Last Sunday, December 30, I conducted a mushroom walk, something I haven’t done in a long while. In the early 1970s, I got involved with the L.A. Mycological Association, and learned how to identify wild mushrooms, and use the edible ones for food. I had some great mentors, such as Robert Tally, and Bill Breen, who taught me how to find and cook wild mushrooms.
When I was fixated on mycology for several years, I spent all my spare time and all my spare money seeking out mushrooms and photographing them. Still, though my weekend students didn’t know it, I am far from an expert.
Though I learned most of what I needed to know during my intensive study of mycology in the 70s, I began to wake up to the fact that there was more to life than mushrooms. Duh! That is, I knew all the common poisonous mushrooms, and I knew far more edible ones than I’d ever eat. To spend a significant amount of my life to pursue it even further would have had no practical value except if I were to pursue being a professional mycologist.
During the 70s, I would eat mushrooms that others in the association found or brought to meeting that they declared were edible. I would study them, take note and photos, and try them when I got home. I recall a phrase, “this mushroom is know to disagree with some people.” That translates as, “you will be vomiting violently at 2 a.m.” which happened a little too often. So I lost my desire to try every wild mushroom. Plus, beyond the common mushrooms, most of them began to get categorized as the “LBMs,” the “little brown mushrooms, which were never identified to genus because it would have taken more time than I cared to give to the task.
Sunday’s walk was organized by a member of the current Los Angeles Mushroom Society, David Kahn. I featured a section about David Kahn in my book “Self-Sufficient Home,” where Kahn talked about his interest in permaculture and how he practices those principles of food production at his Los Angeles home.
The problem with scheduling mushroom walks is that scheduling generally takes place weeks, if not months, ahead of the event, and mushrooms are very particular about when they pop up. Conditions all need to be just so for the mushrooms to arise, such as the season, under the correct trees, amount of moisture, temperature, and other variations. Though we had adequate rain in late December, I knew that moisture alone would not guarantee a good mushroom hunt.
As it turned out, we had a very successful walk in the Arroyo Seco. We walked under oaks mostly, where layers of wood chips had been laid down, and in other areas too.
We repeatedly found specimens of at least three very common mushrooms. The first was the Lepiota rhacodes (sometimes called the parasol mushroom). This one appears as a white gilled mushroom, with brown patches on the cap, a ring on the stem, a bulbous base, and a hollow stem. It stains orange when cut or bruised. It’s an excellent mild-tasting mushroom when sautéed in butter. We also found many specimens of the Agaricus campestris and related species, which is basically the wild variety of the common store-bought mushroom. This one has pink gills which turn a chocolate color as the spores mature, a ring on the stout stem, and a stem that breaks freely from the cap.
The third common one we found was the blewitt, so called because the entire mushroom is an unmistakable violet color. The Latin name for this one has changed periodically. I first learned it as Tricholoma nuda, then it was Lepista nuda, now the mycologists appear to have settled on Clitocybe nuda. It has a stout stem with free gills. We all found enough of these three that many of the participants got to take some home to cook.
We also found one young and beautiful bolete, a Boletus chrysenteron. This one has a light brown cap, and a yellowish and somewhat swollen stalk. There are no gills, but pores. The boletes are a very safe group of fungi, though you still need to know each mushroom you eat. These are sliced and sautéed, with a flavor and texture like eggplants.
We found a few of the inky caps, including Coprinus atramentarius, which causes vomiting if consumed with alcohol. The inky caps must be collected and cooked when they are young and white, because as they get old, they decompose into a blank ink.
Towards the end, we found a beautiful young Volvaria speciosa, which is edible but looks too much like the deadly Amanitas, so I always advise beginners to not eat it. This one has a cup, like Amanitas, but lacks the ring on the stem that is characteristic of Amanitas.
We also found many LBMs, and also identified several wild greens along the way. Everyone had a good introductory experience to mushroom hunting, but realized that a lot of time should be spent in learning how to identify before you ever eat any wild mushrooms on your own. I spent at least two years in the field before feeling confident enough to consume wild mushrooms by myself. It may not take everyone that long – after all, once you learn one wild mushroom, you can always pick that one and use it. But you should never eat any wild mushroom that you have not positively identified.
To learn more, you could research on-line, get a good mycology book at a local bookstore, and you are also welcome to email images to me. If I can identify them, I will do so.