urbpan: (dandelion)
Seven Ways You Can Make Yourself Sick Eating Wild Mushrooms

This is a speech I give during mushroom walks when there’s a lull between cool discoveries. I’m doing a mushroom walk for the first time in a few months this weekend so I could use a refresher, and hey maybe you’ll like it too.

1. The mushroom was poisonous. There’s a significant number of mushroom species out there that are poisonous. You can’t necessarily tell by the way they look, taste, or smell, or by cooking them with silver spoons. The only way to tell is to positively identify the mushroom, to species or at least species complex. It’s a difficult skill that can only be developed though study and especially experience. When in doubt, throw it out.

2. The mushroom itself wasn’t poisonous but it grew somewhere that provided some poison that the fungus put in the mushroom. There are some perfectly edible mushrooms out there that become sickening when they grow on Eucalyptus or Pine. There is one case I know of where a morel hunter gave himself heavy metal poisoning by collecting and eating lots of morels that all happened to be growing in old apple orchards that had been treated with Lead Arsenate decades earlier. Some people avoid collecting mushrooms along roads or railroad tracks for fear of fuel additives and other contaminants.

3.The mushroom wasn’t poisonous until you had booze with it. There are a few kinds of mushrooms that are considered edible but when you eat them within some time after (OR BEFORE) drinking alcohol, the reaction can make you sick. The anti-alcoholic drug Antabuse works the same way. Also, alcohol is a known poison, so if you drink more than you are used to you can make yourself sick—just because you happen to throw up mushroom fragments doesn’t mean the mushrooms are the culprit. If you are trying a new wild mushroom that you have positively identified, don’t have booze at the same time.

4.You are allergic. Some people are sensitive to some species of wild mushroom that are considered edible. Don’t try more than one new wild mushroom at a time. Did I mention that it should be positively identified as an edible species yet?

5. The mushroom is too old. Imagine you found a steak or a carrot in the woods—it just has a little slimy rotten part on it, just cut it off and eat the rest right? An old mushroom is probably growing bacteria, and you have no way of knowing if it will make you sick. Eat only fresh mushrooms that you have positively identified as an edible species.

6. You ate too much. But I had three pounds of chanterelles! The dry weight of mushrooms is mostly chitin, the indigestible polysaccharide that also forms the skins of insects, the beaks of squid, and the horrible mouthparts of some parasitic worms. If you load your stomach with it, it’s as if you ate a heaping casserole of shredded newspaper. Also keep in mind that the dose is the poison—people who die from Amanita poisoning usually ate a ton of them. Survivors report that they taste good. There are some edible Amanitas, but I will never eat them, why chance it?

7. You didn’t cook it long enough. Some cultures call certain mushroom species edible—but only when they are cooked. I avoid these. Remember the chitin? The longer you cook it the more digestible it becomes. Chicken mushroom (Laetiporus sp.) is a highly prized edible—I lightly sautéed some because I didn’t want to lose the chicken-like texture, and got made myself real sick. If you are going to collect wild mushrooms for food, get a reputable guide—something made of paper, not some weirdo’s web page—and follow the most timid instructions. I should have cooked the Chicken mushroom for at least 20 minutes at high temperature. Now I know.
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Sometimes a mushroom can only be identified to species if you know what kind of wood it's growing from. If these Reishi (or "Lingzhi"*) mushrooms are growing from a conifer, then they are Ganoderma tsugae.** If the dead log is from a hardwood tree, they are Ganoderma lucidum.** Either way they are part of a species complex of similar-looking glossy durable fungal fruiting bodies, valued in Asian traditional medicine for a very long time. There are many products available containing reishi mushrooms or their purported essence, including chocolate, tea, and coffee. There are kits to grow your own, or you can wild forage it--it's a pretty common group of wood-decaying mushrooms.

* ...Lingzhi is made up of the compounds ling 灵 "spirit, spiritual; soul; miraculous; sacred; divine; mysterious; efficacious; effective" (cf. Lingyan Temple) and zhi 芝 "(traditional) plant of longevity; fungus; seed; branch; mushroom; excrescence".

** [Reishi mushroom's} botanical names have Greek and Latin roots. The generic name Ganoderma derives from the Greek ganos γανος "brightness; sheen", hence "shining" and derma δερμα "skin". The specific epithet lucidum is Latin for "shining." Tsugae is derived from the Japanese word for "hemlock" (tsuga 栂).
urbpan: (dandelion)
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One thing I emphasize in my mushroom classes is that identifying mushrooms to species is really really difficult. I tell them that they should join a mycology club, consult no fewer than 3 field guides, make sure all of the field markings match (including spore color, which may take hours to obtain), and to notice if there are any other species that could be possibly confused with the one they suspect. Still many species can not be identified without using a microscope to look at some features.

Then there's this one, dryad's saddle Polyporus squamosus* that I identified while zipping by on a morning run. This species is one of the few that comes out this early in the year, one of the few with the shaggy "pheasant's back" pattern on the cap (such markings, if they are attached at one side are called "scales" as opposed to warts, which can be easily rubbed or washed off), and distinctively large and fairly fleshy. Polypores are mushrooms that are produced by fungi that feed on dead wood, and are characterized by a spore-producing surface covered with many holes--the openings of tubes lined with cells that make spores. Most polypores are woody or leathery, but a few are fleshy, and some people insist on eating them. They are mostly indigestible chitin, and foragers are advised to take only the freshest softest bits and cook them for a long time. I have not eaten dryad's saddle, but I suppose I will some time, to report the experience if nothing else.

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* Many holes, scaly.
urbpan: (dandelion)
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Behold the fruiting body of the tree parasite Laetiporus cincinnatus, almost luminous in its pink orange glory. This is one of at least two (probably more) polypore mushrooms that have the common name "chicken mushroom." When people ask me if it's edible I tell them, "Oh yes, it's one of our most sought-after edibles. I made myself very sick eating it once." Polypores have sturdy cell walls and need lots of cooking to soften them up into something that weak human intestines can deal with.
urbpan: (dandelion)
Read more... )

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On Sunday morning I led an Urban Nature Walk to Malibu Beach in Dorchester!
Read more... )
urbpan: (dandelion)
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These chicken mushrooms Laetiporus sp. grew from a tree in a part of the zoo that very few people see. I see almost everywhere, and I didn't discover these mushrooms until they were done releasing their spores and beginning to decompose. As far as the fungus that produced them is concerned this is exactly as it should be--the mushrooms have fulfilled their purpose.

People who like to eat wild mushrooms will see this as a tragedy, a missed opportunity. One of the most sought-after kinds of mushroom, allowed to wither on the tree, instead of grilled or fried and in some ape's greedy belly.
urbpan: (dandelion)
Ground Ivy (Also Creeping Charlie, Gill-Over-the-Ground) Glechoma hederacea

"You know that viney weed with the scalloped-edged leaves that takes over your yard? That one that you can tell is a long, climbing thing, but when you try to rip it out of your flower beds, just the part in your hands breaks off instead of pulling up the whole thing? The one that gets those pretty little purple flowers in the spring? Turns out Europeans brought it here on purpose, just like garlic mustard. It's a salad green. You can use it in soups. You can make tea out of it. The Saxons used to use it like hops in beer. It has medicinal properties. A 1986 study found it inhibits EBV and skin tumors. It's part of the mint family, and mints were traditionally used as all-purpose antibiotics." - [livejournal.com profile] gigglingwizard

I don't have much to add, except that it smells really nice when you mow it. It's a common urban and suburban plant, and first joined us as 365 urban species number 118.

But what the hell is growing on it?! I was just sitting in my yard when I saw this thing. I assumed it was a small lawnmower's mushroom and went to pluck it--to my surprise I pulled out a plant with a foreign growth.

I knew that it had to be a gall, but had no idea that any creature made use of ground ivy for this purpose!

Ground Ivy Gall Wasp Liposthenes glechomae

I cut it open to see a single wormlike larva inside, very much like an oak apple gall. Wormlike larvae are usually the babies of wasps or flies, two groups known to produce galls. At least mites and pathogens were eliminated as the causal agent. I searched the index of my copy of Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates but ground ivy was not in the index, nor its scientific name. I posted pics here, on facebook, and on bugguide. One of the authors of the above book chimed in to identify the gall as belonging to Lisposthenes glechomae, a tiny wasp in the same family as the one that causes oak apples. He also pointed out that this gall appears in his book (p. 395--it's in the index under galls, ground ivy).

The gall protects the developing larva from predation while providing a food source for it. The insect causes little to no damage to the plant. This wasp is native to Europe, and was translocated inadvertently with its host.
urbpan: (dandelion)
Over the past month I've become slowly aware of a separation between two communities that should be closely aligned. It's similar to the division between cat-lovers and ecologists, but with its own distinctions.

Wild food foragers are excellent naturalists. The best can tell the difference between many different confusing plant species--the difference between life and death in some cases. They understand ecology--that is, they are aware of seasons and habitats, and know where and when to find their quarry. Their senses are honed by practicality. I love having foragers along on Urban Nature Walks--they are some of the best, most confident naturalists I've met, with a profound respect for nature and an obvious delight for being in the out of doors.

That's why it's so distressing to me that I have detected this separation. The issue is invasive species. Many invasive species are attractive targets for foraging--this makes perfect sense, since the usefulness of a plant is what makes it more likely to be brought to another continent to begin with. Ecologists who dabble in foraging (like myself) tend to tolerate a certain level of useful invasive species. I like that the cities are full of white mulberry, and I relish the Himalayan blackberry that plagues the Pacific Northwest.

But when it comes to species that create monocultures, that reduce biodiversity in the areas that they thrive, I am intolerant. Norway maple, black swallow-wort, Japanese knotweed, and garlic mustard are simply bad news. They are all admirable plants in their own ways--you must at least admire their ability to thrive in the most difficult urban ecosystems. I am able to appreciate them as beautiful plants--just go and read the entry for black swallow-wort from 2006, you'd think I was in love. And many of these are useful to humans in various ways.

But each of these and many others cause ecological damage. Phragmites replaces cattail and blackbird habitat is lost. Japanese knotweed moves in and there are no more frogs on the water's edge. A monarch lays its eggs on a black swallow-wort leaf and the caterpillar starves to death. Garlic mustard moves into the yard and begins exuding fungicide, making it more difficult for mycorhizzae to form.

The foragers cry "eat the invasives!" I'm all for it, make all the garlic mustard pesto and strawberry knotweed pie you want. Please try to harvest it until there is no more left. But eating is not controlling. Proper agriculture and proper wild foraging have one thing in common: you take measures to ensure the plant survives, through replanting or judicious harvesting. I don't think anyone is really worried that they will over-harvest Japanese knotweed until it is extirpated, and it may not even be possible at this time. I just worry that the foragers will stand in the way of sane control measures.

I detected a tone and philosophy regarding invasives in the new book Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness that unsettled me. Author Rebecca Lerner uses scare quotes when referring to "invasive species," "native species," and terms like "noxious" and "harmful." She states that "like people and animals, plants have been migrating around the world and always will," without distinguishing between those "migrations" (now I'm using the scare quotes, but she's talking about the spread of species into new areas, not actual migration which is a to-and-from movement) caused by humans and those which occur for other reasons. A species may move into a new environment because of a weather event, or because of continental drift, but these causes are very very very slow and gradual. In the past 500 years, humans have caused species to move into new areas, sometimes with little effect, sometimes however resulting in sudden extinction of native species. Can we really be so blase about species moving from place to place when some of those events are entirely preventable (in hindsight) and man-made like the mass extinction of birds from Hawaii due to the introduction of cats, mongooses, and mosquitoes?*

Another book (which I confess I have not read) called Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives is even more troubling to me. The jacket copy offers "Most of the invasive plant species under attack for disruption of local ecosystems in the United States are from Asia, where they play an important role in traditional healing." So what? The issue isn't that the plants are or aren't useful--clearly they are. The issue should be--in terms of, you know, the sustainability of the maximum diversity of living things on earth--are they causing harm to an ecosystem?

It seems that the foraging community's objection to the control of invasive species doesn't derive from the worry that garlic mustard or Japanese barberry are going to disappear. The bigger issue seems to be the use of herbicides. I have no strong opinion on this--I agree that the extensive use of chemicals in the environment has been problematic in the past. I would prefer that the use of pesticides of all kinds be very careful and well thought-out, with lots and lots of environmental impact studies. I know that there are cases where invasive plant species are controlled with herbicides--can the use of herbicides be reduced? Probably. Should that reduction of herbicide use be accomplished by denying the science of harmful invasive species? I've got a problem with that.

*I've read statements by foragers and free-roaming cat advocates saying more or less "humans are the real cause of this problem, after all." I agree, which is why I think it's our responsibility to take firm sane measures to solve it (them).
urbpan: (dandelion)

When I did my most recent Urban Nature Walk, at Boston University, the first thing I noticed was this line of shrubbery along the edge of the trolley track, in the median of Commonwealth Avenue. I jaywalked, as Bostonians do, and verified my distance-identification:

Rosa rugosa, the beach rose! An invasive species that flourishes in poor soil, and produces a delicious edible fruit! Apparently the part we eat, just the skin, isn't a true fruit for botanical reasons, and the hairy bunch of seeds in the center is the original source of novelty itching powder. I picked a few and passed them around to the walk participants, who seemed to enjoy them. They were quite tasty, I suspect they had been through a frost, which is known to improve their flavor.
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"First thing every morning, Harry and I would climb the fence into the zebra paddock and collect the velvety, dew-drenched crop of mushrooms that had sprouted there in the night. These Harry would cook in butter in a little saucepan, and we would devour them for our elevenses. They made a delicious meal, but the hazards involved in mushroom collecting with a couple of murderous zebra stallions in the paddock with you were extreme to say the least. We worked close together, with a pitchfork handy, and when one was bending down to pick mushrooms the other was watching the zebras. One morning there was a particularly fine crop and we had filled half a bucket and were congratulating ourselves upon the enormous feed we should be able to have at eleven o'clock. I was just bending down to pick up an exceptionally succulent mushroom when Harry shouted, 'Watch out, boy! The bastard's coming!'

I looked up and the zebra stallion was thundering toward me, his ears back, his lip pulled back over his yellow teeth. Leaving the bucket, I followed Harry's example and ran like a hare. We scrambled over the fence, panting and laughing. The zebra scudded to a halt by the bucket and glared at us, snorting indignantly. Then, to our extreme annoyance, he swiveled round and with immense accuracy kicked the bucket in a great swooping parabola through the air, scattering white mushrooms like a comet's tail. It took us half an hour to collect the mushrooms again."

From A Bevy of Beasts, by Gerald Durrell, 1973.
urbpan: (dandelion)

I collected, cut up and sauteed a winecap. Then I ate it. Then I checked with the foraging community about how I should have cooked it. "Whatever you do, don't saute it," Wildman Steve Brill said, essentially, adding "let them cook on low heat, covered, with the juices they extrude, plus lemon juice, nutmeg, fennel, and salt. After 15 minutes of this, I remove the cover and cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until the excess liquid is driven off."

Next time: check how to cook it before trying to cook it. I was not poisoned, but I did eat what felt like a piping hot plate of slugs.
urbpan: (Default)
I just read this on the Northeast Mushrooms yahoo group and it's too colorful and too spot-on for urban wildlife not to share.

An old name from an old man: Rodman's mushroom, now known as Agaricus bitorquis,is now in season. Move over Morchella. When Morchella begins to fade away sponge hunters hang up their basket; big mistake! One of the easiest mushrooms to hunt is Agaricus bitorquis = A. rodmani.

This shroom is an urban dwelling mushroom mostly because of its habitat. It dwells in hard pack soil. It's a good one for geezers(like me) to hunt because one can do it from your car. you will need a driver whilst you ride shot gun. Seek the old section of town where the silver maple (or whatever) has lifted the side walks and there is little grass growing in the baren areas between the curb and the sidewalk. Look for squatty, white capped mushrooms many barely making it above the surface of the ground.

The stem is sturdy and robust and the annulus is double jointed with half swinging upwards and the other half bending downwards like the rim for a tire. The cap is white, very hard,and supports rose-pink gills on the underside; not "panty-pink" as in
A.campestris the pasture mushroom. Lousy clay soil is good ,too, as in old tennis courts, clay- cinder parking lots and alley ways,and deserted ball diamonds. Any area where the ground resembles this criteria is good. Don't run over a dog or cat or rear end a car. Drive slowly ignoring that half-wit behind you blowing his horn. Hunt one side of the street at a time for safety's sake. Season expires around the end of May. This is a delicious mushroom big time. Good luck! -Dick


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