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Mushrooms as natural works of art — not food

2021 10 16 hawke mushroomsBy David Hawke — It’s ‘shroom season and across the land can be heard the murmuration, “Can I eat it?”

What’s with you people? Yes, any mushroom can be eaten, but some only once! (Bit of dark humour there.) So really, just get your culinary mushrooms from the cooler display at the grocery store and leave the wild ones be.

          Mushrooms, and fungi in general, have had a bit of a renaissance in the past few years. Always a sought-after item by foragers, the proper identification, preparation and consumption of mushrooms has been a controversial topic for many, many generations (by those survivors who ate the ‘right’ ones). For a long while, only witches were thought to have the proper knowledge about which one to use for what reason.

          There is a terrific 2019 documentary on Netflix entitled “Fantastic Fungi” which gives a great overview of the fungi kingdom as well as a very interesting history of human consumption and the various uses of mushrooms. From cleaning up oil spills to creating advanced brain development, fungi have had quite the impact on this planet and everything that lives and grows here.

          A quick recap here: mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms. That label of ‘mushroom’ seems to best fit the species of fungi that create an umbrella shaped reproductive structure. But there are many, many more species of fungi that are just plain slimy blobs, fuzzy masses or are all but hidden from our sight.

          While a number of identification guides have been around for a few decades, there is now a plethora of well-illustrated guide books to assist you in the quest of mushroom identification. And the internet, of course, is always there waiting to lead you astray. Unfortunately, the task of nailing a proper identification of any particular mushroom requires a lot work — more than just a quick view of a pretty picture.

          For proper identification, you need to know whether or not the mushroom has gills or pores on its underside. Is it dry or slimy? Is the stalk smooth or fuzzy? Is the stalk solid or hollow? Does a milky white substance ‘bleed’ from a cut into the cap? What substrate is it growing on… dead log or living tree? Hardwood or conifer? Was it perhaps growing on horse manure or in a manicured lawn?

          And one of the best determining factors is the colour of the reproductive spores. This step is actually kind of fun to do, but requires patience, something some of us are a bit short of. But the making of spore prints can be quite rewarding, both from a scientific viewpoint as well as an artistic one.

          Simply snap the cap off a mushroom and set it on a piece of paper. Leave it alone for an hour or so. When you come back, simply (and carefully) lift the cap off the paper and you will see a beautiful complex display created by billions of spores dropping down and landing on the paper. Is the pattern pink, brown, black or white? This colour will assist greatly as you flip through the identification guides.

          If you view the aforementioned documentary, the last part of that presentation discusses the renewed interest in medicinal uses of fungi. Just has marijuana has gone from being a medicinal herb to a vilified substance and back again to a beneficial medical aid, so too goes the path of fungi.

          From fixing brain cells to combat Alzheimer’s disease, to treating extreme anxiety and depression, and creating a “think outside the box” mind-enhancing experience, mushrooms are once again coming into the research labs and being re-examined for what almost magical powers they might provide. It is interesting to hear that many creative people have gotten their ‘start’ after a psychedelic mushroom trip.

          Penicillin is derived from a fungus, some cheeses rely on fungi for flavour, and occasionally a fungus mould will make it very clear that the leftovers in that fridge container really should have been dealt with weeks ago. So many uses.

          As a hike leader, I have always focused on pointing out the amazing diversity of mushroom shape, form and colour. Let’s look at mushrooms as natural works of art, not culinary potentials. When it comes to consuming mushrooms, I continue to trust the grocery store display over my ‘best guess’ of a trailside nibble.

Dave’s Notebook: Ah, this is how I remember October... a tad damp at times! The silver lining is that wet leaves show better saturated colour! So, it's a win, in a way.

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© 2021 David J. Hawke

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