The Hidden World
Mushroom Hunting in the Merrimack Valley
Lurking in the lichen and peering forth from tree stumps in the woods at Horse Hill Nature Preserve and Bear Brook State Park in New Hampshire, and at Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover, grow deadly galerinas, destroying angels and death caps. Eat one and you may never hike again.
Mycophiles, lovers of fungi, have a saying: There are old mushroom hunters. And there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.
Despite the danger, mushroom hunting can be a safe hobby, even for children. In places such as Russia, Japan and Italy, some children are raised with mushroom hunting as an inexpensive weekend activity that connects them with nature and the wisdom of older family members. Mushroom hunting has rapidly increased in popularity in the United States over the past few years, although it is still something of a fringe pursuit. When I attended a guided foray in June at Boxford State Forest in Boxford, participants spoke with a broad range of accents: Czech, Chinese and Portuguese among them.
Marsha Browne, the event coordinator, served as the expert identifier. Among the 35 walkers present were children and beginners. She began by instructing everyone on how to harvest mushrooms safely.
Browne’s own journey began in 2010, when she was introduced to the world of mushroom hunting by her Parisian husband. She says she was something of an “idiot savant” when it came to mycology, and whatever information she learned stuck in her brain. She joined the Boston Mycological Club and within a short period had gathered an unusual level of expertise. Early on, she drew the mushrooms in a small notebook she kept with her to help train herself to recognize critical details. When she showed her notebook to the group, eyes lit up. The drawings were precise and colorful, hinting of the underground world that surrounds us that we often fail to notice.
Wicker baskets in hand, we set out on our walk. It wasn’t long before the discussion turned to methods of warding off tics and mosquitoes. In the summer heat, long pants were tucked into socks. Bug sprays were passed around.
The prize haul of the day was gathered by Dave Zhang, a first time mushroom hunter and Burlington resident who was born near Beijing. His chicken of the woods was notable both for being out of season and for being a pristine and choice edible (the best tasting of edible mushrooms). “Beginner’s luck,” he said after the mushroom was placed on the identification table. Even early in the season, and with unfavorably dry conditions, hunters discovered other edibles, including a giant horse mushroom, which smells like licorice and is the larger, tastier relative of the button mushrooms commonly served on pizza.
What you see when you find any mushroom, be it the classic toadstool or the fan shaped and leathery turkey tail, is merely the fruiting body of an invisible network of hidden white threads called mycelium. Without mycelium, fallen trees and leaves would not rot and nutrients would not return to the soil. Fungal mycelium is the hidden hand that turns the circle of life.
The Merrimack Valley is well served by widespread and well-maintained public nature trails and two superbly run organizations. The first is the Boston Mycological Club. Started more than a century ago, it is the oldest amateur mushroom club in the United States and it provides inexpensive lectures and tours for members and nonmembers. The club’s weekend forays often include walks in the Merrimack Valley. The other resource is the Mushroom Lovers USA Meetup. The club sponsors forays and talks throughout the region, including regular visits to Andover and Boxford, all for an annual fee of five dollars.
Learning to identify the various species means training the eye to identify obvious signs, such as color and size, and also the less obvious. Is there a ring around the stipe — the stem of the mushroom? Are the gills crowded, forked or “fake”? Different species release different colored spores, so mushroom caps are left on paper overnight for a spore print. The spore colors range from salmon to cream. On top of helping to properly identify a sample, the resulting pattern can be striking.
Even experts find it hard to predict when mushrooms will flourish, but there is one factor that triggers growth in many species: rainfall. Because of this, our region never sees the volume of fruiting bodies that grow in, say, the Pacific Northwest, but we still boast a wide variety of edible and medicinal species.
Chicken of the woods is a nongilled, bright orange species that tastes best when growing from oak. Young and cooked properly, it has a lobster-like texture and a rich taste that’s perfect for barbecue. Hen of the woods, also called maitake, looks like a hen’s behind. It is another nongilled mushroom, and is treasured in Asia for its taste and health properties. The black trumpet, aka the death trumpet, might have an ominous name, but it is a choice edible, perfect for omelets. Oyster mushrooms are one of the few edibles to grow in colder seasons, but they aren’t recommended for beginners, as you need some identification skills to properly and safely recognize them. Fortunately, oysters can also be cultivated. Fat Moon farm in Westford sells various types of oysters, and it’s a great place to visit if wild mushrooms are out of season or if you don’t know your polypores from your portobellos. Finally, chanterelles are a favorite of chefs. With false gills — folds and creases instead of plates — they smell like apricots and have a delicate, fruity taste. They also have a few toxic look-alikes, including the jack-o’-lantern, which is bioluminescent. In Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Huck uses this glowing mushroom to shine “foxfire” in the forest night.
This year has proved to be uncommonly dry. Mycophiles watch the skies and hope for storms. Then, slippery jacks and milk caps will arise from the duff, and the hunt will continue on.
Don’t have time to wait for the storms? Visit:
Want a delicious recipe for Oyster Mushroom Bruschetta with Kale Pesto and Goat Cheese Cream? Click here.