One of the interesting side effects of so much rain is the huge number of wild mushrooms that are growing in the woods across from our house. Although this year’s is a bumper crop, these woods have always been mushroom rich. I used to think that someday I would have learned enough about mushrooms so I could identify which mushrooms are safe to eat.
But it is a very odd thing… the more information I absorb about identifying wild mushrooms, the more uncertain I become that I really want to take the chance of eating them. I’m pretty sure, for example, that the mushrooms that look like a hamburger bun on a stalk are boletes… and boletes are considered safe to eat. Safe, that is, except for the few boletes that are poisonous and have red or orange pores. I am fairly certain I can correctly identify the edible orange-ish vase shaped chanterelles… but what if I confuse these with the poisonous mushroom that has the same shape and similar characteristics? Even the edible common white puffball, which supposedly is a safe “starter mushroom” for novice foragers, can sometimes be confused with one of the most deadly mushrooms of all. And on it goes. I have made spore prints, studied pores and sharp gills and rounded gills and looked for rings around the stems and cups or sacs beneath the soil. For every mushroom I think I can identify, there is always an exception or a warning that, for me anyway, makes the thought of eating any wild mushrooms somewhat less than appealing.
At this point, I’m neither brave enough nor stupid enough to rely on the bits of information I have learned about which mushrooms are edible and which are not. Especially knowing that even the most educated identification can be incorrect. Of course, not everyone shares my concerns.
Several years ago, an elderly Austrian woman stopped here and asked if she could search for mushrooms in our woods. We said she could, and she obviously considers the original permission to be an ongoing one, because at least once every year since then she has returned. She always leaves with a huge basket of mushrooms… sometimes she waves and says hello or talks for a few minutes. This year she had her granddaughter with her. The time had come, she said, to pass on her knowledge of foraging. In the beginning years I wondered if I could learn from her too. I completely gave up on that idea after the year I asked her how she identifed the edible mushrooms, and she told me she tested them with a silver spoon. Although this practice comes from folklore, most people who know about mushrooms emphatically warn that it is a very risky and unreliable test. Knowing this, I am always somewhat surprised when another year rolls around and I see that this woman is back and has survived her last mushroom hunt!
There is an old saying that there are only two types of mushroom hunters. There are the old mushroom hunters and there are the bold mushroom hunters…. but there are no old bold mushroom hunters.
That is certainly something to think about!