Fungi foray: Wild mushrooms are a key part of food chain

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Walt Sturgeon
Ila and Ken Oyster, of Kensington, talk to mushroom expert Walt Sturgeon, at Scenic Vista Park, in Columbiana County. Sturgeon, who has authored several books and has been nationally recognized for his contributions to amateur mycology, has been doing the programs at Scenic Vista for 20 years. July 11 was the first time the traditional walk in the woods to search for mushrooms was canceled because of rain. (Barbara Mudrak photo)

Originally, the word “foray” meant an invasion or raid, usually with the goal of plundering. More recently, it’s come to mean exploring an unfamiliar subject or activity. But for mushroom enthusiasts, the word has special meaning. A foray is any time they get together and learn about their favorite fungi, as 20 or so people did at Scenic Vista Park, south of Lisbon, Ohio, July 11. 

As he has for the past 20 years, Walt Sturgeon, of East Palestine, brought samples and answers to questions to the park’s pavilion. Having researched and written books about them for the past 45 years, he’s become a nationally known expert on mushrooms. 

Network

Sharon Parrish, of Salem, said she had a lot of mushrooms growing near the many oak trees in her backyard. Squirrels eat them, and she was worried that her dog would, too. She picked the mushrooms to try to keep them from spreading, but that didn’t work, she said. 

“You’re picking an apple from a tree,” Sturgeon said metaphorically. “You’re not destroying the organism.” 

He explained that the mycelium, the network of fungus that produces mushrooms, is like a giant spider web that seems to go on forever, unseen because each strand is only as wide as a single cell. More than 8 miles of these cells can be found in a cubic inch of soil. 

These networks are mostly underground, but they can also grow on dead wood, tree roots and other surfaces. If the mycelium has enough to eat and the weather is right, it will make mushrooms, which are the fruit of the fungus. 

“The mushroom is just the tip of the iceberg,” Sturgeon told his audience. Picking it just removes the fruit, not the mycelium fibers that can live for years, even decades. 

Edible

Having grown up on a farm south of Alliance, Ila Oyster wondered if pasture mushrooms are good to eat, and what, exactly, are puffballs? 

“I’ve eaten mushrooms all my life,” said Oyster, who now lives with her husband, Ken, in Kensington. “They were always a treat for me.” 

Sturgeon remembers eating pink-bottom mushrooms, which he called “a second cousin to the store-bought varieties,” that he picked from the pasture as a kid. But not all mushrooms that grow in pastures are edible, he said, so it’s important to identify them first. 

Puffballs are mushrooms that contain millions of spores. They’re edible when they’re white, but if dark green or purple, they will “burst at the slightest touch and send spores all over.” He compared puffball flesh to tofu and recommends cooking it in garlic butter or frying it with bacon. 

Another participant wanted to know about the mushrooms that look like big fans and grow on trees. Sturgeon said those are called artist conk and make great material for painting and etching. They can span a foot or more and grow bigger each year, making rings like trees. 

But these mushrooms are even more dense than the wood they grow on, and are “only edible for beavers,” he said. Mushrooms have symbiotic relationships with trees, he said, especially those that have needles or nuts. 

Wildlife

In northeast Ohio, beech and oak trees are likely to have mushrooms growing with them, as well as birch, aspen, willow and cottonwood. 

“The tree provides carbohydrates that the fungus uses for food. The mushrooms break down material and provide minerals and nutrients to the trees.” Sturgeon said. “It’s a give-and-take process. Without mushrooms, we wouldn’t have healthy trees.” 

Mushrooms are a good food source for insects, snails and turtles as well as some mammals, like squirrels and deer. 

“They’re all tied together,” he said. “Mushrooms are a critical part of the food chain.” 

Names

Oddly enough, there’s no scientific definition for mushrooms; they’re just macrofungi, as opposed to mini fungi, like yeast. More than 2,000 species of mushrooms have been documented in Ohio, but Sturgeon thinks the real number is closer to 3,000. Many types of mushrooms have not been studied or given names yet, he said. 

That seems to be one of the goals of new groups of mushroom enthusiasts, who call mycelium the “wood wide web.” Hot mushroom topics online include “mycoremediation,” looking into fungi as a way to clean up toxic waste and other environmental problems, and “radical mycology,” investigating its ability to help the environment and human beings, as in medicine. 

Risks

Both new and old fans of the fungi agree that identifying mushrooms before eating them is crucial. Some mushrooms are edible, and quite tasty, while others are edible but awful. The compact Russula he brought “tastes fishy and stinks,” while one that’s called Bradley, in West Virginia, also tastes fishy but is delicious, he said. 

Some mushrooms are toxic, and a few are deadly. Sturgeon said that In northeast Ohio, there are two common species that can kill you: Destroying angel, which is all white, and deadly galerina, also called autumn skullcap, that have brown or yellowish tops. Other varieties may not be fatal, but can make you very sick, including some of the so-called hallucinogenic mushrooms. 

“After eating 10 or so, you may find that your digestive system shuts down,” he said. 

The problem is, so many edible varieties resemble toxic ones, and vice versa. That’s why Sturgeon puts a skull and crossbones at the top of pages describing toxic varieties in his field guides. Poison control centers call Sturgeon often, mostly for kids, sometimes for dogs. He’s also on the Poisons Help: Emergency Identification for Mushrooms & Plants page on Facebook. 

Sturgeon said in these cases, it’s important for parents to send good photos of the suspect mushroom. Pictures should show the cap, both from the top and underneath; the stem, and any other parts, plus one that is cut in half. The insides of some mushrooms turn blue, green or other colors when exposed to air, as Sturgeon demonstrated in his talk. 

Unfortunately, panicked adults in these situations often aren’t thorough in their photography. 

“It’s frustrating when they only have photos of vomit, or a mushroom that’s in pieces,” Sturgeon said. 

Identifying mushrooms is so important, there’s even an app for that. Sturgeon spends a lot of time looking at photos of mushrooms that people post on iNaturalist, sometimes identifying 100 or more a day. The site also has maps showing where those kinds of mushrooms have been found. 

Cooking

Of the edible varieties, morels are probably his favorite mushrooms, along with the American parasol. Sturgeon emphasized the need to always cook mushrooms. Even some types of morels will make you sick if you eat them raw, he said. Sturgeon also likes chanterelles, with their bright orange color and many wrinkles. 

“They taste fruity and have a nice smell, like apricots,” he said. 

Some people candy them and put them on ice cream or sorbet, but he just adds some maple syrup or honey after cooking them in butter.

“Morels and hen-of-the-woods, called sheepshead locally, are the prizes around here, but chanterelles are catching on,” he said. 

Background

Sturgeon’s dad took him mushroom hunting as a kid, but he really got interested in the 1970s when his wife, Trish, got him a mushroom book for Christmas. He joined the North American Mycological Association and the Ohio Mushroom Society, where he found a mentor. 

He used to shoot photos of mushrooms — on film — and mail them to his mentor, who would mail back the identifications. 

Among the books and field guides he’s authored are Mushrooms of the Northeast and Appalachian Mushrooms: A Field Guide. Those in the southeast corner of Ohio can be a little different than those in the rest of the state, like the cauliflower mushroom that grows on conifers. 

“But there’s also a big overlap,” he said. “Mushrooms don’t know borders.”

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Barbara Mudrak was a reporter for 25 years, mostly with the Akron Beacon Journal, and recently retired from teaching English and news writing at Alliance High School. She can be reached at editorial+barb@farmanddairy.com.

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