Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen
Summer mushrooms give credence to the catch phrase “just add water.” A little rain, or even some thick fog, and woods and yards alike respond with a bloom of summer ‘shrooms. They may go quickly, sometimes lasting only a day or two before drying up. Long enough to disperse their spores, and it’s all about those spores.
For any myco-novice (or myco-newbie) the number of mushroom species in mid-coast Maine can seem a little overwhelming, even when focusing solely on “mushrooms that look like mushrooms”—no shelf or coral or whatever. Organize what you find, however, and you’ll see that around 80 percent of mushrooms in mid-coast Maine are members of four mushroom families—Boletaceae, Russulaceae, Cortinariaceae, and Amanitaceae. Understanding this gives mushroom observers a place to start when beginning the identification process.
And while I am a self-proclaimed Boleto-phile, in my mind the summer is owned by Amanitas, fungally speaking of course. Amanita diversity can be good after a summer rain, with a mix of Cleft-footed (Amanita brunnescens), Tawny Grissette (A. fulva), Grissette (A. vaginata), Strangulated Grissette (A. ceciliae), Fly agaric (A. muscaria), Yellow Patches (A. flavoconia), Frost’s Amanita (A. frostiana) and the Destroying Angel (A. virosa) lining trails and sprinkled throughout a forest after a moist summer day. I may be a sucker for boletes, but deep down inside I am an amanita man.
In mid-coast Maine the Blusher (Amanita rubescens) is not a rare summer mushroom by any means. In fact, along with Yellow Patches it is one of the most abundant (early) summer Amanitas. And yet, pound for pound, it is one of the most overlooked and underappreciated Amanita. Let’s see if we can change that, shall we?
One issue with Blushers is simply recognition. David Arora says that the Blusher “in many respects is an exasperatingly variable Amanita.” That is true. Blusher mushroom caps are mostly white(ish) to tan(nish) and covered with scales that run a good chunk of the color spectrum—white, pinkish, brownish, to grayish. All parts of a Blusher mushroom stain red when torn, chewed or incidentally bumped (thus, the common name “Blusher”). Arora states that “the “blushing” of the cap, stem and flesh is the one infallible fieldmark for this fickle fungus.” This staining process may take minutes or longer before being noticeable, and so while the blushing may be the reliable fieldmark for this species, the blushing itself is always on the Blusher’s terms, make no mistake of that.
As a family, Amanitas are the deadliest group of mushrooms in North America. And yet, most Amanitas are non-poisonous and a few species—Ceaser Amanitas in the east, Corcorra in the west—are considered “choice edibles.” Field guides describe the edibility of Blushers as “good, with caution,” which is a standard phrase whenever you mention eating Amanitas to strangers. In other words, you can eat it, but its on you to identify correctly. You are taking your life in your own hands. For, you see, even though Blushers are “good,” they need to be cooked thoroughly as they contain “a hemolytic toxin in its raw state and hence causes anemia if eaten raw.” Just another mushroom that is edible in certain states of rawness and when prepared correctly. Do your research before eating any wild mushroom!
When you find a patch of Blushers (or any Amanita for that matter), it’s a safe bet you’ll be able to find more in the same general area year after year. Over time you can get a feel for Amanita populations and dispersal in your area, another step in “getting to know your neighborhood.” But the knowledge doesn’t stop there as Blushers are routinely parasitized by Amanita mold (Hypomyces hyalinus). The mold turns Blusher mushrooms into “a phallic, chalky, pimpled mutation of its former self,” says Lawrence Millman. Molds gotta live too. So, as you learn about Blusher distribution, you can also learn where the Amanita molds live as well! The learning, like the music, never stops!
There’s a lot going on with Amanita rubescens. They are mycorrhizal with trees as a fungus, a non-poisonous, “good” edible as a mushroom, and seem to have an endless variety of looks while changing color over time. Blushers are also a great way to learn about Hypomyces mold distribution, for those interested in mold distribution. A species easy to dismiss, but one worth a second viewing for sure. And then a third…
PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen