Discovering wild mushrooms

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 22, 2006

By Yuriel Justin, special to the Tribune

I spend a part of nearly every one of my days walking and hiking in the woods. It is a wonderful place to connect with the earth and ones place in it. Just when I thought that the woods could offer no more wonders, I stumbled across a new find. A few weeks ago, while tromping along a trail on the island that I have hiked for years, I looked down to discover several perfectly shaped brilliant white balls. My first thought was &8220;what a strange place for turtle eggs.&8221;

That is exactly what they looked like. I thought it odd that there was no trace of dirt or digging. Upon closer examination, I realized the perfectly shaped balls were not turtle eggs, but rather, a type of mushroom. I let my eyes and intuition guide me a bit beyond the objects and was immediately transfixed by what I found. There, scattered within a few feet were several more of those perfectly shaped white balls. But these were huge. By huge, I mean softball to soccer ball size.

I had discovered the giant puffball mushroom. Discovery of that group of mushrooms sparked a desire to learn more about them, and to find more. I stopped by the Myre-Big Island State Park office that day on my way out of the park. The staff was very helpful and told me I had discovered the puffball mushroom. I was told the mushroom was edible and that it was OK to harvest mushrooms at the park.

The rangers have an excellent reference book available called &8220;Start Mushrooming.&8221; It is written by Karen Shanberg and Stan Tekiela. It has photographs and detailed descriptions of six edible mushrooms. It also contains valuable information on identifying poisonous mushrooms. Before my puffball encounter, I had never really thought about gathering or eating wild mushrooms. I guess I have thought about it only in the context of &8220;That&8217;s a pretty risky thing to do.&8221;

So, before harvesting and actually eating the puffball, I conducted the following research. I talked to someone knowledgeable about wild mushrooms,

found photos of edible mushrooms, and studied what to look out for in identifying poisonous mushrooms.

After conducting my research, I was excited as a child before Christmas and couldn&8217;t wait to get back out to the park for my first mushroom harvest. On my first mushroom hunt and harvest, I returned to the spot I had discovered earlier, and within minutes, had harvested two bags full (about 10 pounds) of giant puffball mushrooms. I was eager to show off my &8220;find&8221; and had the opportunity to do just that when I returned to my car. I attracted a curious audience when I began placing the mushrooms on my car to examine them.

One couple seemed genuinely eager for a taste. I ended up giving them half of my harvest. I really had more than I could eat and did not know how to preserve them.

Besides, it is always nice to share things with others.

Puffballs grow on the ground. There is no other mushroom like it in appearance, which is one of the reasons I wanted to make it my first wild mushroom dining experience. Seasoning is the key with the puffball.

Without good seasoning, it is rather tasteless and bland and not all that chewy. I guess I would compare it to tofu in that respect. After my third try, I found the right seasoning to make it a delicious meal.

A few days later, I brought my camera out to the woods to continue my mushroom hunt. Once I learned what to look for, I seemed to find mushrooms everywhere.

Fall is a fabulous season of discovery for a mushroom hunter &8212; photographer in the woods. I am continually in awe of the beauty of the natural world. What fun it is to hike the trails I have hiked for years and to find that nature has provided yet another new find for me to be in awe of. Of course, as you know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some would find mushrooms to be quite repulsive. As an environmentalist, naturalist, and photographer, I find them intricately and immensely beautiful.

I returned to the woods again to hunt and gather one more type of edible mushroom: the sulfur shelf mushroom. Around here, the sulfur shelf grows on maple or oak trees or logs. I found mine on a moss-covered log.

What a beautiful sight.

Brilliant, fluorescent orange mushrooms on a bed of bright green moss. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me to capture this specimen, but I did harvest some to take home for a delicious meal. When it comes to flavor and texture, there really is no comparison to the puffball. The sulfur shelf is chewy with a unique flavor that ranks up there with the word divine.

Seasoning again is the key.

I was able to find a most delicious combination of herbs and spices to make my first experience one I will not soon forget.

Some mushrooms are camouflaged well, blending into their surroundings to make them almost invisible to the untrained eye. Others jump out at you, like my &8220;turtle eggs&8221;(puffballs), because their color and texture is in direct contrast to their surroundings. The brilliant orange sulfur shelf is another example.

It is important to note here, that this article is not intended to be a mushroom primer. I wanted to share with you some of my experiences and more wonders of the natural world. Please do your research before undertaking a mushroom hunt or harvest. There are many opportunities to poison yourself if you do not know what you are doing. Also, please note that if you find edible mushrooms growing in your yard, you are not to eat them if you have treated your lawn with chemicals of any kind. Mushrooms will absorb the chemicals and become quite toxic and poisonous. Do not eat them. A basic rule to remember here is &8220;If you don&8217;t know what it is, don’t eat it.&8221;

(Yuriel Justin is an environmental and cultural educator who walks and honors the earth on a daily basis.)