After the Rains, a Mushroom Boom
Suddenly, They're Everywhere. Incredible, and Sometimes Dangerously Inedible

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.

And avoid, at all costs, that deadly duo, the death cap mushroom and the destroying angel. Both look innocuous enough -- the former a squat little toadstool with light brown caps, the latter a bone white beauty. Roger Phillips, in his book "Mushrooms and Other Fungi of North America," calls the death cap "the most deadly fungus known." He says the mortality rate for persons consuming it is 50 to 90 percent "and any chance of survival depends on early recognition."

The seasoned foragers offer these tips: Learn from experienced collectors, have more than one field guide to double-check identification, keep a portion of any mushroom (for the emergency room doctors) and throw away anything you are not sure of. Mycologists have a favorite saying: There are old mushroom pickers, and bold mushroom pickers, but no old, bold mushroom pickers.

"In the field of natural sciences," said Smith, "it's like an extreme sport."

He says he is drawn to a half-dozen favorite culinary species and knows how to distinguish them from their inedible lookalikes. Most need cooking or at least zapping in the microwave, if only to kill germs that dwell on them, he said.

Ellifritz said that, in 24 years of collecting, he has sampled as many as 50 different species "and I have never gotten sick. I've always been cautious."

The group moves on, and finds a wet log that is sprouting small, spaghetti-like clusters of creamy yellow fungi. Ellifritz, a retired staffer at the Government Accountability Office, says it is probably the crown coral mushroom.

On other rotted stumps, Ellifritz identifies the clustered fans of the turkey tail and the related false turkey tail.

He finds a fawn mushroom, which is small and rather sinister-looking in its helmetlike cap, which is dark brown. The gills have a pinkish cast. "This is an edible," he says, but added that some people get ill from it.

Someone finds a small, bright orange mushroom, the first of the season's chanterelles. Yet to be found is the red species, which Smith likes to pile on top of angel-hair pasta. "Choice," he mutters.

Even with a once-in-a-century deluge, "it's very hard to find enough of these to make a meal," said Ellifritz.

The one to find, he says, is the delectable hen of the woods, which grows in clusters near oak trees and usually is found in large quantities. One of the finds of the day was a group of the plate-like mushroom known in Japan as reishi -- not a culinary variety, but used to make medicines that are reputed to boost the immune systems in people with HIV and cancer patients.

These are the jewels of nature that bubble up after a lot of rain. Or even a moderate amount. Then, Ellifritz says, it's great to go looking for mushrooms, "after you finish bailing out the basement and the backyard."

Books  on Mushrooms

"Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians," by William C. Roody (University Press of Kentucky, $35).

"A Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America," by Kent H. McKnight and Vera B. McKnight (Peterson Field Guides, Houghton Mifflin, $21).

"National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms," by Gary H. Lincoff (Knopf, $19.95).

"Mushrooms and Other Fungi of North America," by Roger Phillips (Firefly, $39.95).

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