Mushroom Mardi Gras: Eat at your peril

Petula Dvorak
Columnist October 3, 2011

“Is it edible?”

“Can I eat this one?”

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

“What would happen if I ate this?”

That is the big question when it comes to wild mushrooms. At least for some folks.

“Well yes, anything is edible,” answered Bruce Boyer, a wry smile on his face. “But sometimes only once.”

And then he turned back into the Maryland woods, wet alder branches snapping behind him, a wicker mushroom basket swinging on his arm. The aspiring mycologists — yuppies, foodies, hippies, hipsters and a home-schooling mom — followed.

This fall’s record rainfall has created a mushroom Mardi Gras: An insanely wild collection of fungi that have lain dormant for years are choosing 2011 as the year to shoot their spores into the world. It’s fungi on spring break.

Where there were once a few scattered caps on the forest floor, there are now oceans of red-capped russulas. Chanterelles that smell like apricots and are the color of mangoes are everywhere (yes, you can eat those.) I came across a different kind in a Capitol Hill tree box, a mushroom that brought great delight to my demonic little boys.

I showed a photo of it to a mycologist.

“Yep, well, that is an, um, phallus mushroom,” he said, a little nervous about confirming my suspicion about the 10-inch-long, red fungus with a dark red dome cap. “It can be called a devil’s stinkhorn. You probably don’t want to print this, but sometimes it’s called the devil’s hmm-mmm.”

Not a chance we’re going to eat that one.

Mycologists who usually find about 100 species this time of year are thumbing through their Audubon guides at a furious pace to figure out dozens more. And with the abundance, there is overindulgence. Four people have been hospitalized at Georgetown University Hospital in the past two weeks from grazing on the wrong fleshy fungi.

“The guy just grabbed handfuls of what was growing in his yard and cooked them up. Had no idea what he was doing,” marveled Ray LaSala, president of the Mycological Association of Washington, who helped poison control officials identify the mushrooms that sent the man to the emergency room.

The association’s e-mail group list is pure, poetic geekery.

They parry about spore-print techniques, rhapsodize about “the thrill of the hunt and the pride of mastering wild survival skills” and compare notes about their latest discoveries.

“It grows on the ground, has a salmon/ochre spore print, is not gelatinous,” reads a recent post from one member. “We don’t think it’s quite clustered coral (R. botrytis), as it is pink from the bottom up. Could it be subbotrytis?”

Mushroom hunters fall into several categories.

There are the hippie/hikers, who dig finding their food in the woods and love being outdoors with a purpose. The home-schooling mom who ducked beneath wet branches and peeked into rotting logs while breast-feeding the 19-month-old strapped to her chest was probably safely in that group.

There are the cooks — the ones with a voracious, ruthless and pure culinary interest. “I’m a big foodie,” explained Jason Hagemann, a chef who used to run a blog in New York, the Restaurant Addict. “I tasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. Oooh. Wow. That’s when I discovered there’s a whole world of mushrooms out there.”

Hen of the woods? Tastes like chicken. Not to be confused with the chicken of the woods mushroom, which has the actual texture of chicken.

Less sensual are the mycologists who relish the scientific classification.

“They are the fifth kingdom!” exclaimed Mitch Fournet, whose long hair, beard and staff gave him the air of a Mushroom Moses.

Fournet is a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Greenbelt. “I don’t work on mushrooms. I do parasites.” But on the weekends, he throws on a suede mushrooming hat and revels in the order, family, genus and species of each find.

The most serious mycologists often eschew using the common names, like devil’s hmm-mm.

But Fournet delights in them: turkey tail, poison pigskin puffball, earthstar, dead man’s fingers, jack-o-latern and waxy caps. The poisonous ones have names like those for wicked fireworks: destroying angel and death cap.

Perhaps the lowest on the taxonomy of mushroom hunters are creatures like me. I was simply born into it. In some cultures, foraging for fungi is the ultimate family sport.

I was spotting mushrooms on the forest floor from the perch of a backpack baby carrier. It was what my Czech family did together — sometimes three or four times a week in peak season.

And it’s competitive. More than once, my brother and I had to follow the truck with pine branches, erasing our tire tracks. “The Italians are in town! I know it,” my dad would say.

My father still races ahead of us to his favorite spots when we visit — shameless and merciless. Last week he texted me a photo of himself holding a huge ’shroom, a subtle form of trash talking.

I called and told him about the amazing array of mushrooms on display last week at the Mycological Association’s annual Mushroom Fair. The mycologists were there with loupes and knives and stacks of books, identifying all kinds of weird fungi that people brought in.

There were purple growths that looked like sea anemones and giant, white formations that look like Pacific Ocean coral. Bright orange fans, striped polypores and brilliant red russulas.

Silence on the other end of the phone. After a few seconds, my father demanded: “But can you eat any of them?”

E-mail me your mushroom stories at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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