership is one of nature's most amazing tales of botanical interdependence.
Here's how it works: Even though the sturdy roots of a healthy tree keep the tree from toppling over in a breeze, the roots aren't exceedingly efficient at supplying all of the moisture and nutrients that the tree requires to thrive. Thirsty tree roots, feeling their way through soil, encounter the tiny fungal threads of a compatible fungus, some of which connect to tree roots to greatly expand the moisture- and nutrient-absorbing abilities of the relatively fat and clumsy tree root. Roots alone can't extract sufficient nourishment to feed the giant tree above. For comparison, imagine drinking from a tiny straw: If you happen to be tremendously thirsty, it would take an eternity before you said "Ahhh."
Now, imagine drinking through fifteen or twenty straws at once—then you've really got something. That's how fungi partner with trees. Tiny hyphal threads of a fungus reach everywhere in the soil, far more efficiently than tree roots. If there's a microliter of water to be extracted between grains of soil, the fungus owns it—and so does the tree.
There's a whole lot more to this tree—fungus partnership. And trees aren't the only winners in the deal. Fungi not only give trees moisture and nutrients they've transported from nature's recycling bin, they also siphon surplus sugars from the tree roots, like humans might collect sap for making maple syrup. It's a sweet, necessary source of energy to fuel the hungry providers.
But some fungi can be quite malevolent in their quest for life's fuel, sometimes entering vulnerable tree hosts as parasites, threading their way through cells, sucking the very life from heartwood and sapwood, eventually damaging or killing the tree. This might occur even as other species of fungi are assisting the tree's roots underground.
Although many species of fungi live cooperatively with trees as mycorrhizas or with algae as lichens, not all interactions are mutually beneficial. Even similar species of fungi might wage chemical warfare against one another, invoking toxic battles as they compete for host territory, sometimes building impermeable walls of repellent or producing shields of chemical protection so strong and fail-safe that nothing else can survive in their presence.
Sound familiar? Many of our antibiotics today are derived from these fungal enzymes and metabolites: That dab of antibiotic cream you apply to a wound to prevent infection might be quite similar to what's produced by fungi in your refrigerator on that horrifying container of forgotten macaroni.
Or it might be similar to what's being produced by a fungus in the soil in your backyard, protecting itself so that no other life—good or bad—can join the party. The ability of fungi to produce these chemical wonders is universal—trees everywhere live in soil filled with fungi, with each species of tree conducting underground affairs with only certain species of fungi. Meanwhile, those fungi are battling or entertaining other species of forest life—such as insects and bacteria—as they conquer and barter the raw materials of life. Fungi devote much of their efforts to such interactions—and occasionally they also make mushrooms.
Learning which species of trees in Illinois host the species of fungi that produce edible mushrooms is a smart investment for the clever mushroom hunter. So here's a tip: Learn to identify trees. Read the habitat descriptions for each woodland species in this book, and then look for those trees where those mushrooms can be found.
5. Is This Book Really for You?
Walking outdoors and safely identifying forty species of edible wild mushrooms is possible to accomplish using this book, regardless of prior experience and without having to learn all of the thousands of species of fungi in Illinois. Many mushroom hunters recognize only one or two safe species, which is fine, as long as those people stick to what they know. This book can help you learn to identify forty different edible wild mushrooms found in Illinois, given time and study.
Just as it is possible to learn to plink out a few simple tunes on a piano without actually having to learn how to play the piano (think "Chopsticks"), ordinary people—beginners—can learn to recognize some of the wild mushrooms in Illinois without learning all of them.
Some of you might want more. The authors are quick to encourage further study of wild fungi by reading additional books, consulting mycologists, or joining the Illinois Mycological Association, which is a great organization for both amateurs and pros and is based in Chicago. Club members hold regular forays, usually with at least one expert on hand, to collect and identify all kinds of fungi. Nearby states, such as Missouri and Wisconsin, also have mushroom clubs (the St. Louis–based Missouri Mycological Society is a great option for mushroom hunters in southern Illinois). The North American Mycological Association is the parent club of most regional mushroom organizations, and membership in that group is also open to both rank amateurs and seasoned pros.
6. When and Where to Look for Mushrooms
Mushrooms grow on different things, such as on wood, in your front lawn, or maybe around certain trees, and at different times of the year. Each species of wild mushroom usually has a "season," such as spring or fall, when conditions are right for that particular mushroom to appear. It might be the only time of year that species of mushroom can be found. Early to mid-spring, for example, is the only time of year morels can be found in Illinois. Therefore, it would be absolutely fruitless searching for a morel if it happens to be June. A little late is still too late.
Because those prized morel mushrooms cannot be found in summer, fall, or winter, your morel search can be narrowed to spring only. Also, knowing that a morel mushroom usually grows around specific trees makes your morel hunting more efficient because you'll look for morels around just those trees. So, just like that, we've narrowed our morel-hunting search to one season, spring, and one habitat—near certain trees. We can apply this same information to most mushrooms.
The more questions we ask ourselves before hunting for mushrooms—the more we know about habitats and seasons—the easier it will be to look for specific mushrooms in the right place at the right time. Read the habitat descriptions for each mushroom described in this book. They'll tell you when and where to look for that species of mushroom. Of course, that doesn't mean that a search for a given mushroom in the correct season around the appropriate tree guarantees success. Mushroom hunting is like looking for treasure with only a very general map to help. The fun is in the search—as well as the find.
If nothing else, simply walking in the forest is always worth the trip, even if we fail to collect a single mushroom to eat. There are a lot of people in Illinois who would gladly collect no mushrooms at all, if only they could go for a walk in the forest.
7. Pay Attention to the Weather
Successful mushroom hunters know exactly when it rained last, how much it rained, and if it was a good, drawn-out, slow soaker or a quick, gutter-washing thunderstorm lasting seven minutes. Experienced mushroom hunters know these things because moisture is critically important in the fruiting cycle of mushrooms. One shouldn't, for example, suddenly decide to go Black Trumpet hunting without considering when it rained last. Some species of mushrooms (such as Black Trumpets) require a prolonged, soaking rain to trigger their appearance. Hunting for such mushrooms after a gentle sprinkle—or extended dry weather—usually means you'll find leaves and sticks, and maybe some chiggers, but no mushrooms, even if you are looking in the "right" spot.
8. Is It Harmful to Pull Them Out of the Ground?
Of course you want mushrooms to grow back in the same place where you just picked a basketful of real beauties. A mind inclined toward conservation should not be discouraged. But, to be honest, it probably doesn't matter if you pull them out of the ground or gently slice them at the base. Remember, mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of a much larger, longer-lived fungus that's attached to the mushroom you're about to pick. And fruiting bodies—such as apples on trees—have evolved to survive being harvested by hungry passers-by.
Excerpted from EDIBLE WILD Mushrooms of Illinois & SURROUNDING STATES by Joe McFarland Gregory M. Mueller Copyright © 2009 by Joe McFarland and Gregory M. Mueller. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted December 6, 2009
Maybe I'm a closet mycologist, but I have been intrigued by mushroom hunting since I was a child. But I had never felt comfortable trying anything but morels before reading this comprehensive...but easily understood...manual on mushroom hunting. Through photos and anecdotes, as well as easy to understand descriptions of similar looking fungi, I now feel very comfortable in consuming a number of edible mushrooms from Illinois and surrounding states. The chapter on identifying mushrooms by the color of their spores was especially helpful. And I loved the fact that the authors laced the manuscript with some tasty recipes for successful mushroom hunters. I was so intrigued by the book that I tracked down the lead author and had lunch with him at Giant City Lodge. Turns out he is also an author for Illinois Outdoors, and just a wonderful person. I was so intrigued by the book and the author that I bought several more copies and gave them as gifts to my friends who love exploring the great outdoors. A great read!
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Posted December 6, 2011
If you hunt mushrooms in Illinois - You Will really enjoy this book.I bought a second copy of this book for a friend.It is EXCELLENT, in my opionion.I Love it.
1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.