Clear Skies for ‘Shroom Hunters!

group-getting-instructions-best.jpgIn the Southeast, we’ve been breaking all kinds of records for abundant rainfall through the summer – which you’d think would be great for growing mushrooms, right? Fun fact: There is such a thing as too much rain for ‘shrooms! Luckily, however, we were still able to collect a bountiful and varied assortment for our mushroom identification hike on August 14. And, we were fortunate enough to enjoy a beautiful sunny sky and clear views of the Black Mountains as a bonus.

Led by amateur mycologist Charlotte Caplan – who has spent the past 35 years learning about mushrooms – our group started out in a high mountain meadow with Mt. Mitchell and the stunning Black Mountains clearly visible in the background.

Charlotte gave us a basic run-down on mushrooms and tips for collecting. Here’s some of her info:

  • investigating-on-the-trail.jpgMushrooms are part of the Fungi kingdom – not the plant or animal kingdom; although they resemble plants, they share some behaviors more in common with animals. They are the recyclers of the natural world – responsible for breaking down & digesting natural materials.
  • You have to dig down below to get the whole thing. The mushroom growing up above is just the reproductive part of the mycelium — the actual fungus which lies underneath. Use a knife or spoon to carefully cut into the earth and slip under to collect the whole mycelium.
  • Bring baskets for mushroom collecting, and waxed or paper bags to separate specimens.
  • We learned about a few parts of a mushroom: gills, universal veil, partial veil, cap, stalk, spores, etc. As we later walked through the woods, Charlotte directed us to ask questions as we looked at our specimens.  “Look for the ‘veil’ that coats around the mushroom. What does the base look like? Look at the gills under the cap or lack thereof; some species don’t have true gills – they have folds.”
  • An important part of identifying mushrooms is to focus on recognizing  the families.  With some estimated 10,000 species visible to the naked eye, it is easier to start identification based on the mushroom family.
  • You can look for color, but many different varieties (edible & non-edible), may share similar hues.
  • There are some varieties that are edible and some that are poisonous, but a lot fall into an in-between zone that are simply inedible. They may really just taste bad or are too woody or tough to be good to eat.

explaining-features-of-mushrooms.jpg“There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters,” cautioned Charlotte as the group set off to begin.

We headed down a wooded gravel road and immediately began to spy a variety of mushrooms along the sides. Our jovial company brimmed with avid curiosity as laughter echoed in the woods  — adults and youngsters alike eager to learn. Charlotte was evidently excited about the world of mushrooms, and her exuberance proved engaging and contagious.

She directed us to fan out through a forested area. It looked a little dense from the outside, but following a little trail into the woods, we soon discovered that the understory was quite clear. Mushrooms abounded here in pockets – some growing at the base of trees, on rotting old wood, up from clumps of moss, and hidden in little clearings under the trees.

finding-shrooms.jpgThe outing was more treasure hunt than hike – scouting for brilliant living gemstones on the emerald carpet under the trees. With flossy ferns, mossy carpets, and relatively little underbrush, it was a beautiful place to search. After rooting around in the woods for a while, we headed back to the top to enjoy lunch on picnic tables and beautiful views of the Black Mountains.

Following lunch, Charlotte broke out her mushroom books to assist with identification, and we spread the spoils of our baskets on the table to sort.

Here’s one example of how similar the edible & poisonous varieties of mushrooms can be: we found a little white puffball that was edible when we first started out. However, sitting around and identifying collections at the picnic table after lunch, Charlotte identified another puffball that was poisonous. It looked very similar on the outside, but was solid black inside and smelled raunchy. The best edible mushroom that we found that day was a black trumpet, which Charlotte described as “gregarious” because they like to grow together in clusters. In all, we saw representatives from just about every major mushroom family, over 30 different varieties.

shroom-table.jpgThe youngest member of our group, Bridger, brightened all our lives that day with his unabashed enthusiasm for learning about the natural world. He and his mother, Jodi, had joined the hike to spend quality time together while nurturing his passion for mushrooms. In fact, Bridger went home and put together a Prezi to share his knowledge, which you can view here.

It was a beautiful day to enjoy the outdoors and uncover a plethora of mushrooms. Thanks to everyone for participating, and to our landowners for graciously allowing SAHC to lead this hike on their property!