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Fungus Among Us

July 3, 2014

A small apartment in the heart of Berkeley was completely filled with a very savory aroma. As guests filed in and left their coats in a pile near the door, they exchanged warm greetings and complimented the chef, Sydney Glassman, (Twitter @fungifoode) on her masterful preparation of a mushroom feast. Glassman, a mycology graduate student at the University of California Berkeley and avid chef, had purchased these mushrooms from an online vendor, but regularly spends her afternoons foraging in the nearby woodlands for wild mushrooms. The mushrooms were ‘Hen of the Woods’ whose scientific name is Maitake frondosa. Glassman marinated them in soy sauce, garlic, honey, and white wine. She then barbequed the mushrooms and served them on top of Mee Goreng, a Malaysian-style stir-fry with vegetables and noodles. You can find her recipe and commentary on the preparation at her blog here. In other posts she details finding wild ‘Porcinis’ (Boletus edulis) and Chanterelles and making wild mushroom risotto.

Chanterelle collecting in Northern California

Chanterelle collecting in Northern California

Hunting for, and eating wild mushrooms is a trend on the rise across the United States. Aside from being great exercise and a mood lifting experience to be outside, collecting your own fungi can be a highly rewarding process, as fresh wild fungi in local markets fetch prices between $5 and $200 per pound. The most expensive fungi in the world are truffles belonging to the genus Tuber. They are found mostly in French forests and sell for over $5,000.00 per pound. These truffles are so valuable that  pigs and dogs are specially trained to find them. You can watch a short film about a truffle dog hunting edible truffles in Georgia here. While eating wild mushrooms can be a fun and tasty endeavor, toxic fungi also exist and great care must be taken to avoid consuming poisonous mushrooms. Fungi vary in their toxicity from tasty and harmless to deadly poisonous. Here is a piece from Slate magazine expanding on the toxicity and distribution of one particularly deadly fungus nicknamed the death cap mushroom, written by Harvard mycology graduate student, Catherine Adams (Twitter @ScienceIsMetal).

Chanterelle mushrooms

Chanterelle mushrooms

Experts like Sydney and Catherine as well as amateur fungal enthusiasts use a series of features of the mushrooms themselves to identify each one.  The shape and dimensions of cap (pileus) and stalk (stipe) of the fungus, the color and size of its spores, and in some cases its reaction with specific chemicals are tell-tale clues to finding out which mushroom you actually have. In addition they rely on knowledge of fungal ecology to pick their hunting grounds and increase their success in bringing home dinner. For example, it is well known that Chanterelles associate with certain types of trees and therefor you are more likely to find them under specific plants as exemplified by the age-old mushroom hunting advice, ‘know your trees, find your fungus’. Likewise, the ‘Hen of the Woods’, referenced above grows on decaying wood, and accordingly one would not search for it on the ground under plants.

 Jessie exploring for fungi in the rainforest of Guyana.

Jessie exploring for fungi in the rainforest of Guyana.

On Thursday, July 10th from 6:30 to 8:00 pm, you can learn more about mushroom identification and fungal ecology in a hands-on “Fungus Among Us” workshop at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.  This course is part of our Thursday Evening Classes series featuring science experts.  Participants in the fungus workshop will have opportunities to examine fresh mushrooms from the field, create spore prints, examine and dissect mushrooms using a microscope, and learn to use field guides and keys necessary to properly identify fungi to their scientific Latin names. Students will get tips on when and where to find wild fungi, how to properly collect specimens, and how to preserve fresh mushrooms for later use. This course will also be a forum to discuss and share favorite recipes for preparing wild edible mushroom dishes. Duke mycology graduate student Jessie Uehling (Twitter @jessieuehling) will teach the course. Uehling studies plant-associated fungi and bacteria, and how to use genetics to understand forest health and function in the lab of Rytas Vilgalys in Duke Biology. She first learned how to identify and collect fungi during her training as a Master’s student with Terry Henkel at California State University Humboldt. Together Henkel and Uehling made trips to the upper Amazon to collect and document fungi in the rainforests of Guyana. You can find more about their adventures at their blog post and the following Youtube video.

You can find information and register for the “Fungus Among Us” course at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ website or check us out on twitter @NatSciLearn using the hashtag #NatCenter.


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