A Wealth of Health

“Beautiful, Healthy Fungus!”

Posted by Greg Quinn

The Northeast has been experiencing some of the rainiest weather in history. While we had an unusual amount of water in the basement of the farm, we fared better than many other folks in the area. The generator worked well, the sump pumps did what they could and this 200 year old farm has withstood the wrath of nature once again. I wish everyone could make that claim. At the height of the storm, I fantasized about an aqueduct from the Northeast to Texas.

The thin silver lining that nature has provided along with all that rain is a bumper crop of wild mushrooms. One of my favorite things to do here on the farm is to forage for wild edible foods and mushrooms always top the list. North America boasts over 3,000 varieties of mushrooms which are less that 1/3 of what have been discovered in the rest of the world so far. Some can be found during long periods throughout the season and others might appear for just one week a year. Now, of course, as we all know, many mushrooms are poisonous. Some can cause mild to severe gastric problems and others can lead to blindness liver damage and even death so the word of caution is do your homework, go out with an expert in the beginning and when in doubt leave it out. Also remember that tens of thousands of people safely collect mushrooms every year so you can learn it. Perhaps the most important thing to learn after you’ve identified what you think is an edible mushroom is what are the inedible ones that look similar. The trick is, while there are dozens and sometimes hundreds of different mushrooms in the woods and fields at any given time during the season, there’s only a handful that are wonderful eating so study those few first, get comfortable learning to ID them and noticing where they’re growing in relationship to surrounding trees and learn how best to prepare them. Do this and you will have gained a knowledge that will enrich your time in the woods and fields, elevate your gastronomy to new levels and be able to pass this wonderful mystery on to family and friends.

While finding edible mushrooms is a great joy, just going out with one of the many field guides in your back pocket and learning to identify just some of the hundreds of mushrooms that populate the woods is equally fun. The other worldly shapes and colors will amaze you once you begin to be mindful and see them even if you fall into the “not easily amazed” category.

The mushrooms you find popping up from the forest floor and in fields are actually the fruiting body of the fungus which is subterranean. Mushrooms are the rough equivalent of fruit on a plant. They produce spores instead of seeds but serve a similar function in that they help to spread the species.

OK, so while I and many others love mushrooms, I’m aware that many don’t. For those, the word fungus is just some disgusting, slimy thing that the world would be better without. So bear with me for a moment while I talk about the other side of mushrooms.

I’m not overstating the case by saying that the health of all forests in the world is directly related to the population and variety of certain fungus. Mycorrhizal fungus, which makes up a huge class the fungus family perform a wonderful symbiotic relationship with all manner of plants from grasses to trees. They send their hyphae or filaments out 20 times further that the roots grow and mine natural phosphorus and other trace minerals and nutrients and inject these needed nutrients directly into the roots of the plants making for healthier and more disease resistant ecosystem. The mycelial component of topsoil within a typical Douglas fir forest in the Pacific Northwest approaches 10% of the total biomass and that doesn’t even count the mass of the endomycorrhizae and the many yeast-like fungi that thrive in the topsoil.

OK, big deal, you say. Well, they really are a big deal. A single colony of a Honey mushroom, Armillaria gallica, one of the best known edibles, has been found in Michigan covering 37 acres, weighing over 220,000 pounds, with an estimated age of 1,500 years. Not big enough for you? Scientists in Washington State have reported a colony of Armillaria ostoyae covering 2,200 acres and at least 2,400 years old. With the exception of the trembling Aspen forests of Colorado, which are a group of interconnected trees, this fungus is the largest known living organism on the planet.

But you’re still not going to put mushrooms in your omelet. Well, you may not have to get the benefits. There is a new species of fungus called Taxomyces andreanae which produces minute quantities of the potent anti-carcinogen Taxol, a proven treatment for breast cancer (Stone, 1993). This new fungus has been studied and now a synthetic form of this potent drug is available for cancer patients. Another form, a leaf fungus found in the Congo, duplicates the effect of insulin, but…are you ready? It is orally active! And the multibillion dollar drug, cyclosporine, a drug that is used to suppress the immune system following transplant surgery to help prevent rejection in patients was originally extracted from the fungus Beauveria nivea. Of the estimated 1,500,000 species of fungi, only approximately 70,000 have been identified (Hawksworth et al. 1995), 10,000 of which are mushrooms. We are just beginning to discover the importance of this barely explored genome.

So right after Hurricane Irene doused us with 12 inches of rain, I struggled with the choice between bailing out the basement or hunting for mushrooms. Since I didn’t ultimately want mushrooms growing in the basement, my stepson Gabe and I tended to that chore first and as soon as it was more or less under control, I headed for the woods. Chanterelles (Craterellus) are not uncommon around here and I almost always manage to find a fair share of the yellows. Delicious! The black Chanterelles are also around most years but in much smaller quantities. If I find a couple handfuls a year on the farm, I’m happy but something about Irene’s wet kiss caused these elusive treasures to explode. The French call them La Trompette des morts because of their trumpet like shape and foreboding blackish color but these trumpets had nothing to do with death. They were alive and all over the oak forest. I found close to 5 pounds along with a few yellow and I celebrated by inviting some friends over, sautéed veal scallops with black chanterelles and garlic, gnudi, green beans from the garden and a couple bottles of wonderful old Chianti Classico. Oh, and we crowned the meal with some fabulous homemade Black Currant sorbetto (from you know where) served on grilled white peaches. Now that’s my idea of a fungus feast!

Cheers from the farm,
Greg