October marks the peak of wild mushroom picking in the Northwest, and a Washington State University plant pathologist nicknamed the “mushroom queen” is just the person you’d want in tow. She can keep you from getting lost in the woods and from eating a mushroom that tastes bad – or worse, one that will make you sick.
What’s more, when the hunt is over she’ll leave you fascinated by this ubiquitous yet mysterious group of organisms with a lineage that dates back millions of years.
“Newcomers to the fungi kingdom are often surprised to learn that a mushroom is not a plant and that genetically it’s more closely related to animals,” said associate professor Lori Carris. “It really forces them to think outside the box.”
Carris is known for barreling up and down forested hills, vaulting over downed trees and falling to her knees on the damp earth at the sight of a single bump protruding from a patch of moss or scattering of pine needles. If she strikes gold, it’s the expensive, meaty matsutake that the Northwest exports to Japan as the mushroom slowly earns culinary kudos in the United States.
But Carris isn’t interested in cashing in on her find. Instead, she assumes a more noble approach – using the matsutake as a teaching tool for students and amateur mushroom hunters. She imparts to the curious that the delicious fungus cradled in her dirtied hand is as much about science as gastronomy.
“She’s called the mushroom queen because she is so knowledgeable and passionate about mushrooms. Luckily for us, she shares what she knows,” said Timothy Paulitz, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who’s also president of the Palouse Mycological Association, a regional group of mushroom fans that Carris leads on forays.
“It’s hard to keep up with her, the way she goes up and down steep hillsides to find them,” said Paulitz. “And her ability to pick them out from the background of needles and duff is also remarkable.”
For the past 20 years, Carris has scoured forest floors for wild mushrooms, studying them under microscopes and preparing the edible ones on her stovetop.
She’ll swear you to secrecy concerning her favorite hunting grounds – that is, if she reveals anything at all. But boy, will she talk mushrooms; their scientific names roll off her tongue like honey.
“In the Northwest, a mushroom hunter’s year begins in spring with Morchella, or morels, that appear in clusters as the snow melts,” she said. “In the autumn it’s matsutake along with golden chanterelles, which include Cantharellus formosus. To find these mushrooms, a big part of the puzzle is knowing which trees and plant life they need to survive.”
Like many wild mushrooms, morels, matsutake and chanterelles are the “fruit” produced by an intricate fungus web that grows underground. When environmental conditions are just right, the mushroom sprouts above ground, releases spores and fades.
“Many people have no idea that this elaborate network of filaments, called mycelium, lies beneath the Earth’s surface,” said Carris.
Friends with benefits
Underground, these thread-like tendrils partner with the root systems of plants and trees, drawing on nutrients and leaving some behind in return. Known as mycorrhizal fungi, “they’re host specific, meaning that they only grow with certain vegetation,” said Carris.
Matsutake mushrooms, for example, have a reciprocal relationship with pine tree roots. (Originating from Japan, the name “matsu” means pine and “take” means mushroom, as Carris points out.)
A similar nutritional swap goes on between chanterelles and Douglas fir roots and between yellow morels and oak, poplar and decaying elm. More than two dozen species of black morels have been identified around the world, and their partnership habitat hasn’t been fully determined, she said.
Killer in a pretty package
One of the world’s deadliest mushrooms – now found in the Northwest – generally pairs with oak trees but may be able to shift hosts as it moves across environments, according to research being done by scientists at Harvard University.
Amanita phalloides, or the death cap, has been migrating from the forests and woodlands of California northward to Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. It is responsible for the majority of mushroom poisoning deaths worldwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Though poisonings in this country are rare, cases are going up because more people are foraging, it says.
Last year in northern California, four elderly people died when a cook at an assisted living home mistook death caps for an edible variety and prepared them in gravy, according to news accounts. Four other people were hospitalized with liver damage.
“It’s coming up in places it hasn’t been seen before,” said Carris. “How it’s expanding its range isn’t yet clear.”
What is clear is that the death cap is highly toxic and resembles several species of edible mushrooms. It looks innocent to the untrained eye. Fully formed, its broad, elegant umbrella cap brings to mind a shelter for fairytale pixies.
“Identifying mushrooms solely from a picture is not a good idea,” said Carris. “A photograph captures the mushroom’s appearance at one moment. But the death cap can look markedly different during different times of its growth.”
Gold in northern Idaho
You won’t find edible mushrooms sprouting on the hills of the Palouse where wheat, lentils and garbanzo beans flourish. But you can find them in forests just 30 or so miles away, said Carris. Farther north, multiple mushroom species, including matsutake, burst from the damp forest floors around Priest Lake.
“I’ve had some ‘whoa’ moments out there when I discovered beautiful flushes of mushrooms,” she said.
But rather than snatch them up, “Lori gathers the amateurs around her to share what she knows,” said Paulitz.
And there, among the dense growth under a cathedral of green, is her perfect classroom.