Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen—
Compared to the wet and fruitful month of July, August was pretty dry mushroom-wise for most of midcoast Maine. August hikes and bike rides alike turned up few to zero mushrooms (and yes, mushroom watching is a reason why we bike ride!). A couple of recent, decent rains gives the feeling (and hope) that we are turning a corner, fungally speaking that is, and soon our woods and trails will be lined with mushrooms. All that the rain promises.
With this potential in mind, looking for mushrooms in the woods a few days after a good downpour can be very rewarding, especially if the rains are sizable (greater than 1 inch). Recently I have found myself on the nature trail by the Jackson Memorial Library, looking to see what mushrooms had popped up after the scattered rains mentioned above. I have not been disappointed.
Not 100 steps into my first mushroom exploration of the season did I cross paths with one of my favorite mushrooms—the Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa). Without thinking, I exclaimed “Yes! Yes Yes!” because finding these angels is always a cause for celebration. Yes, Destroying Angels are a perfect mushroom in several ways.
First off, they are esthetically pleasing in a ghostly sort of way. A tall, pure white mushroom with a smooth cap and a delicate veil around its stalk (stipe) calls for attention along any trail.
Secondly, they are the deadliest mushroom in the northeast. Destroying Angels are the pride and joy of the famously poisonous Amanita family (Amanitacae) and between them and their western cousin, the Death Cap, they account for 80 percent of all mushroom fatalities in North America. So, when kids find an Angel and ask, “Will this mushroom kill me if I eat it?” (my favorite question on a mushroom hike by the way) I give them a big smile and answer with a hearty, “Yes.” Then I delve into the four-day Amatoxin poisoning process that results in liver and kidney failure. I won’t bore you with the gory details, but I will say that most 5th graders like hearing about the poisoning while being disgusted at the same time. These Angels, and mushrooms in general, demand respect. It can be a matter of life and death.
For all my excitement at finding this Angel it was not a surprise at all—I was looking for one there. Last fall I went on a mushroom hike with the 3rd graders (this year’s 4th graders) from the school and a student named Russell found one in almost the exact spot. All Amanitas have a symbiotic relationship, known as “mycorrhizal,” with trees. To oversimply things, in a mycorrhizal relationship a fungus in the ground gives a tree phosphorus, nitrogen and other essential micronutrients while the tree gives the fungus sugars they create during photosynthesis. Without each other the tree and the fungus won’t grow well and often don’t grow at all. This relationship starts from the sprouting of a tree and is so tight-knit that it’s impossible to tell where the tree roots end and the fungus begins. As for the nature trail Destroying Angels, if the trees in that spot are alive the fungi in the ground will keep pumping out mushrooms to spread their spores. In other words, we can count on Destroying Angels for years to come along that stretch of trail.
The Angel was the big fungal find that day. On my visits to the nature trail since, more mycorrhizal mushrooms such as Boletes and Russulas have been popping up, including a Scaber-stalk Bolete (Leccinum insigne) which my son, Leif, appreciated in a different way (with his belly). Mycorrhizal mushrooms can be deadly, delicious and the entire spectrum between.
With the forecast for more rain this is only the beginning of a (hopefully) bountiful fall mushroom season. If this kind of thing interests you, then please join me at the Jackson Memorial Library on Saturday, September 16th at 10am for a talk on mushrooms followed by a mushroom stroll along the nature trail. Kids of all ages are welcome! See you there!
(Tenants Harbor resident Kirk Gentalen is a regional steward for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.)
PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen