The magic of mushrooms

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Out in the woods of Vancouver Island, Stacey Dwyer clips a first aid kit around her waist and makes sure my friend Alice Powell and I have our cell phones in case we get separated. Since it rained overnight, a good crop of mushrooms will have risen from the ground. It is autumn of 2010. The October afternoon sun is warm through the forest of scanty fir and yellow maples, the ground thick with coppery maple leaves. As we walk into the woods, the musty, wet-earth smell is strong.

We fix our eyes on the ground and survey every log and stump. This posture, Dwyer, 38, explains, is what helps you tell a mushroom hunter apart from a bird-watcher. Dwyer gets “so excited about seeing the different colours and being able to identify” the mushrooms she finds. “It’s just like bird-watching,” she says, “except you can’t hear them call.”

With her red jacket and woven basket, I imagine Dwyer as Little Red Riding Hood. Her petite frame, high cheekbones, dark hair, snub nose and expressive eyebrows add to this impression. During the week, she’s a dental assistant and receptionist at the same office as Powell. For a while now, she’s wanted to take Powell out mushrooming, and is kind enough to let her bring me along. “I like to share the excitement,” she says.

The first fungus we find grows on a fallen branch: the striped, inedible, leathery turkey tail shelf fungus, Dwyer’s mushroom book says. Under the end of a log, Dwyer finds a spongy orange mushroom. It’s an edible bolete but something — whether an insect, a rodent, or the elements — has half eaten it already, so we leave it alone. At a nearby stump, Dwyer bends over. “Oh, a shrimp; a nice, new shrimp.”

The shrimp mushrooms (or “crab brittlegill”), with pale undersides, deep red caps and a large range of sizes, are quite common. She puts one in the basket because it’s colourful, but says we won’t eat it. Because many varieties have poisonous lookalikes, she’s very careful about her mushrooms. At its worst, mushroom poisoning can cause kidney or respiratory failure or severe liver damage, all of which can lead to death. It’s not worth the risk.

When I find a big white mushroom against a log, Dwyer says, “I just stay right away from the white mushrooms. They look so much alike. The only way to identify them is to do a spore test, which just becomes too scientific and no fun.”

The worst of these “big white mushrooms” is the death cap mushroom, known as the world’s deadliest mushroom and responsible for 90 per cent of deaths due to mushroom poisoning in Europe.

The only varieties Dwyer trusts are hedgehog mushrooms (with their toothy undersides), the popular funnel-shaped chanterelles and the bright orange lobster mushrooms. She uses them for mushroom soup, pizza, or simply sautéed in butter and herbs. Although she’s never heard of the parasitic lobster mushroom growing around a poisonous mushroom, she won’t let her six-year-old daughter, Myra, eat anything but chanterelles. “She loves chanterelles,” says Dwyer.

Myra enjoys mushrooming too, Dwyer says. “Kids make great mushroom hunters. They’re close to the ground, enthusiastic and have good eyesight. You just have to tell them the rules: ‘Don’t touch, don’t taste.’ Myra’s found some amazing mushrooms.”

When Dwyer was a child, she anticipated the toadstool (the poisonous red-and-white Amanita muscaria) that reappeared every year at her family’s vacation cottage. But it wasn’t until she was 35 that she became seriously interested in mushrooms. She enjoyed her hikes through the woods with her husband, Brandon, but felt she needed something that would give her more impetus to get outside. “I needed a hobby outside of work. I had no life and I needed something that piqued my interest,” she says.

On an autumn hike through East Sooke Park, Dwyer first began to notice how many different varieties of mushrooms there were. That Christmas, her husband bought her All That the Rain Promises and More, which Dwyer says is a popular pocket-sized guide to mushrooms and a mushroom cookbook. He liked to eat mushrooms but wasn’t “so keen on going into the forest and staring at the ground.” This meant Dwyer would usually venture out into the woods alone. Since she didn’t know anyone who could help her identify the mushrooms, she simply took pictures with a disposable camera and checked the mushrooms off in her book.

When new next-door neighbours invited the Dwyers over for dinner, Dwyer spotted All That the Rain Promises and More on their shelf. Darrin Charmley began to quiz her on which mushrooms she’d found and eaten. When he discovered she hadn’t eaten any of her finds, he suggested she accompany his friends and him on one of their all-day forays up-Island.

Out near Shawnigan Lake, they set off deep into pathless wilderness, armed with walkie-talkies and the GPS coordinates of the best patches of chanterelles. When the hunters returned, they filled the trunk of a Subaru station wagon with chanterelles. Charmley’s friend showed Dwyer how to freeze the leftover mushrooms in paper bags. With Charmley’s guidance, she gained the confidence to pick mushrooms herself. Still, he gets out mushrooming more often than she does, and now and then leaves a basket of mushrooms outside her door.

Up on the hillside, I find a thin, grey-capped mushroom with grooves in its stem and a semi-translucent quality. I carry it to Dwyer.
“Is this a morel?”

The book says morels are highly desirable, and I’m hopeful. Unfortunately, upon consulting the book, we discover this is a lookalike, the black elfin saddle. The book says you can fry it like a morel or dry and powder it for seasoning. It looks corpse-like to me, but Dwyer says, “Look how pretty it is. If you weren’t looking, you’d never find it.”

To her, every mushroom, poisonous or not, is pretty. Still, she doesn’t admire the black elfin saddle enough to risk eating it. “Darrin’s more adventurous than me,” she says. “He’ll try all kinds of things.”

Beside a log I find a white puffball, which I know is edible. I pull it out and am surprised to see how big the hidden base is. In fact, what we think of as mushrooms are only the “fruiting body” of the main mushroom, a network of mycelia (vegetative filaments) stretching under the earth. This is why mushrooms will appear in the same place year after year.

Dwyer says hours can fly by when she’s mushroom hunting. “When everyone else is sad about the rain in the fall, I’m happy.”

Mushroom hunters are notorious for not telling where they found a mushroom so they can protect their finds. Observatory Hill is one popular place to hunt, but Dwyer says in peak season you can find mushrooms just about anywhere in the woods.

Dwyer gasps, and I climb up the hill towards her. She’s bent over a patch of orange mushrooms with crenellated edges and hollow centres. “They’re probably false chanterelles — not edible. But so cool. Look at the way the sun shines through them. I’ve never seen them so intact.”

Unlike true chanterelles, these mushrooms are orange (chanterelles tend to be a lighter, egg-yolk yellow). She admires them for a while then climbs along the side of the hill, carefully stepping over mossy logs. She bends down again. “Jellies. Look, jelly teeth.”

She hands me a tiny, semi-translucent, white mushroom with a fan-shaped cap and the jiggly yet firm texture of a gummy candy. Because they’re bland, she won’t eat them, but Charmley likes them with cream and honey. As we walk back to the car, I can’t stop squishing the jelly between my fingers. Dwyer starts the car.

“Let’s see if we can find a better spot for chanterelles. Look out for oaks — they often grow there.”

We drive up the road a short ways then Dwyer pulls over.  “There’s a ridge — there might be oaks up there.”

The ridge is thick with moss, fir, arbutus and Oregon grape, but little else. We clamber down the far side of the ridge and find a path that leads us up another hill. There are some purple mushrooms we can’t identify and, half-buried under moss and leaves at the base of a tree, an orange lobster mushroom. Dwyer pulls it out and hands it to me — it’s very dense and heavy. As a parasite, it engulfs its host mushroom and turns it into a completely different species. It has no gills, only a solid, powdery-orange look. Hard to the touch, it has a slight seafood smell. Another large lobster nearby goes in our basket, too; then we head back to the car.

The lobsters are interesting, but I still want to find a chanterelle. We decide to try one last time and drive a bit further up the road. It’s almost 4 p.m., and as the sun slips lower in the trees, the air begins to cool. We find a last patch of sun and sit on fallen trees to eat the snacks Dwyer has packed. As a six-year-old’s mom, she has everything: cherry tomatoes, orange slices, granola bars, homemade protein pancakes, almonds and cranberries, roasted seaweed, a package of wet wipes and a bag for garbage.

When we finish the food, we scramble around the woods, pulling up big shrimps and more nefarious, unidentifiable white mushrooms. No more lobsters, and no chanterelles. The cold has begun to creep through my clothes, and I’m ready to go.

Dwyer stoops to examine some feces I find.

“Looks like bear.”  She blows her whistle and urges me to talk loudly just in case.

“You always have to be careful,” she says.

Most mushroom hunters bring a first-aid kit, a whistle, water, a plastic bag for insulation and often a GPS. Nothing too heavy that would impede the hunt.

I duck under some branches, back towards the road. By the base of a thin fir, I see a crinkly, whitish mushroom, half-buried.

“What’s this?” I ask. “It’s not a chanterelle, is it?”

Dwyer kneels. “It is a chanterelle. Yay — they do exist.”

She pulls it out of the ground and I examine its interwoven gills, which run from the edges of the upturned cap all the way down the stem. A white chanterelle. Dwyer and I grin at each other. Now we can leave happy.

Back at the car, I throw out all the mushrooms we won’t eat. I know the mycelia will send new ones up with the next rain. The mushrooms lie beside the road in a jumble of white, red, black, brown, grey and yellow. I’m amazed at the variety we’ve found in one day. All we’re left with are the jellies, the puffball, the two lobsters and the white chanterelle.

Dwyer looks down at the pile. “Goodbye, mushrooms.”

For Dwyer, mushrooms are more than just a free lunch. “People don’t think about looking for them,” she says, “but it’s an extra thing in this great big world to discover. My bubble of life experience is rather limited. This expands my bubble. It’s something to be enthusiastic about. I have so much to learn, and enthusiasm, but not so much time. But one day I’ll learn lots.”

In the meantime, she enjoys being able to share the joy of mushrooms with others  (she’s even convinced her former boss to take up mushroom photography) and the break it provides from the rest of her life. Dwyer says that, while mushroom hunting and dental assisting both involve an interest in science and “in people along the way,” the two activities bring out essentially different sides to her.

“I’m a little sillier in the forest. I’m always happy and smiling at work, but I kind of feel I’m a child in the forest, and I love that. I just feel so free and excited.”

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