by Dr. Jessica Allen and Amy Gray
This year’s feverish collecting of fall mushrooms has just passed as truly cold weather sets in. Fall 2019 will be remembered as a season of exceptional mushroom hunting. The EWU Mycology class (mycology is the study of fungi) took full advantage of this year of great mushrooms, spending multiple days on field trips throughout the area, including to Fourth of July Pass, Mount Spokane, the Roosevelt Grove of Ancient Cedars, and Priest Lake.
Some of their notable finds included club fungi:
The elusive chanterelle:
Some Lycogala (not a fungus – a plasmodial slime mold – but neat, and sometimes studied in mycology courses). The hand below is checking to see if they squirt if squished. Yes, they do.
Some “dyers polypore” (Phaeolus schweinitzii )
and an abundance of (normally) harder-to-find cup fungi.
These wild and often alien-looking organisms boggle the mind, gross people out, and spark curiosity. A number of mushrooms questions may have come to mind for you as you read this blog post. Here we have answered a list of frequently asked mushroom questions.
What are mushrooms?
Mushrooms are the parts of a fungus that reproduce. They are attached to large networks of hyphae, string-like strands of cells, that grow throughout wood or soil. When you see a mushroom, you are only seeing the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ as most of the fungus is hidden from view with the naked eye. The mushroom is where reproduction happens, and spores are produced that will fly off and start a new fungus.
Wait, mushrooms are related to the mold on my bread and the grout creepiness in my bathtub? I really don’t think I like fungi. Why should I care about them?
While some fungi are nuisances, cause disease, or initiate allergic reactions, most fungi are beneficial to humans and the environment.
- Fungi are essential for healthy functioning of natural systems. Fungi break down fallen trees, leaves, and other dead matter, which makes them critical in nutrient recycling.
- Almost every single plant that you see has mycorrhizal fungi attached to its roots. The mycorrhizae help the plant access and acquire more water and nutrients in the soil, and the fungus is given sugars by the plant in return. Without these root attached fungi plants cannot grow as well.
- Many animals form mutualistic relationships with fungi. For instance, leaf-cutter ants don’t digest leaves at all, they simply bring them back to their colony, chew them up, and feed them to fungi that they farm. The fungi break down the leaves, then produce tiny mushrooms for the ants to eat.
- Mushrooms are an essential food source for some mammals, including northern flying squirrels and red-back voles.
- Fungi that form symbiotic relationships with algae are called lichens. Lichens hold soil together in arid systems, act as natural fertilizers in forest system, provide winter food for large mammals like caribou, and nesting material for birds.
- Fungi produce thousands of chemical compounds that no other organisms can make. One fungal compound that we use frequently is penicillin, which is made by the fungus Penicillium. Many fungal metabolites are under investigation for potential use in cancer treatment, though no (exclusively) fungal-derived compound for that purpose has yet been identified.
- Many fermentation processes rely on fungi. Brewer’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is essential for the production of beer, wine, and other beverages –S. cerevisiae is also used to make bread. Miso and soy sauce are produced through the fermentation of Aspergillus fungi. Brie, camembert, and “bleu” cheeses all require fungi to become their delicious final products.
- A strong contender for the largest organism on the planet is a fungus – it occupies around 3.5 square miles of Oregon’s Malheur National Forest. The fungus is pathogenic; and thus, no friend to the Douglas firs and hemlock trees that grow there. It produces delicious mushrooms when in “fruiting” season, when honey-colored mushrooms emerge from infected trees and the ground below them every fall.
Are they all poisonous?
Some mushrooms are deadly, and others will make a person very sick. However, many mushrooms growing in the woods are not poisonous. That being said, just because a mushroom is “not poisonous” does not mean it is going to be a tasty treat. Choice edible mushrooms, like chanterelles and morels, are highly sought after for a reason! Many other mushrooms are technically edible, but have unpleasant textures and a blandness that can’t hold a candle to your average store-bought mushroom.
How can I tell which ones are edible and which ones are poisonous?
The only way to tell if a mushroom is edible or poisonous is to identify it to species using an appropriate reference, like Mushrooms Demystified by David Aurora. If you are ever unsure about the identify of the mushroom you find, don’t eat it. As Teri Pratchett memorably wrote, “All mushrooms are edible, some only once.”
I saw one of these, and I heard they can kill you. I also heard that they are hallucinogenic. Which is correct?
Aha! You’ve met the iconic Amanita muscaria! The Alice-in-Wonderland mushroom. This fungus can be found in treed regions over much of the planet, and it has a fascinating history imbedded in many cultures. Let’s answer the second question first – are they hallucinogenic? Well, they are considered toxic, as they produce a number of interesting compounds… at least two of which mimic neurotransmitters. Depending upon the metabolism of the consumer (and weight, and what the fungus is growing with, and a number of other factors), consumption of this raw mushroom can lead to nausea, vomiting, euphoria, seizures, slow heart rate, increased heart rate, and both visual and auditory disturbances, and “coma-like symptoms.”
So… can they hurt you?
Well, “coma-like symptoms” are not ideal.
More importantly, should any combination of those symptoms put you in the hospital, and you are incapacitated or reticent to explain what it is that you’ve eaten (as consumers of Schedule 1 Federally classified substances often are), then the treatment might kill you. There have been incidents where a drug was administered to counteract the cardiac symptoms upon a patient’s admission to the hospital (symptoms that vary depending upon the stage of metabolism of the toxins). This means that a medicine meant to bring a patient’s heart rate back up from far too slow may cause a heart attack when their heart speeds to racing after some more toxin metabolizing.
Take home message: if you’re seeking a bit of euphoria, these authors would recommend going for a run or trying yoga instead.
So, are any of the fungi, or fungi-like critters pictured up above edible, sought after, and delicious?
Which ones can you eat? Where do you find them?
Absolutely not telling. You’d want to take a class or three on that, for sure.
Can I take classes on fungi and plants at EWU?
Yes! The EWU biology department offers a variety of classes on plants and fungi, including field mycology, lichenology, botany, plant physiology, and field botany. Sign up, fill your pockets with snacks, bring good walking shoes, and come join us!