When my significant other and I go hiking through the regional parks in our area (Lebanon Hills is a favorite), we are often on the hunt for mushrooms. Not to forage or consume but to simply be amazed by the vast range of color, form, contours, patterns, and textures mushrooms display. It’s like visiting “the natural art gallery of fungi” and like all good tourists we take lots of photos of highlights.
Link for Lebanon Hills Regional Park: https://www.co.dakota.mn.us/parks/Pages/default.aspx
We’re not mycologists and can barely name the species we spot. Our objective is delighting in mushroom design and how and where they choose to grow. They take the creepiness out of decay and replace it with magic. If mushrooms didn’t exist, forests would be choked with accumulating dead wood and leaves while starving for essential minerals and nutrients bound up in un-decomposed debris. It’s possible to believe if mushrooms didn’t exist, neither would forests.
Mushrooms also partner with trees, creating mycelium around tree roots and a symbiotic exchange of water, minerals, and nutrients between them. Forestry scientists are discovering that mushrooms connect with trees to form underground networks the trees use as a means of communication, exchanging data and knowledge between one another. The movie Avatar isn’t far off from reality.
Naturally curious, I wanted to know how many mushroom species make Minnesota their home. According to the Bell Museum of Natural History, there are 9,000 species of mushroom expected to be native to Minnesota. Currently, there are 10,000 known types of mushrooms living around the world. Yet with all that amazing fungi out there, only Oregon and Minnesota have designated state mushrooms. Ours is the Yellow Morel (no surprise) as declared by the Minnesota legislature in 1984.
In May through June, we hear of people on the hunt for morels and posting impressive photos on Instagram of their foraged booty. (Good morel foraging grounds tend to stay top secret to those who have the good fortune of discovering them.)
In the fall, there are the lovely folks we meet on hikes, immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, all on the hunt for the “Golden Button” mushroom. We’ve even seen couples in their seventies climbing through all kinds of terrain in search of mushroom gold. Perhaps there is a medicinal and restorative quality about golden buttons they know about. Or because the golden buttons come out in autumn it’s a significant seasonal food and by incorporating them into their diet the mushrooms prepare the body for the winter season ahead. Our different languages make it difficult to find out if this is true. My guess is they would say they like them because they are delicious or they make them feel more at home.
But with all this mushroom foraging going on, I ask, what if people are taking too many? Or do the multitude of mushroom spores make this projection impossible? It brings to mind “The Honorable Harvest” as told by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.
Link to book: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17465709-braiding-sweetgrass
She describes “The Honorable Harvest” something like this (I’m paraphrasing): Never take the first one you find. Introduce yourself and kindly state your intention. Ask permission. Listen as sometimes the answer will be no. Take only what you need. Give thanks and gratitude for what has been offered to you. I think our modern method of agriculture would greatly improve by adopting indigenous wisdom.
For everything mushrooms do and their vital role within an ecosystem, they are also a source of inspiration. Not with a frying pan and a pad of butter, more with paper, pencil, and pigment.
Lobster Mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum)
Other mushroom discoveries kinda just blow our minds. When we first spotted a lobster mushroom from a distance, I thought it was a discarded shopping bag from Mill’s Fleet Farm; its color is so vibrantly retail orange. Actually, this a host mushroom, Russula brevipes and Lactarius piperatus in which bright orange lobster mushroom, Hypomyces lactifluorum is created. While bright colors naturally signal danger, lobster mushrooms are, believe it or not, edible.
The first time we spotted one of these growing out in our backwoods it was the size of a soccer ball. We thought it was an alien pod beamed down from another planet. Strange as they look, puffball mushrooms are edible, too.
However one feels about mushrooms, as ancient organisms that break it all down or part of one’s food culture, fungi are a beneficial, essential part of most of the world’s ecosystems. Mushrooms give our hikes through a forest another dimension. We never know what we’ll find, and that makes it a bit like magic.
Mushrooms happen to be a favorite food of mine and they have a fair amount of protein in them to make a substitute for animal protein. However, it’s wise never to eat a mushroom you don’t know for absolute certain it’s a safe edible. You can never be too careful. Indeed, the mushroom becomes the murder weapon of choice in movies like “The Beguiled” and “Lady Macbeth.” Given that my mushroom ID skills are limited, I’ll collect my mushrooms from the grocery store, farmers’ market or a trusted ’shroomer.