Mushroom foraging keeps north Mississippians in touch with often overlooked life forms.
Written by Eugene Stockstill | Photographed by Joe Worthem
If you have young children in the house, there’s a good chance you may have given more than a passing thought to the great big world of mushrooms. Wondered if the extra-colorful ones are the poisonous ones or if you can touch any of them without getting sick or if you can eat a raw one, all because an awestruck little explorer started pointing them out to you in the backyard one warm summer morning.
“They can spot them before you can,” Oxford mother of three and mushroom enthusiast Angie Getz said. “It’s a treasure hunt. It’s exploration. You’re going to see something interesting. You can pick them, take them home, then find out about them.”
For the record, it’s usually best to cook an edible foraged mushroom before consumption, and some edibles have an uber-funky taste you may not enjoy too much. Some have a bitter taste.
Yes, you can touch any mushroom on the planet without any unpleasant side-effects, and you can lick them, too, though not everyone recommends this.
But do not use taste or color to try to identify a poisonous mushroom. Instead, nail down a species and then research details. “There are no shortcuts,” said Dr. Jason Hoeksema, a biology professor at the University of Mississippi who does extensive mushroom research.
A Hoeksema community lecture on mushrooms wound up hooking Getz on the foraging process and awakening her to a burgeoning part of this state’s biodiversity that tends to get ignored.
“He talked about how we live in this great pocket where we have this incredible diversity of mushrooms,” Getz, a Mississippi State University biology graduate, said. “I’d never thought about it.”
Hoeksema will give a community lecture on mushrooms at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 17 at the Lee Tartt Nature Preserve in Grenada. Cost is $20 per person. For details, visit friends-of-cs.org/events.
Mushrooms seem to make most passersby think of one of two things: A pizza topping that some people detest, or a drug that may give you a multicolored vision of a reincarnated John Lennon floating in the sky on a bed of diamond-shaped clouds.
But there is much more to mushrooms.
“Mushrooms have superpowers,” Hoeksema said. “Their enzymes and other chemicals allow them to impact the world in many important ways, helping plants grow, decomposing waste to create nutrients, and providing nutritious food for humans.”
Ready to nerd out with a mushroom-foraging group yet? Or with your family? Try the Facebook group Mushrooms of Mississippi. And keep an eye out during the steamiest summer days. You’ll think it’s a mushroom invasion.
“I turned my husband into a geek,” Getz said. “He’s great at spotting Chicken of the Woods,” a rather uncommon, edible, orange-colored bracket fungus. The Getz family found one that weighed more than five pounds and feasted on it for days.
“It is great battered and fried — it tastes just like fried chicken,” she said. “I’ve put it in pasta dishes, stir fry, and, yes, fajitas.”
One of the real benefits of mushroom foraging, she said, is learning to appreciate what’s different, rather than fearing the unknown. Think of Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin marveling at the beauty of a dangerous spitting cobra, or famous researcher Marie Curie, who once said that “nothing is to be feared, only understood.”
Safe mushrooming takes time and care. Consider this: The poisonous jack-o’-lantern mushroom, which can cause vomiting and diarrhea, and the edible chanterelle mushroom look quite similar. But jack-o’-lanterns have true gills, like pages of a book, while chanterelles have smaller ridges under the caps. Jack-o’-lanterns are typically brighter and larger, and grow in clusters, mostly during fall, while chanterelles usually grow in summertime. Both can appear at the same time, though.
“It’s very hands-on,” Getz said. “You have to pick it, look under the cap, study it.”
Fun Mushroom Facts
Mushrooms are neither plants or animals but fungi, a huge group of organisms that includes rust, yeast and molds. Dr. Egon Spengler on “Ghostbusters” (played by Harold Ramis) collected “spores, molds and fungus,” remember?
More than 550 species of mushrooms have been collected in north Mississippi in the last 10 years. Around the world, more than 14,000 species have been identified, and close to 1 million species are thought to exist.
A mushroom is the smaller, fruiting part of a much larger living organism. One such weblike structure located underground in Oregon is 2.4 miles long and may be the largest living organism on Earth. A similar one lives underground in Michigan.
Mushrooms repopulate via spores. Common flies, for example, transport the spores of the garbage-scented Stinkhorn mushrooms from place to place.
There are current edible species that grow to the size of large umbrellas.
With proper dosage and supervision, some psychoactive mushrooms that contain nonaddictive chemicals like Psilocybin show medical promise.
Some mushrooms grow on the ground, others on trees.