Mushroom-foraging workshop emphasizes identification, safety

GRAFTON, Vt. — Curious woodland owners and nature enthusiasts gathered Saturday, Aug. 26 at the Nature Museum at Grafton for a workshop on the Wild World of Mushrooms. Led by mycologist Ari Rockland-Miller, the half-day course included a lecture followed by a foraging session at nearby Windmill Ridge Nature Reserve.

Attendees arriving at the morning workshop swapped anecdotes about recently-spotted specimens, toted samples in baskets for Rockland-Miller’s identification and asked questions that tended to coalesce around two themes: identification and safety. There are so many kinds of mushrooms out there; mistaking one for a sinister look-alike can cause illness, or worse.

Rockland-Miller conceded that Vermont’s forests contain a mind-boggling array of different mushroom species. In fact, he advises novices not to try to learn about all of them. It’s not just a taxing mental exercise, he explained, but a potential safety risk.

Stock photo.

“People who try to learn about every mushroom end up being certain about none of them,” Rockland-Miller said, which could lead to a deadly slip-up.

Instead, he suggested mastering just a few, beginner-friendly species. The goal is to be able to identify a target species with as much assurance as “you can tell an apple from an orange.”

Certain species lend themselves well to neophytes, especially those that are distinctive, with few look-alikes. During the field trip portion of the class, a sharp-eyed attendee spotted one such species, the lions-mane mushroom (Hericium ericaneus). Its shaggy, pom-pom-like form clung to the side of a beech tree.

Even more important than recognizing some tasty, easy-to-spot varieties is a confident familiarity with the mushrooms that could kill you.

Addressing gathered attendees from atop a sofa-sized boulder, Rockland-Miller held aloft a pale, slender-stemmed specimen. “Please, please: do not ever eat this mushroom.” The group paid close attention as he pointed out characteristics of the dangerous “destroying angel” (Amanita bisporigera): its glowing white color and the swollen, cup-like volva at its base.

Indeed, mushrooms of the Amanita genus – including the destroying angel – are exceedingly deadly, responsible for a majority of mushroom-related fatalities in the United States, according to Rockland-Miller. He described the destroying angel as deceptively charismatic, appealing on account of its clean, bright whiteness and resemblance to culinary mushrooms native to East Asia.

Though conditions were on the dry side, the group did locate a few late-season golden chanterelles, a coveted species in the mycorrhizal group of fungi. Mycorrhizal mushrooms can’t be easily cultivated and rely on a symbiotic relationship with the roots of nearby trees. The few lucky finds were carried away in carefully cupped hands.

There weren’t enough mushrooms for a feast, but attendees were visibly inspired, armed with mushroom basket and new knowledge, ready to head out on their own autumnal forays.

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