Off the Clock: Fun with fungus


Childhood memories of searching the floors of pine forests for mounds of spiny needles blanketing wild mushrooms like hidden treasure enticed me to take part in “Mushrooms of Massabesic,” a walking tour hosted by the Massabesic Audubon Center in Auburn. Jeff Nelson, Audubon volunteer naturalist, was our tour guide. Nearly 20 people gathered at the field house on Audubon Way for a brief mushroom overview on a bright Saturday morning. Nelson discussed identification techniques, folklore and edibility of mushrooms - did you know some 4,000 species of fabulous fungi can be found in this region alone? I was not the only one disappointed by the announcement that we would not be gathering edible mushrooms on our adventure, but would instead be gaining new information on mushroom habitat and identification. My disappointment disappeared quickly, however, replaced by a renewed respect and appreciation for these forest fungi and their natural surroundings. Massabesic Audubon property includes 150 acres of land on Battery Point surrounding Massabesic Lake and offers a mix of venues in which to explore mycology, or the study of mushrooms. Fallen deadwood and carpets of decaying leaves are a perfect incubator for all types of mushrooms, such as “Turkey Tails,” “Dead Mans Fingers,” “Poisonous Pig-Skin Puff Balls,” “Indian Pipes,” and the benign-looking, though ominous-sounding, “Death Angel.” Each one is different from the next in almost every fashion. Turkey Tales, we learned, grow in wavy, horizontal shelves jutting out from decaying trees. Indian Pipes grow tall and spindly from the forest floor. Puff Balls, both the poisonous Pig-Skin variety and the white, non-poisonous type, scatter along the open edge of the forest trail. While many mushrooms like the Turkey Tales are sought for their medicinal value, others, like the Boletes — a spored mushroom that resembles a tan or pinkish hamburger bun-on-a-stick — are edible. But many others are toxic and look nearly identical to harmless varieties. According Nelson, eating poisonous mushrooms can lead to everything from an upset stomach to death, as in the obvious case of the Death Angel. For further information Innocuous if not beautiful, the pure white, umbrella-like Death Angel mushroom grows from the forest floor and boasts a chiffon-like veil where the gilled cap and the stock meet. While this mushroom might first capture your eye, if ingested it will capture your nervous system, liver and kidneys in a much less pleasant way. Though reportedly tasty, death usually comes on the fourth or fifth day after eating it. It’s because of stories like this that Nelson recommends people collect “edible” mushrooms only with those who truly know what they are doing. If, however, you are not lucky enough to know someone skilled in absolute mushroom identification, don’t give up on mushrooming. Searching out these forest ornaments offers a new perspective on our region’s woodlands. While the information I gathered during my Saturday morning hike through Battery Point is likely to have me picking my dinner mushrooms at a local market, I did come to recognize the importance mushrooms play in the rejuvenation and maintenance of Granite State forests. Often thought to be only squishy scavengers sucking the life out of diseased trees, many mushrooms share a symbiotic relationship with the trees they call home by acting as a food source for the same tree they are deriving their own nutrients from. Those found growing on deadwood do, indeed, aid in the process of decay, and many serve as a food source for the forest wildlife that undoubtedly have a better sense of mushroom edibility than I do. Guided tours like this one are offered through the six Audubon Centers throughout the state and are great ways to introduce yourself to the wonders of our woodlands.
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