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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.

In spring, that can mean containers laden with a treasure of wild morels. Summer brings plump chanterelles, and fall signals the arrival of honey mushrooms, oyster mushrooms and hen of the woods.

"Some of the really good pickers bring back trash bags full," Fournet says.

Harvesting wild mushrooms is forbidden without a permit in the 53,000 acres of parkland overseen by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. There is a $100 fine for foraging without a permit. The National Park Service, which oversees Rock Creek Park and other federal lands in the Washington area, prohibits picking mushrooms in Rock Creek Park.

Though some will pick only mushrooms they want to eat, more adventurous pickers love nothing more than to find new or unusual varieties, Fournet says.

"We always 'key it out' when we have a question about a new mushroom," he says, using insiders' language on the detective work needed to identify fungi. "If we can't figure it out here in the woods, we'll take the mystery 'shroom back to a club meeting so all the members can have a look at it."

Fournet carries mushroom field guides and reference books on forays -- along with stout hiking shoes, sunscreen, insect repellant, maps, water and a bag lunch -- to examine closely anything that doesn't lend itself easily to identification.

"That's one of the things about picking the wild ones," offers Ray LaSala, vice president of the group.

"Mushrooming is about detective work, studying the science of these things, being outdoors and not on the Beltway," he says. "We make new friends, hear stories about their adventures hunting mushrooms all over the world and explore the Washington area maybe in ways other folks don't think about.

"Rain or shine, hunting mushrooms is a kick," LaSala says. "Best of all, they're delicious."

THE MYCOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION OF WASHINGTON DC 1903 Powhatan Rd., Hyattsville. 301-907-3053.http://mawdc.org. Membership is $20 annually.

Upcoming events include:

Saturday from 10 to noon Foray at Gambrill State Park near Frederick. Check Web site and phone number for updates, directions. Free.

Oct. 1 from noon to 5 Fifth annual Mushroom Fair at Brookside Gardens, 1800 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton. Free. Fair includes displays of wild mushrooms, cooking and cultivation demonstrations, books, displays of gadgets and gear used by serious pickers, raffle, a children's program and an identification station for people to bring in mushrooms for experts to identify.

Oct. 3 at 7 Annual wild mushroom tasting festival at Chevy Chase Library. E-mail Ilona Conolly atculinary@mawdc.org. Members only; join at the door, plus $10 fee for tasting. Bring a homemade wild mushroom dish and get in free.

Oct. 6-8 Weekend picking foray at Camp Sequanota, near Somerset, Pa. $100, includes accommodations for two nights in rustic cabins and five meals. For more information, e-mail Mitch Fournet atforays@mawdc.org.

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