Once the rains begin, observant hikers will again spot many LBMs (Little Brown Mushrooms) poking up from the forest duff, and the usual refrain will pass back to other fungal fans: "Is it edible?"
Considering that about 10,000 species of mushrooms are estimated to live in British Columbia, this puts some trust (if not responsibility for your life!) in the rather limited knowledge of a few, thus this short piece is intended to help you enjoy the beauty and variety of mushrooms over and above their culinary potential, and to set you on your way to being able to describe and identify mushrooms for yourself.
First of all, you will need at least one reliable text, and ideally several more if you are reach down into species identification for different areas. A superb, highly enjoyable, and comprehensive text is David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified. Although this will set you back about $65 it is well worth it. A smaller edition by Arora - All That the Rain Promises, and More - A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms (ISBN: 0-89815-388-3) - is about $25. These books will help you understand the different types of mushrooms, the terminology used to describe their macro features and structures, and aid you in using various keys (through a process of elimination) to narrow down your choices of family, genus and species.
All mushrooms need to be carefully collected, sorted and then identified at home. Although a handful of common mushrooms will become quite familiar in the field, a primary and fundamental rule of thumb is that mushrooms simply cannot be accurately identified on the trail, not least because a primary diagnostic is the colour of the spore print, which will take several hours to obtain. A number of us have gathered the distinctive and delicious Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) on the Juan de Fuca Trail, but I'll bet my bottom dollar that those squishy sandwich bags have also inadvertently contained a number of Funnel Chanterelle (Cantharallus tubaeformis), fortunately also edible. When collecting, you'll need a few samples of each type, taking care to keep them intact and fresh, while also taking note of their surrounding habitat, the substrate on which they are growing, and whether they are single, grouped, massed, etc.
As you learn to describe a mushroom, the shape of the cap, the attachment of the gills to the cap, the shape and position of the stalk, so will your vocabulary expand. Are the gills ['the lamellae'] adnate, adnexed, or anastomosing? Is the cap [the pileus] glabrous, glutinous, or granulose? And is the stalk [the stipe] striate, scabrous, or squamose? Perhaps the mushroom is erumpent, evanescent, deliquescent or fibrillose? Even your appreciation of Latin will increase: if a cap is 'a pileus', what does that say about the Pileated Woodpecker? You will soon be delighted by the plethora of fungal forms in the forest, ranging from gilled, pored, or toothed toadstools to woody brackets, clusters of coral, single jellybeans, protruding phalli, earthstars, clubs, cups, puffballs, and more - in an array of jewel-like colours, as well as the hues of earth, rock, and cloud.
Many of you are aware of the universal scientific binomial naming convention, whereby the first name is that of the genus (plural: genera) - a collection of species with very similar traits, and the second name is that of the species - the kind of organism. To quote Arora, 'the beauty of the binomial system is that it indicates commonality while simultaneously expressing singularity'. For instance, Agaricus bisporus (cultivated for the produce shelf at Thrifty's) is a different species but in the same genus as Agaricus arvensis, the Horse Mushroom, found in lawns and pastures. But be sure to note - edibility of a particular species does not necessarily mean other members of the same genus are edible. Far from it!
Once you are able to describe the macro features of a mushroom, their style, shape, texture, colour, etc., then, with the aid of some white paper, a hand lens, some Melzer's reagent (an iodine solution which can be made up by a compounding pharmacist), plus time and patience, you'll be able to use various keys (from books) to identify your mushrooms at least to genus, and hopefully to species. My favourite key to the genera of agarics (the term for the gilled mushrooms) is from 'Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms of Canada, an older book by J. Walton Groves, for the Canada Department of Agriculture - out of print now but probably available in the library. Each book will have its own keys, and all have their merits.
Often the Swan Lake Nature House has a Fall course on mushrooms. Also, the South Vancouver Island Mycological Society is a good source of information. SVIMS is a small society interested in all aspects of mycology and mushroom appreciation. Its members include professional mycologists, mushroom growers, mushroom pickers, cooks, photographers, and other enthusiasts. There is also a Vancouver Mycological Society which may be worth checking out.
The mushroom season will soon be upon us as the rains moisten the soil and the underground mycelia (the parent 'root systems') put forth their fruit. It's reasonable to say that we do no harm in picking mushrooms - it's like picking fruit off a tree, albeit fruit that has already dropped millions of its 'seeds' [spores]. However, please be sure not to damage the surrounding ground and habitat - leaving all plants and detritus (logs, twigs and rocks) as you find them. Also remember that mushrooms should not be removed from provincial parks, nor do other nature lovers want to see every mushroom turned over or torn apart. Please also let's be very sure never to entice a mushroom hunter with a glimpse of an LWM (Little White Mushroom) that on closer observation is a dreaded wad of TP! Such stuff if needed at all in the bush should always be carefully buried out of sight.
Meanwhile, may you find the viscid, blue-green Stropharia aeruginosa, the fibrillose, lilac Cortinarius traganus, the carrot-orange, milk-exuding Lactarius deliciosus, the brittle, rosy Russula xerampelina, the broadly umbonate, violet Clitocybe nuda, and all the rest, a joy to behold. And if you look closely, you might just see the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland sitting atop a scarlet and white-tufted Amanita muscaria, smoking his hookah.