Mushrooms

I am one of a handful of people in my neighborhood who prefers to mow my own lawn. My mower is not a riding mower nor is it self-propelled. It doesn’t move unless I push it. That means I know every square foot of my yard intimately and I take pride in the smooth, manicured look of freshly cut grass. It also means I notice anything that mars that perfection—like those mushrooms that appear literally overnight. How is it possible for something to spring up that quickly?

According to the dictionary, mushrooms are any of the various fleshy fungi of the class Basidiomycetes characteristically having an umbrella-shaped cap borne on a stalk. The term mushroom typically refers to the edible varieties. The inedible (poisonous) fungi with an umbrella shape are called toadstools.

The umbrella-shaped mushrooms I am thinking about are in the agaric family (Agaricaceae). These are the ones that have thin, bladelike gills on the undersurface of the cap that shed spores. They have a cap (pileus) and a stalk (stipe) and emerge from an extensive underground network of threadlike strands called mycelium. That is, apparently, where the magic happens.

The mycelium starts from a spore falling in a favorable spot and producing strands (hyphae) that grow out in all directions, eventually forming a circular mat of underground hyphal threads. Fruiting bodies of some mushrooms occur in arcs or rings called fairy rings that may widen year after year. As long as nourishment is available and temperature and moisture are suitable, a mycelium network can produce a new crop of mushrooms every year during its fruiting season.

The most common varieties of mushroom are probably the ones we find in the grocery store—especially the white or button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus). I purchased an eight-ounce package last week for my slow-cooker beef stew. They were in the produce section next to a variety of other edible mushrooms. After a little research, I discovered that those cremini mushrooms and portobello mushrooms on the next shelf are the same species as the button mushrooms, but at different stages of development. One reference says that if the button mushrooms are at the toddler stage, then creminis are the teenagers and portobellos are adults.

But what about all of the varieties I see around the neighborhood, `especially the ones that spring up in my freshly mowed lawn? Well, there are really too many to count and many of them aren’t actually mushrooms. They are probably fungi—and they have some pretty colorful names.

Among these are hedgehog mushrooms, which have teeth, spines, or warts on the undersurface of the cap, and club fungi with their shrublike, clublike, or coral-like growth habits. One club fungus, the cauliflower fungus, has flattened clustered branches that lie close together, giving the appearance of the vegetable cauliflower.

The morels are among the most desired wild mushrooms in the world. They are praised for their flavor, texture, and unique appearance, and are popularly included with the true mushrooms because of their shape and fleshy structure. They resemble a deeply folded or pitted conelike sponge at the top of a hollow stem.

The state of Georgia hosts some colorfully descriptive fungi that may be some of the varieties I see around my neighborhood. Wood ear mushrooms, a type of jelly fungus, have earlike shapes and prefer decayed logs and moist areas. Lacquered-shelf fungi grow on decaying hardwood trunks and brown rot fungi consume cellulose in rotting wood. Parasitic shoestring mushrooms grow on hardwoods and conifers and form dark shoestring-like strands under tree bark. One show-stopping fungus is a slime mold called “dog vomit” because of its vibrant yellow-orange hue and its creeping growth.

Georgia has some edible varieties of mushroom, like the chanterelles, but the only mushrooms I eat are the ones from the grocery store. I don’t want to take a chance on picking the wrong thing in the wild, like the one called the sickener mushroom. It has a brilliant red cap and thick white stalk with many white, close gills and, as the name implies, it can make you sick. And how about one called the death angel mushroom. This one displays a striking white cap and stalk with pure white gills underneath the cap and when eaten can lead to—well, death.

The only wild mushroom I have ever knowingly eaten were the ones my dad grew. They were shitake mushrooms that sprouted from four-foot-long, maple logs leaning up in the shade at the back of his cabin in the North Carolina mountains.

The Shitake (Lentinula edoides) is a common edible variety of mushroom that is related to the button mushroom but in a different family. Shitakes are native to Southeast Asia and have been harvested for centuries in the warm, moist hardwood forests of China and Japan. They sprout from the decaying wood of deciduous trees like chestnut, oak, and sweetgum and are available in my grocery store.

My dad’s spores arrived by mail in a small plastic bag. They were a pressed sawdust product that had been infused with spores and molded into one-inch-long plugs that fit neatly into a quarter-inch, round hole. My brothers and I were charged with drilling hundreds of holes into a pile of four-foot-long, hardwood logs. After we had hammered the spore-plugs into the holes, we took the logs to the back of the cabin where dad dropped them into an old bathtub filled with water. He weighted them with some cement blocks to soak for a day or two then stood them up against the back of the cabin in the moist shade to germinate. I don’t remember how long it was before he had mushrooms, but the end product was both dramatic and delicious.  He freeze dried his harvest and kept the mushrooms in shrink-wrapped bags. The only visual evidence I have of dad’s mushroom production is a woodcarving I gave him for Christmas in 1995.

I have a special fondness for mushrooms. They are elegant and beautiful, but they can also look like dog vomit. They are delicious, but they might kill you. As the saying goes, all mushrooms are edible, but some of them only once.

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