After the Rains, a Mushroom Boom

Mushroom expert Jon Ellifritz with a Tricholomopsis, edible to some, sickening to others.
Mushroom expert Jon Ellifritz with a Tricholomopsis, edible to some, sickening to others. (By Mark Gong -- The Washington Post)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 6, 2006

Kirk Callan Smith has seen the sudden emergence of inkcap mushrooms on Capitol Hill, where he lives. Across town, in Chevy Chase, D.C., Eleanor Grass was harvesting a pound a day of big meadow mushrooms in the midst of last week's record rainfall.

The Deluge of 2006 may have caused its share of pain in the form of leaky basements and road closures, but for wild mushroom hunters like Smith and Grass, it has been a boon. Early July usually signals the slow start of a mushroom season that continues to build through the late summer and fall, but the 14 inches (give or take) of rainfall around the region kick-started the latent fungi with a bang.

For the gardener, the monsoon's legacy has been a lush, green lawn in the heat of summer, a bountiful flowering of coneflowers and black-eyed Susans and an explosion in the slug population. But we have watched, too, as bizarre and varied species of mushrooms have emerged overnight, pulled from the slumber of a long dry spell.

For mushroom collectors, it has been the dinner bell sounding -- which is also, when it comes to mushrooms, the alarm bell. If you don't know for sure what you're picking, that sauteed mushroom can make you ill or even induce a lingering death by poisoning.

"You have to realize that there are deadly things out there, and other things that would make you wish you were dead," said Jon Ellifritz, a mushroom expert from Hyattsville. "There are no easy rules, you have to know what you have."

So it was reassuring to be in the company of Ellifritz and other members of the Mycological Association of Washington, who gathered on Saturday for a search for species sprouting in rain-sodden Rock Creek Park. Wildlife harvesting is not allowed in the park; the members' mission was to take an inventory of what they found. It is a quest that began with anticipation and uncertainty, even after lots of rain.

"There's something almost spiritual about seeing them pop up magically," said Smith, a lawyer. He has been gathering mushrooms since he was 8, at the knee of his grandmother. She was an Irish immigrant to California who learned the art of mushroom foraging from other immigrants, mostly Italians. Smith became seriously interested in the study of fungi -- mycology -- 20 years ago.

Mushrooms are merely the fleeting, fruiting bodies of more permanent organisms whose strands feed off decaying organic matter in the soil and on rotting wood. Correct soil temperature, moisture and hosts all are needed for mushrooms to develop. "You can never trust the little devils," said Karin Adams, a retired dentist who lives near Tenleytown. "They have a mind of their own."

Still, the rains have clearly spawned a bonanza: Mushrooms have been popping up all over the place. Grass said she was out in last week's storm harvesting the large, tan-colored meadow mushrooms, with their chocolate brown gills, while walking near her home. She gathered almost three pounds' worth in as many days, "more than I have ever found."

Within 30 minutes and stepping no more than 100 feet from the parking lot of the Rock Creek Nature Center, the group had identified at least 10 species of fungi that had sprouted on the woodland floor. A carpet of leaves was beginning to dry, but beneath, the ground was moist and full of decaying wood and leaf mold -- mushroom nirvana.

At the base of a young white oak, Ellifritz examined a large single mushroom with a shiny brown top and large white gills. " Tricholomopsis platyphylla ," announced Ellifritz, the association's president. "They're edible but some people have problems with them." Problems, as in throwing up.

Why engage in a pursuit that, on paper at least, is so risky? The truly edible mushrooms are delicious, with flavors and textures far more interesting than the everyday, store-bought button mushroom. You can find the rarer ones in fancy supermarkets, but expect to pay highly for them. Better and cheaper to find your own, but tread carefully. In the spectrum of edibility, you find choice at one end and toxic death at the other. Some are merely bland, or too leathery, and some will make you temporarily ill. Some are used as herbs. Some are tasty when young, bitter when old.

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