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Fascinating Fungi

By Audrey Stallsmith


Nicely groomed, like a mushroom
standing there so sleek and erect and eyeable--
and like a fungus, living on the remains of a bygone life
sucking his life out of the dead leaves of greater life
than his own.

"How Beastly the Bourgeois Is"--D. H. Lawrence

Fungi are strange. They spring up overnight after a rain, sometimes in eerily perfect circles, and they vanish almost as quickly. They “breathe” by absorbing oxygen and exhaling carbonic acid, more like animals than plants. They draw their life from decaying matter—in other words, from death! And, although they sound like something out of a fairy tale or a science fiction movie, some of them can kill you.

These otherworldly excrescences fascinated our ancestors too. The Hebrews considered fungi holy, with only priests and kings allowed to eat them. The Aryans, on the other hand, foolhardily got high on the toxic fly agaric mushroom—pictured above—to induce religious hallucinations.

Fly agaric, which sports a red cap, is one of the deadly amanitas. Its poison, muscarine, was once employed for dispatching insects—hence the name. At least the agaric is fairly easy to identify. Its less flashy cousin, amanita phalloides, has been called Death Cap. Although its “hat” is usually yellow, it often remains white, so that the fungus is occasionally mistaken for a common meadow mushroom—with tragic results.

You should avoid any mushroom growing in the wild that appears to have a loose sheath at the base of the stem and a “collar” further up. An amanita, when it emerges from the ground, is often enclosed in a “veil” that ruptures as the fungi “mushrooms.” The remains of that covering form the cup-like sheath, the collar, and sometimes flaky scales on the cap.

An amanita also has white gills instead of the usual pink ones. Mushrooms with a bad odor, blue or greenish bruises, or milky juice are usually poisonous as well.

Because amanita poison attacks the liver, silymarin--an extract of milk thistle--has sometimes proved to be a successful antidote. It's best given intravenously, however, and isn't generally available in that form in the U.S. So do be careful when harvesting fungi!

On the other hand, when we farm kids were growing up, we gathered plenty of the common field mushroom (agaricus campestris) with no ill effects. It’s closely related to the button mushroom, agaricus bisporus, sold in supermarkets.

Both are quite tasty, but please keep in mind that even edible fungi can make you sick if they’re wormy or past their prime. So store your mushrooms in a paper bag or basket in the refrigerator to keep them fresh. And keep in mind that, although high in zinc, they also contain natural carcinogens. Since they only sprout in the wild at certain times of the year, we kids fortunately weren’t in any danger of overindulging!

Many Oriental mushrooms are now available, including the highly praised shitake. It stimulates the immune system to make more interferon, which helps protect you from infections, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. Shitake also lowers cholesterol. Other Orientals, such as maitake and enoki, look promising as well.

As kids, my siblings and I loved to stomp puffballs to watch the spores fly up. Burning puffballs were once employed for honey gathering. John Gerard indignantly described them as "fusse balls, pucke fusse, and bulfists, with which in some places of England they use to kill or smolder their bees, when they would drive the hives and bereave the poor bees of their meat, houses, and lives.”

The spore masses were sometimes used to staunch wounds also, or as tinder for starting a fire. Puffballs are edible, but only if they are gathered while they’re still small white balls.

Truffles, considered the ultimate delicacy in some parts of the world, are fungi that grow underground. Pigs or dogs are trained to snuff them out.

In the Language of Flowers the mushroom stands, understandably enough, for "suspicion." Gerard had serious misgivings about fungi, concluding, “few of them are good to be eaten, and most of them do suffocate and strangle the eater. Therefore I give my advice unto those that love such strange and new fangled meates, to beware of licking honey among thornes, lest the sweetness of the one do not countervaile the sharpnesse and pricking of the others.”

This isn’t strictly true. There are actually more edible than non-edible varieties of mushrooms. But it only takes one bad one to kill you! So, if you’re interested in gathering wild fungi, you should attach yourself to an expert on the subject and learn what to look for. As with so many of life’s dangers, the trick is to be cautious but not paranoid!

Plant plate is from Neueste und Wichtigste Medizinalpflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.