Many wild food enthusiasts are also passionate mycologists. Mushrooms seem to have a funny hold on people, as I’ve seen mycology nuts whose zeal for the fungi kingdoms far surpasses the most passionate wild food lovers. There are frequent mushroom conventions all over the United States and elsewhere. People travel far and wide to participate and slake their thirst for the latest ‘shroom revelations.
Mushrooms are in a class of their own in the five kingdoms of biology, meaning that technically they are not considered a plant at all. Their life cycle, especially their reproductive antics, is no doubt fascinating. Their chemistry is extremely complex, with much yet to be discovered within the phytochemistry frontier. Their chemical make-up can cause them to wreak havoc on our bodies if we do not use them cautiously.
Mushrooms can be deadly, make no bones about it! Some mushrooms are said to be so toxic that even getting some on your hands and then eating food without washing is enough to poison you. There is even a gorgeous mushroom that is fairly common in my neck of the woods that is called the Death Angel (Amanita spp.)!
I can not caution folks enough to use extreme care when harvesting mushrooms to eat. In fact, I don’t recommend it at all unless you do some careful research and get under the wing of an expert who is willing to disciple you.
Some mushrooms are very difficult to identify with certainty. There are some edible species that closely mimic poisonous ones. Some can only be correctly identified by making spore prints. Some need microscopic examination.
Some mushrooms might not kill you, but they will cause you to trip your brains out. These so-called “Magic Mushrooms” are a big fascination to some circles of mycologists and much lore is attributed to them. Some cultures are known to try to harness the hallucinogenic effects of these mushrooms to see into the spirit world and gain access to forbidden fruits, so to speak. Today, they are a drug of choice for many seekers of altered states of consciousness. Personally, I think the drug effects are a mild form of poisoning.
I have been cautioned by a mushroom expert not to include any wild mushrooms on the menu at my workshops, even morels. He told me that while 99 out of 100 people could eat morels safely, there may be one who might have a severe reaction, even someone who had eaten them before with no problem! I actually know a person who experienced this very thing with morels. To this day he loves to hunt them, but doesn’t dare eat them. Personally, I am one of the few wild foods fanatics that haven’t developed a passion for mushrooms. I could honestly, take ’em or leave ’em.
Nutritionally speaking, mushrooms rate pretty well for trace minerals, while being low in calories, cholesterol, sodium and fat, (all of the “no-no’s”). They are also gaining some notoriety as a medicine in the herb circles, particularly as immune enhancers. There are a number of products available these days on the shelves.
If you have a hankering after mushrooms but are fairly new to them, it is suggested that you start with the basic four. Most field guides seem to agree that these four are virtually impossible to misidentify.
Even with these, I would caution you to remember the old adage, “When in doubt, throw it out!” Stick to the grocery store mushrooms if you have to!
A little common sense and a lot of caution can give you many happy hours of romping through the woods checking out the fungi kingdom as well as in the kitchen testing out your five-star recipes.