Sprouting a passion for mushroom hunting

[slideshow_deploy id='22175'] This spring, I got a text message from a friend of mine.

Paul: I'm going to pick mushrooms this afternoon. Want to come? Me: Why not?

Paul Kosmatka and I had been talking about his favorite pastime of mushroom hunting for a while, but that day in spring turned me on to a group of enthusiasts who can't wait for the wet, soggy days that send them off to the woods in search of the many wild, edible mushrooms that can be found in this region.

That first day in the woods near Seven Bridges Road, our main goal was to look for the oyster mushroom, which grows on the sides of dead and decaying trees. After a recent rainstorm, Paul thought the conditions might be good so we headed off down the trail.

"There are some," Paul said, quickly bounding off into the brush. "Where?" I asked, following but not seeing anything.

He had spied the mushrooms on a tree that must have been 50 yards from us. It wasn't until we were right next to them that I finally saw them. He quickly leaned over and pointed out the key features of this cluster of white, billowy mushrooms that grew on the side of a decaying tree. Paul pulled out his knife and gently sawed off the cluster, dropping them into his mushroom-harvesting bag, which he keeps with him at all times.

Paul explained to me that his bag, made of an open-mesh material, is designed to allow the mushrooms to drop their spores as he walks along. This helps the mushrooms make more mushrooms.

Paul first got into mushrooming with his father and also with the encouragement of some neighbors, who would take him out on hikes and show him both where and when to look for mushrooms and also which ones were safe to eat. Since our first day hiking, Paul has brought me a variety of mushrooms, knowing that I enjoy cooking:

  • oyster mushrooms, which are good in soups and asian food;
  • sulfur shelf mushroom, aka chicken of the woods, which as the name suggests taste a bit like chicken;
  • and recently, a nice batch of meadow mushrooms, which look a bit like giant versions of the most common mushrooms you find at the grocery store but with a much more earthy and vibrant flavor.

Many of the mushrooms that Paul has brought me can fetch upwards of $20 and $30 a pound in the grocery store. Now that I'm a wannabe mushroom aficionado, I find myself at a crossroads. As I hike through the woods, I have come to delight in finding new kinds of mushrooms growing everywhere. They are diverse and exotic and beautiful. But what I'm not ready to do is start identifying, picking and eating these mushrooms.

I really don't want to die.

Instead, I find myself taking pictures of the mushrooms with my cell phone and sending the images to Paul.

What's this one? How about this one?

But Paul, who works as an orthopedic surgeon, may on occasion, have more important things to do than be my personal, 24-hour, mushroom-consultant hotline.

I did a little reading and, as you might expect, and most places tell you to get a good guidebook. I looked in the Apple App Store and also found at least 10 different apps you can put on your phone to help you identify mushrooms.

I also called over to the Hartley Nature Center, which has a nice article on the fungi and mushrooms, and talked with education director Joy Turnbull-Dunham. She told me that fall is her favorite time of year to hunt for mushrooms.

I asked her whether there were any local groups devoted to mushrooming. She wasn't sure of any, though she did track down a group called the Minnesota Mycological Association based in Eagan, Minn.

She said her own favorite guide, when it comes to identifying mushrooms, is the book, "Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods," written by a longtime Duluth teacher and columnist for the Duluth Budgeteer, Larry Weber. She said that because this one has a local focus she finds it to be the most useful.

Maybe I'll take this next step and start seeing if I can use a guidebook to identify these mushrooms on my own. Still, I think Paul can expect a few more text messages. I'm not quite ready to stake my life on an iPhone App. Even Paul said he won't dare to eat a mushroom unless he is completely certain and has consulted with his own experts.

"Best advice is to go out with somebody who knows more than you do, who doesn't look like he's recently had his stomach pumped or a liver transplant," Paul wrote me in a text message. "Books are helpful as is the web. But I haven't trusted any of those print sources without confirmation from a local expert."

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