Monday, May 16, 2016

Learning About Mushrooms


Recently, when my “Foraging Oregon” book was released, one person criticized that it  did not include mushrooms in the book because “mushrooms are part of foraging.”  Obviously, the person didn’t actually read the book, and so he missed my reasons for not including mushrooms in the book. Yes, some mushrooms are easily identified, like chicken of the woods, yet there are many lesser-known related species in the “safe” groups can cause sickness if not processed right.

Mycology was the science that obsessed me the most, before botany, and back in the early ‘70s, mycologists were few and far between.  Besides getting every book on the subject, I also joined the Los Angeles Mycological Association, and spent many weekends in fields and wild areas looking for mushrooms, and learning how to identify them. 

Though I’ve written over a dozen books on wild foods and self-reliance, I’ve never written a book exclusively on mushrooms. The reason is because there are many specialists out there who’ve already written some excellent mycology books.  I admit, I shared some basics of mycology in my “Testing Your Outdoor Survival Skills” book, and I’ve used my mushroom quiz for the basis of many lectures.

My publisher of the Falcon Guides wanted me to include a few mushrooms in my “Foraging California” book, partly because all of the other books in that foraging series included a few mushrooms.  But I decided not to include even a few “simple” mushrooms, in part because there are really far too many members of each genus than are ever included in any book, and so amateurs really have no practical way of knowing these “look-alikes” even exist. I still read about experts who ate the wrong mushroom, and died, usually slow and painfully. 

Consider that there are many more good botanists than mycologists because you can go out any day (more or less) and study the flowering plants and trees, and you can get to know them well.  But mushrooms don’t last so long. They appear seemingly at random, and they disappear.  There are therefore not as many good mycologists as botanists because it takes a lot more time and dedication to study the mostly ephemeral mushrooms. 

Also, even the best mycology books do not include all the possible mushrooms that you might find in an area.  At one time or another, I believe I have possessed every notable book published on mycology.  Each contains verbal descriptions, and one or two photos. Some contain technical keys for differentiating the mushroom you found with every other mushroom.  But if the mushroom in your hand is not found in the book in which you are now looking, you might be tempted to conclude that what’s in your hand must be this one or that one in the book. Maybe, maybe not. No harm done if you’re just trying to identify the mushroom, and if you don’t intend to eat it. But it’s an entirely different ball game if you intend to eat the wild mushroom.
We’ve all heard the old rule: there are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old and bold mushroom hunters.  Sad, but true.

When I was just starting out learning mycology, I insisted on eating every mushrooms that the old experts identified to me as being edible. Some were good, some were not. I had at least a few unpleasant vomiting sessions.  I no longer care to try every “edible” mushroom.

In other words, there are a LOT of mushrooms out there, and not all of them are described in books.  If you want to eat wild mushroom, learn mycology first (the study of mushrooms) and then learn mycophagy second (the study of how to eat wild mushrooms).  Learn by taking a class where you will see the actual mushrooms, hopefully in the field at least some of the time. Join a local mushroom society where you can go on field trips. Then, use internet sites, and videos, and books as the back up to your direct field experience.


And yes, there are some really good books out there.
Here are just a few of the books that I highly recommend for those of you who choose to pursue the science of mycology, without losing your life:

“California Mushrooms: The Comprehensive Identification Guide,” by Desjardin, Wood, and Stevens (Timber Press, 2015).  This new book is expensive, hard-cover, all color photos, up-to-date, and useful well beyond just California.  You get a good comprehensive overview of the world of mycology, with all the types of fungi broken into their categories with keys to help you identify the mushroom in hand. Well worth the money. This over-sized book is over 550 pages.

“Mushrooms Demystified,” by David Arora (Ten Speed Press, 1986).  David Arora is perhaps the man when it comes to mycology. A thick book with 2000 species, over 800 photos, mostly black and white but many in color.  If this is the only book you had, you’d do well, and you’d learn that patience is part of studying mycology.  Nearly 1000 pages.

“The Great Encyclopedia of Mushrooms” by Lamaison and Polese (Konemann, 2005). This is an English version of a German original, really more of a coffee table book that is a very good introduction to mycology.  A very good pictorial overview, and if you master this, you’re ready for one of the other books.

“The Mushroom Manual” by Pearson (Naturegraph, 2014)  Both amateurs and professionals will enjoy this book.  It does not purport to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about mushrooms.  It does, however, give the reader an excellent overview of fungi. It includes the “foolproof four” that anyone can identify and eat, the fatal five (deadly mushrooms), the nine basic groups, and mushroom identification keys.