Wild About Fungi

Am I a shaggy mane?You can’t help stopping to admire mushrooms this year.  A wet and humid season has them growing in a variety of habitats in all shapes, colors and types.  Some grow alone, some in rings, and some in clusters.  Interesting to look at, beautiful to photograph, but because they are very tricky to identify, harvesting a wild mushroom for food should be left to the experts.  I have read that only ten percent of mushrooms are tasty and edible and five to ten percent are toxic to humans. The rest simply taste bad.

Although they were abundant in the spring and summer, when the leaves begin to turn colors in autumn is a great time to take a mushroom pilgrimage in a woods near you. Mushrooms are all spore-producing structures of fungi and nearly all are beneficial as they break down organic matter that is necessary for plant growth.  They can decompose wood, leaves, and dead grass.  Fungi can form beneficial partnerships with trees while some can be pathogenic and others are merely benign.

My knowledge of fungi is scant. Yes, someday I’d like to broaden my fungal horizon and learn how to identify these beautiful mushrooms but I’ll never bet my life on which ones I can eat.  There are no hard and fast rules or tests to distinguish edible from deadly.  The old adage, “There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters” is one that runs through my head.

Simply notice them or photograph them on your next woodland walk and you will be amazed at the abundance in Virginia.  A good standard reference to stick in your back pocket is Peterson’s A Field Guide to Mushrooms:North America, where you will find mushrooms identified by names like sponge, inkycaps, waxycaps, jelly or smut fungi.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

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