A Pagan Hunts the Fruits of Autumn
by Catherine Harper
Sometime in September I wake up and the sky is gray, the day is cool, the bright golden harvest has begun its descent into the quieter late autumn, and even as much as I love the sun, I am relieved. It’s as if the shorter days give me license to stay content inside, writing and cooking, or to cover up outside after I have become a little weary of sun and skin. By the time the weather turns, I am always ready to turn a bit inward. It has been a sunny summer and a good, warm harvest, and now it is time for things to be a bit more muted and for rest.
By Mabon, I should have a cord or two of apple wood stacked for the oven. The bright fruits of summer are finishing in the garden, the winter squash thinking about hardening their shells, the beans and tomatoes coming in. The sunny days are some of the best for hiking and bicycling, cooler weather bringing us out of summer’s languor. But the Indian summer, if we are so lucky as to be granted one, is transitory, a red and gold finale to the light half of the year, and the gray days and rains are waiting.
What is startling about our winters is not so much the amount of rain (well, maybe some years), for all the press that it gets, but the contrast between our mild climate and the dark that descends on us. For all that we see little snow or freezing, the Puget Sound is decidedly north, and through the equinox the length of the days shifts rapidly, swinging toward the winter days, which are barely more than half the length of their long summer counterparts. Add the frequently overcast sky, which lets so little light through, and non-natives who have spent the summer munching cherries and blackberries through our 10 o’clock twilight often find themselves fleeing south.
But the dark time of the year is not without its pleasure, a period of rest and contemplation after the frenetic summer. It is a wonderful time for the pleasures of the table, with maybe even a fire on the heart, or a soup simmering on the back of the stove. People begin to move indoors again; life becomes private. And in the fall many of us go into the woods, alone or in quiet twos and threes, and spend time among the shadowed places, relishing the cool, the dark, the rain, and looking for mushrooms.
Mushrooms have a mixed reputation in this country, especially those vast arrays of species that aren’t the familiar grocery store buttons. Esteemed by foodies, feared or scorned by much of the populace, valued by some for their hallucinogenic properties, most people seem to approach mushrooms with opinions already formed. It should not be a surprise, since so much of our culture we have inherited, with our language, from the English, who are, compared to many of their mushroom-loving European brethren, noted fungiphobes. (Which is not to say the English never partake, but merely they tended to regard the mushrooms with a skepticism quite different from the affection of the French and Eastern Europeans, or the wild adoration of many Russians, to name a few.)
The Pacific Northwest has been greatly blessed by the mushroom gods, and we are a veritable haven for fungi. The woods and wet falls and springs are ideal for mushrooms, and we have one of the larger and most reliable fruitings of anywhere in the country. Even in the city, on lawns, in parks and landscaped patches, we have an unusually rich and diverse community of fungi (though care should always be taken when hunting in landscaped areas so as to avoid contaminants).
It never fails to amaze me how many people simply do not notice this bounty that fruits in our area. Many times, when I first take people hunting they simply don’t see the mushrooms in the grass, on the ground or hiding in the shadows under a rhododendron. And then when they train their eyes to see, it is as if they have glimpsed faerie, and are amazed at this other world, always there, that has suddenly opened up before them. For the mushrooms are not always small or unobtrusive. I have found Agaricus augustuses fully 11 inches across at the cap, as big as dinner plates, or Amanita muscarias only slightly smaller and bright red with white spots hatching next to a college library.
In the woods, the Amanita muscarias, which fade as they age to a salmon pink while retaining their white spots, sometimes come up in rings fully twelve feet in diameter. These are, as it happens, one of the most interesting hallucinogenic mushrooms for shamanic use worldwide, though the amount and type of toxins varies by region, and I wouldn’t recommend playing with our local varieties. Amanitas in general are one of the more perilous families of mushrooms, containing some of the most poisonous specimens found in this region. There is recorded use of amanitas from North America to Siberia, as well as interesting speculation that they were the source of the vedic drug soma.
And, as an interesting footnote regarding hallucinogenic mushrooms, the Psilocybe stuntzii, one of the mushrooms most often hunted for its perception-altering properties, though not as potent as its cousin Psilocybe cyanescens, was originally identified on the University of Washington campus, and is named after the former professor of mycology there, Daniel Stuntz. While, at least as I understand it, these mushrooms were not originally native to this area, they have become quite common around universities, libraries, government buildings and other landscaped areas. And hunter beware: While some people would caution against any consumption — which is, of course, illegal — at least be aware that these sometimes intermingle with deadly Gallerinas, so if you’re not absolutely sure, don’t put it in your mouth. We tend to be rather attached to our livers and don’t function very well or long, without them.
So before I begin describing some of our easier and more rewarding mushrooms to hunt, a few words of caution. First off, while mushrooms are not really any more likely to be poisonous than plants, some are poisonous, mostly of a sort that will give you gastrointestinal distress, and a very few are quite poisonous and can kill you.
The problem with mushrooms is that most people learn at least a little bit of plant identification as children — enough, say, to recognize a holly’s berries and know they will be deleterious to one’s health, whereas blackberries can only enhance it. Many who can recognize red huckleberries, dandelions, wild onions, hazelnuts and other common wild edibles, know not to eat nightshade or water hemlock and have at least a rudimentary idea of what features might be significant in distinguishing one plants from another. Most of us, however, did not grow up with even this basic background in fungi, and so until we have had time to acquaint ourselves with the mycological world and train our eyes to their identifying features, our abilities to reliably tell one mushroom from another are often rather weak. It’s not that mushrooms are inherently more difficult to distinguish, but that as a culture we tend to be less learned in how to go about this. However, until we have had a chance to hone these skills, it is not a good idea to go sampling mushrooms that you believe resemble those found in guides, or even this article. The first rule or foraging is never to eat anything you haven’t positively identified.
This same precaution applies to people who have learned to hunt mushrooms in one area, and then moved to another. While your skills will do you in good stead, make sure you take a while to familiarize yourself with our native mushrooms, both nourishing and otherwise, before you add them to your diet. The most common cause of mushroom poisoning on the west coast is among immigrants who eat certain (sometimes deadly) Amanita species that are not native to their homelands, not being aware of the need to distinguish them from familiar edible species.
If you want to make a more serious study of mushrooms, there are a number of excellent guidebooks — paramount among which are David Arora’s pocket guide All the Rain Promises (perhaps the best introductory text on mushrooms) and the larger and more hard-core Mushrooms Demystified. Even better, the Puget Sound Mycological Society (www.psms.org) holds monthly meetings throughout the fall, winter and spring and is a good place to learn hands-on identification from experienced mushroomers, among other diversions.
I use the word “mushrooms” here to describe any fleshy fungus, edible, umbrella-shaped or otherwise. The popular term “toadstool” has no particular biological meaning, though it is sometimes used, primarily by those who are not fond of mushrooms, to refer to ones they regard with suspicion. All mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of organisms that live either in ground or in wood or another organic substrate (called “mycelia”) or in symbiosis with plant roots (called “mycorrhizia”). The most recognizable mushrooms have the umbrella shape we are accustomed to from the grocery store, consisting of a stem and a cap, the underside of the cap having either gills (as do the more common cultivated varieties) or pores (mushrooms with pores look as if the underside of the cap is made out of a porous, spongy material).
Here are a few of my favorite mushrooms, ones that fruit in profusion this area and that are, if not foolproof at least (to steal a phrase from David Arora) reasonably intelligence-proof. Again, I do not expect this listing to replace a guidebook or trained identification, but I hope it might be a good place to start informal investigations. (If in doubt, if you have found a field of beautiful mushrooms that you can not identify on your own and yet cannot in conscience ignore, drop me a note at email@example.com, and I’ll try either to help you or refer you to someone both local and qualified.)
Fairy Ring Mushroom (Marasmius oriedes)
This is one of the most common ring-forming lawn mushrooms, and a great favorite among pagans for its folkloric associations. (Do not, however, assume that all ring-forming lawn mushrooms are edible — many circles of mycelia will fruit along the perimeter, forming rings. Nor does the fairy ring mushroom always form rings.) This mushroom is an opportunist, meaning that it will fruit spring and fall, often several times a season, as long as the conditions are right. (Mostly, it awaits sufficient moisture.) The mushroom world has given us a great variety of hard-to-differentiate “little brown mushrooms” (known as LBMs), many of which most mushroomers do not bother with, but this one is worth knowing, as it is not only common but tasty, with a light, delicate flavor that goes particularly well with lemon and the gentler alliums.
This cream- to buff-colored mushroom stands only two to three inches tall, with a cap usually about one inch across in diameter at maturity. Its gills are straight, evenly spaced, do not fork or split and have light-colored spores. The cap often has a hump in the middle, giving it a bit of the appearance of a hat at maturity. The stem is fibrous and not particularly appetizing. The entire mushroom dries very easily and reconstitutes quickly after being soaked in water. Collecting mushrooms from a circle will encourage the underground mycelia to produce more, just as collecting beans results in more beans, and so can be done without fear of damaging the organism.
Boletes and Cousins
Boletes are plump, fleshy mushrooms with spongy pores on the undersides of their caps rather than gills. This is the clan of the Porcini, one of the most highly prized of all edible mushrooms. The clan breaks down into three families, Boletus, the true boletes; Suillus, the slippery jack; and the Lecinums, a family that includes the birch boletes and other fine edibles.
The basic rule of thumb given for boletes is that they are safe to eat if their pores are yellow or white, and neither the pores nor the stem are red, or stain blue when bruised. However, while this rule of thumb will take you fairly far and is the reason boletes have a reputation for being a safe family, it is not entirely reliable. Better by far to get a proper identification book and key out each mushroom completely.
If the “bolete” you find has a notably slippery or, if drier, sticky surface, it is a slippery jack. (Also, slippery jacks tend to but don’t always have larger pores that are often radially arranged.) Slippery jacks are among our most common boletes, and if they are not among the most prized, the edibles among them can be fine despite their tendency towards sliminess.
If the “bolete” you find does not have a sticky or slippery cap, has closely packed pores and a smooth stem, you have found a true bolete. Not all true boletes are edible, but many of those that are are choice, so it may well be worth your while to properly identify it. However, be warned that we are not the only creatures who like to eat boletes, so keep a close eye our for insect infestations and slug damage. Boletes age quickly and aren’t worth collecting past their prime, though they dry very well if you find yourself in possession of a large quantity.
If your bolete is again without a slippery or sticky cap, but the stem has a dark webbing that looks rather like the cheek of a dark-haired, fair-skinned man who has not shaved for a day or two, it is a Leccinum. While this family is not generally as highly prized as some of the true boletes, some of them are quite tasty and very common in this area, especially growing in association with birch trees. These, too, dry very well, though they rather oddly turn black in the drying process.
Chicken of the Woods
This is a shelf mushroom, rather like the hard, white-bottomed artists’ conks one finds growing off the sides of trees. However, chicken of the woods is one of those mushrooms that is easy to recognize because it looks like nothing else on this earth. Softer than a woody conk, growing in ruffled shelves on the sides of trees and dead wood, chicken of the woods is an amazing day-glow orange on top, and a paler yellow underneath. When young and tender, it can be delectable, having a flavor and texture very similar to that of chicken, though it requires a long cooking. Older specimens tend to be tougher and sour, though this can, at least in part, be remedied through long cooking and careful seasonings. This mushroom is often available during the fall at the Pike Place Market.
As with most mushrooms, even once you have positively identified it you shouldn’t have a large serving if you haven’t eaten it before, because some people have unpleasant reactions even to mushrooms that are generally edible.
For many, the chantrelle, golden and shaped like the mouth of a trumpet turned upward toward the sky, is the prince of the wild mushrooms. (However, there is another mushroom named “the prince” that is a large, almond-scented relative of the grocery store agaric and not in the least related to the chantrelle.) Chantrelles are forest mushrooms, growing from mycorhizia. They are most easily identified by their thick, veined gills, which stand out as rounded ridges rather than the knife-edges of true gills. In our area, both the white and gold chantrelles are fairly common, though only the gold is hunted in large numbers for the commercial trade. Personally, I like the white at least as well. There are also more fragile black and blue varieties.
Not all native chantrelles are edible, there being a common inedible variety that is feathered across the surface of the cap. If in doubt, e-mail me and I’ll help resolve the problem for only a tithe.
Shaggy manes are another opportunist, and another mushroom commonly found in parks, on lawns and other haphazard locations. These look like tall, white eggs, standing on end, usually in grassy areas or on ground that has been disturbed in the last few years. On closer investigation, you will find these fragile, white mushrooms have hollow stems and a long gilled cap covered with delicate feathery white shags that almost completely hides the stem. As they age, the bottom edge of the cap begins to turn pink, and then dark, and finally dissolves to black liquid. This liquid is essentially the same as giving the shaggy mane’s buff-colored cousins, the inky caps, their name. It is dark brown, and thinned with water does indeed make a fine ink, well-suited to magickal use. In fact, collecting shaggy manes and inky caps for ink might be one of the safest ways to embark on mushroom hunting.
These days, many people are familiar with this white to grayish-buff wood-growing mushroom, since it is widely cultivated and available (for a fancy price) from most grocery stores. There are actually a great many varieties of oyster mushrooms, and they are common growing on trees and dead wood throughout this region. These are tender, gilled mushrooms that grow in shelf-like lobes with either no discernible stem or a stem off to one side rather than centered, as is the case with most familiar mushrooms. They fruit spring and fall, as conditions permit. In fact, a distinction is made between “angel wings” and “oyster” mushrooms, the former whiter and more delicate than the latter. However, both cook up well.
Happy mushroom hunting!