After a night of heavy showers, we were lucky the weather was
holding. This was my second year in Mushroom Identification class, and
I was grateful for no repeat of the first year's merciless downpour.
This year, I had the right gear. No more dressing like a newcomer in easily soaked hiking boots and jeans.
PVC boots and bib overalls were on to keep me dry and a sturdy
walking stick helped me keep my balance while slogging up a steep slope
blanketed in duff, that thick layer of loose organic matter - decaying
bark, branches, needles, leaves - common on many regional forest floors.
The assignment, on the Saturday morning of Nov. 7, was for 30 class members to spread out and search the woods growing above a creek in a narrow tributary canyon of the Winchuck River in Southern Oregon.
We were to collect three specimens - one young, one mature and one old - of every kind of fungus we could find.
Our teacher was Bob Burch, an amateur mycologist who puts on the class locally twice each fall, on one weekend apiece at College of the Redwoods-Del Norte and Southwestern Oregon Community College's Curry County campus in Brookings.
Burch is not the first teacher of the class, but he has taught it for the past 20 years, serving as an important resource for both novice and intermediate hunters interested in finding the many varieties of edible wild mushrooms that grow abundantly here.
Red Hots and sweat socks
Edible mushrooms native to the area bear little resemblance in look or flavor to the tasteless white pizza topping type.
There are varieties with tastes like amaretto, pepper, shrimp and jalapeandntilde;os, and one prized gourmet variety, the matsutake, that smells of Red Hots and, um, sweat socks.
One very popular variety that produces its largest specimens in Northern California, chanterelles, have a golden color and are sometimes mistaken for flowers. They smell like peaches.
My wife Lynn had joined me in the class this year because she couldn't understand why I wasn't a better mushroom hunter after taking the class once in 2007.
Now it makes sense, Lynn told me this week. There's just a lot to learn to know exactly what to look for, what to avoid, and when and where to look.
Since there are several varieties of mushrooms that can cause irreversible liver damage and even death, Burch doesn't apologize for the overload of detailed information offered in his class.
"You're not going to learn it all in three hours and a day out in the forest," he told his class this year. "There's way too much to try to learn. So my challenge is for you to learn at least one variety this time, to be comfortable with it. And I see lots of people come back when I do this class the next year."
Delicious or deadly
If you don't know what you're doing, I learned, a discrepancy in one fine detail between two otherwise identical mushrooms can be the difference between delicious and deadly. A guidebook will help, but you have to understand its terminology. There's no easy way for the novice to remember, for example, the distinction between "close, adnate" gills and "crowded, adnex" gills.
Fortunately, as long as you know what you're looking for, most edible mushrooms in our region stand out distinctively from the rest of the pack. One handy rule of thumb for the beginner is to steer clear of any "LBMs" - Little Brown Mushrooms - as few of them are edible and some are quite poisonous.
On this year's hunt, I didn't want to bother with the LBMs, even though Burch encouraged us to collect every variety we found so we could discuss them later and a get a sense of what we should ignore in the future. I remembered from my last class hunt that it's very easy to spend your whole time picking LBMs and very disappointing to bring home an empty basket because nothing you found was worth keeping.
Lynn and I started on the steep hillside where all the Douglas firs were growing, a good place to look for chanterelles, but a tough place to maintain your balance.
The hillside was crowded with students eager to find chanterelles, and Lynn and I had gotten cornered in a very steep area, so we decided to go back down to the road and look for other varieties on the other side, flatter land beside a creek.
The wisdom of this decision was confirmed on the way down as I fell and slid 10 feet, dragging a lot of duff and underlying dirt down with me. I could see that thick clumps of a white cobweb-like material had been torn free in the slide, which was another good reason to get my clumsy body off the hill and stop tearing up its delicate life.
Secret lives of mushrooms
This white material that was exposed in my fall is mycelium, the mushroom's secret identity. Mushrooms are all members of the fungus kingdom, a vast class of life entirely distinct from plants and animals, but surprisingly with more similarities to the latter. Many fungi, for example, breathe oxygen, like humans.
Mushrooms are merely the reproductive fruit, like apples bearing seeds, that spring from mycelium, the main body of the fungus, which lives unseen year-round below the surface of the duff, dirt, or wood where mushrooms only occasionally appear. Hidden inside mushrooms are hundreds of thousands of hardy, microscopic spores that spread on the wind over vast areas to ensure that at least a few will land on the right environment for a finicky fungal species to grow a new unseen mycelial net.
Some varieties, like the fir-loving chanterelle, prefer to grow under conifers, while others prefer hardwoods or grass, and this was another good reason for Lynn and I to try the flat land beside the creek - hardwoods prevailed, giving us a chance to look for something different.
Here the challenge was trying to navigate through mud, dense brush and thorny vines. But this is the only way to find the good stuff, Burch told us. If you stick to the trails, he said, you'll only see the places everyone else has seen.
"That's the great thing about mushroom hunting. You're not on a trail. You get to know a section of land like the back of your hand," he said.
Indeed, as a newcomer to the area two years ago, nothing has helped me learn the land better than mushrooming. It's not just a matter of going off the trail (something that should be done with care and preferably a GPS, so you don't get lost). It's a matter of learning to look carefully at the land, to recognize what kind of bush or tree you're looking at, and therefore what kinds of mushrooms, edible and poisonous, are likely to grow on or near it.
Training the eyes
As Lynn and I worked our way through the brush, we took time to stop and carefully study the ground. With the exception of a few brightly colored varieties, mushrooms have a knack for blending into their backgrounds, and experienced hunters have told me that it can take time and experience to train the eyes and brain to distinguish mushrooms even when you're looking right at them.
To the untrained eye, a patch of mushrooms easily can be mistaken for dead leaves. When hunting for morels, a popular spring mushroom, Burch told us to look for pine cones, a look-alike the brain is already trained to recognize.
So Lynn and I took our time, looking slowly at the ground, stooping down and craning our necks to see under low brush where mushrooms like to hide.
We found many varieties of colorful but probably inedible mushrooms and far too many LBMs, which by this time we had surrendered ourselves to collecting.
One pleasing find growing on a log was a little bit of the translucent white, edible oyster mushroom, although it seemed puny compared to the beefy oyster a coworker gave to Lynn last year.
Boletes, another variety with edible species, were easy to recognize by the porous, spongy undersides of their caps. We collected several more than three boletes in the hope that they would be keepers.
Show and tell
Eventually we ran into Burch, who was returning from his own search along the creek area because our hour of hunting was up. Burch whistled loudly up and down the canyon for everyone to return to the road, and students began gathering, opening their baskets and laying out their finds on the sheets of waxed paper they'd wrapped them in.
Each collection had a few unique varieties. The chanterelle haul wasn't great, but one student found a clump of what looked like tiny icicles - an edible variety known as Bear's Head. Another student brought back a large specimen of chicken of the woods, a tough, leathery orange clump of a thing that is only edible in perfect condition.
For the next hour, the whole class listened as Burch picked up each type of mushroom we found, identified it, told us whether it was edible or poisonous, and then told us whether our edibles were in good enough shape to keep.
This part was always a bit discouraging. Most mushrooms are not edible, and even those that are must be found sufficiently abundant and fresh to be worth taking home. Rain, slugs, maggots and bacteria all conspire to quickly degrade fresh mushrooms.
Lynn's and my haul did not fare well under Burch's examination. Our honey mushrooms were rotted, and not worth the trouble even if they were fresh, he said. The pitiful amount of oyster we found wasn't worth keeping either. Our boletes, with their green and red stems, were of the bitter, inedible variety and also past their prime.
Our only triumph was a modest amount of limp, black trumpet-shaped mushrooms that appeared in front of my face when I fell on the hillside: black chanterelles, a rarer cousin of the yellow variety, and the finest tasting of all chanterelles. Black chanterelles can be hard to find because they blend in so well with their background, so a serendipitous fall can come in handy.
After the hunt, Lynn and I drove back to Crescent City, where the class gathered in a kitchen at the Senior Center to learn how to sautandeacute; wild mushrooms and give them a taste. We sampled wild mushroom soup and sautandeacute;d chanterelles, king boletes, lobster mushrooms and morels. At the tasting in my 2007 class, I liked the morels best because they soaked up the flavor of garlic and butter so nicely. This year, I was most impressed by the meaty, steak flavor of the boletes.
The most important lesson, Burch taught us, is to be absolutely certain before we eat any mushroom, and the best way to do that is to consult an expert. In addition to his class, other resources available in the area are mushrooms clubs and mushroom fairs.
The Del Norte County Mushroom Club was formed just this year, and can be contacted through its founder, Jaime Yarbrough of Smith River, at 415-492-8408.
An older mushroom club, the Humboldt Bay Mycological Society, is putting on a mushroom fair in Eureka on Sunday. Freshly collected samples of wild mushrooms, edible and poisonous, will be on display and there will be cooking lessons and other demonstration for fungophiles. Admission to the fair is $2 and runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds.
For information about Bob Burch's Mushroom Identification class, call College of the Redwoods-Del Norte at 707-465-2300. The class tends to fill up quickly, so it's a good idea to sign up early in the fall. This year's registration fee was $30.
In Curry County, Southwestern Oregon Community College also schedules mushroom identification classes. For information on classes, call the Brookings campus at 541-469-5017, or in Gold Beach at 541-247-2741.