Field Trip

Unearthing the Mystery of Mushrooms

By Raymond M. Lane
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 8, 2006

"You don't eat wild mushrooms if you don't know for sure what they are," says Mitch Fournet of the Mycological Association of Washington DC.

There's a smile on the face of the biologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Natural Resources Institute but nothing reckless about his passion for mushrooms. On the other hand, most weekends he drops the government scientist persona to morph into "Mr. Mushroom" -- the field leader, or "foray" master, of the area's oldest and most active wild mushroom group.

The 36-year-old club meets the first Tuesday of every month at the Chevy Chase Library to hear guest lecturers, check out slide shows by experts and members, plow through mushroom identification workshops and swap recipes.

There are mushroom feasts (members only) in spring and fall, out-of-town weekend picking and the annual Mushroom Festival at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, where last year 1,000 visitors stopped by. This year's festival is set for Oct. 1.

As foray master, Fournet scouts out likely mushroom picking sites within an hour or so drive from Washington, such as Grambrill State Park near Frederick, the site of Saturday's foray. Air and soil temperatures, fallen and living trees, moisture and humidity all play a part in whether wild mushrooms are bountiful.

"There's luck, too," Fournet says, "and our 150 or so members around the region who constantly monitor conditions and scout out sites all over the place."

Once a foray is determined -- there may be 20 in a year, with peak times in spring and fall -- Fournet posts the information on the club's Web site, then leads whoever shows up -- including beginners -- on about a two-hour walk in the woods, along streambeds and over hills and mountain ranges that might be loaded with wild mushrooms. (Forays are free.)

"Beginners really need to be careful about picking mushrooms out there in the wild or even in your back yard," he says.

Ingesting the wrong mushrooms can destroy your liver or cause vomiting, diarrhea, cramps or even death. Although the area abounds with coveted wild edible mushrooms, it's also a hotbed for such lethal species as Amanita virosa , bisporigera and verna -- variations of the "Death Angel," or "Destroying Angel," mushroom, Fournet says.

"And we've got plenty of Galerina autumnalis, the 'Deadly Galerina,' " Fournet says. "They're those brownish mushrooms you see all over the place after a good rain. And there's Amanita phalloides , the 'Death Cap,' that looks like puff balls."

On a recent Saturday morning, Fournet leads a foray at Greenbelt Park in Prince George's County. Behind him troop nine pickers, from retirees to newlyweds in their twenties, harvesting whatever nature is willing to give up.

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