Fungus among us 

Better trampled than sampled?

By Bob Brett,

Whistler Naturalists

This has been a season of extremes: a great stretch of sun followed by a month-long deluge of Noah-esque proportions. What a great setup for mushroom season! Fungi can be fickle, but their abundance (and size) seems to say they enjoyed this year’s weather.

Keen mushroom hunters with dollars in their eyes have been out scouring the woods for pine mushrooms, but this year has been so bountiful prices have plummeted. Other mushroomers, looking to fill their dinner plates rather than their pockets, are searching for chanterelles, boletes, and other gourmet treats.

Both types of mushroom hunters – commercial and culinary – share a similar dislike of one mushroom. Not because it is poisonous or ugly or slimy or smelly, but because it is everywhere. Hunters looking for other quarry appreciate this mushroom about as much as a big pimple on prom night.

The maligned mushroom of which I speak is the short-stemmed russula ( Russula brevipes , a.k.a. the volcano). It’s the one erupting in amazing abundance under the green shag carpet of moss in our woods. You’ve no doubt seen it. It has a big white stem and a huge, funnel-shaped cap. The whitish cap, often as big as a dinner plate, is covered in dirt and other litter, and maybe a beanie of moss from where it’s pushed through.

Russulas are usually firm and even crisp. Breaking the stalk will feel and sound a bit like breaking chalk (if it then bleeds a latex-like substance, it’s a milk cap not a russula). All very well, but can ya eat ’em?

After checking with various guidebooks and confirming with Todd Bush, it turns out some russulas are choice edibles. The ubiquitous and humongous short-stemmed russula is not one of them. Edible, yes, but then again so is this newspaper. "Edible" in fungus-ese means only that it won’t kill you or cause you a night conversing with the big white telephone. It doesn’t say anything about taste.

According to David Arora, fungus guru and author of the quirky, 959-page Mushrooms Demystified , this "harmless, prolific mushroom" is: (1) better punted than hunted; (2) better trampled than sampled; and (3) better kicked than picked. You get the drift.

But focussing solely on taste and edibility misses the point of mushrooming. There’s lots of beauty in the woods and it doesn’t matter that most of it would make a poor (or deadly) meal. The fact that an old-growth Douglas-fir tree or a carpet of moss would never grace your dinner plate doesn’t diminish their beauty either.

One way to bone up on mushrooms is to drop by the Whistler Library. Mushroom books are kept behind the counter – I’m not sure what this says about the morality of mushroomers – so you’ll have to ask one of the helpful librarians.

Read the first 30 or so pages of Mushrooms Demystified and you’ll see that fun and fungus are not mutually exclusive. You can read the other 929 pages later, just be sure to return the book.

Another way is to join us in this year’s Fungus Among Us walks, talks and cooking demonstrations (details below).

Upcoming Events:

Fungus Among Us Festival – Join the Naturalists for a mushroom weekend. On Friday, Oct. 15th at 7:30p.m., there will be a talk entitled "Welcome to the wonderful world of fungi" with mushroom experts Andy MacKinnon and Paul Kroeger. Starting at 9 a.m. on Saturday the 16th, there will be various guided mushroom walks. At 1 p.m. there will be a cooking with mushrooms demonstration and taste testing with Ophra Buckman. All events will be at the Myrtle Philip Community Centre. The cost for the talk on Friday is by donation and the guided walk and cooking demo on Saturday is $10 with renewal of membership, $15 without. The cooking demo only will be $5 with renewal of membership, $10 without. For more information call Kristina at 604-935-7665.

Monthly Bird Walk – The next bird walk will take place Saturday, Nov. 6th and will start at the later fall/winter time of 8 a.m. Join Whistler experts in the monthly update of our feathered locals and migrants. For details, contact Michael Thompson at 604-932-5010.

Calling all Aspiring Nature Writers and Photographers – Have an interest in natural history? Want to educate others about your favourite flora and/or fauna? Write your very own Naturespeak article or send us your photos to accompany our articles. For more information contact Sorcha Masterson at 604-894-1759 or sorc_m@hotmail.com

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