Hail to the King!

Nature Bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

So I’m not one to exaggerate, but the week of September 17 was probably the best week of my life.

Fungally speaking, the woods exploded (figuratively) with an array of colors and shapes, an exceptionally impressive show of mushroom diversity. And it was an impressiveness matched only by the sheer numbers of mushrooms themselves—there were tons! A typical walk that week turned up mushrooms such as Red-mouthed Bolete, Dark-stalked Bolete, Birch Bolete, Orange Bolete, Dark-stalked Bolete, Chrome-footed Bolete, Slippery Jack, Painted Bolete, Dotted Bolete, Chicken-fat Suillus, Poisonous Paxillus, Silvery-violet Cort, Red-gilled Cort, Cinnamon Cort, Banded Cort, Honey Mushroom, Well’s Amanita, Amanita Muscaria, Citron Amanita, Yellow-patches, False Chantrelles,  Funnel Clitocybe, Spotted Collubia, Orange-gill Waxycap, Blewit, Rufus Milky, Emetic Russula, Rosy Russula, and Blackish-red Russula to name a few…a few that have common names! All were in good numbers as well.“Epic” is a fine word to describe this mushroom bloom event.

“Normally” that would be enough to satisfy any fungal fan, but the real mushroom story last week was tied to a species not mentioned above—the King Bolete (Boletus edulis).  David Arora, author of the seminal fungal work Mushrooms Demystified, describes King Boletes as “one of the finest of fleshy fungi and certainly the best-loved and most sought-after in Europe, where it has more common names than there are languages. If any mushroom deserves the dubious title of the “king,” this is the one. It is a consummate creation, the peerless epitome of earthbound substance, a bald bulbous pillar of thick white flesh—the one aristocrat the peasantry can eat! The entire fruiting body is exceptionally delicious.” Arora totally nailed it with this description. And, like a dream, King Boletes were everywhere in the woods last week.

There is more to the King story than just being the tastiest thing in the woods these days of course. King Boletes are in the bolete family of mushrooms (Boletaceae), the group of mushrooms that have no gills (except for the gilled bolete but that is another story all together). This family also includes the Porcini, the Cep, the Steinpilz, the Harilik kivipuravik (Estonian). Instead of gills, boletes have pores to release their spores from, and the pores give the cap of the mushroom a spongy feeling when squeezed. This unique feel, in combination with the presence of pores, pretty much make a surefire way to identify any bolete mushroom to family.

Similar to the Destroying Angel described in the last Nature Bummin’ column, Kings and most boletes have a mycorrhizal relationship with trees. Mycorrhizal is the ancient, symbiotic relationship where a fungus exchanges nitrogen and phosphorus for sugars made by the tree during photosynthesis. This exchange takes place under ground on a trees roots, and the relationship will last as long as the tree is alive. We may see the King Bolete mushrooms for a week or two a  year, but the fungus itself is living in the ground and isn’t going anywhere!  In other words, once you find a King Bolete patch you can (somewhat) expect to find them for years to come. We really like this about Kings.

Arora writes about looking for Kings two weeks after a “significant” rain event. So the heavy rain on September 6th could (if Arora’s calculations are correct) result in a King Bolete bloom starting around the 19th. Needless to say the Kings (and many other mushrooms) were right on schedule! A quick explorative walk on the 19th resulted in 10 Kings found and processed. After school my wife, Amy found another 10 by the house and we were off to the races! The next day was a half day at school so my son Leif and I hit the trail and came back with 40 beautiful Kings for the eating (while leaving many older specimens in the woods). What started out as the perfect amount for a side dish had moved quickly beyond a full meal to the point where Leif and I knew we had to share. We took our basket full of boletes to the school and handed out Kings to anyone trusting enough to accept. That ended up being everyone we saw!

It now became a daily venture as Leif would check “Amy’s patch” and then we would work the woods. Kings were to be found everywhere—at the school, by the library, in the town forest, every preserve on Vinalhaven as well. This was an exceptional week to say the least.

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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