It was not love at first sight. One misty March morning, while Michael and I were cleaning our lawn of winter’s jetsam, he called my attention to what appeared to be a small gray sponge. “Very nice, dear,” I muttered. Incredulity tightened his vocal cords. “Don’t you know what this is? It’s a morel mushroom!”
“You mean we can eat it?” I asked.
He had my attention. In a few minutes we had discovered a dozen more morels huddled like pointy-hatted gnomes beneath a great cedar. That find, and the meal that followed, fueled a passion for fungi that has had me poking around in the dirt, fast-talking my way onto the property of faintly suspicious ranchers, and tussling with the prickly arms of cedars in search of prize specimens.
In the two years since our initial discovery, I have learned that Texas mushroom territory is practically uncharted. More than half of the fungi here — hybrids similar but not identical to cataloged species that grow elsewhere — are found only in Texas or along the Gulf Coast. A concerted effort to identify and catalog the state’s fungi began ten years ago with the founding of the Texas Mycological Society in Houston, but it will be years before the Texas species are officially classified and published in the literature.
Although mushroom seasons can be as erratic as the weather, the vast majority of fungi appear in summer and fall. A few days after a rain can be a good time to forage. Southeast Texas and the Big Thicket are the state’s mushroom basket, but when the conditions are right, other areas can be rewarding also. Wherever mushrooms grow, they are worth the search, for they come in a variety of fascinating shapes and colors, from a hot-pink corallike formation to a species that resembles a frozen fountain. Foraging can provide an excuse to wander in the wilderness, have a picnic, and improve your powers of observation. Once you’re hooked, the urge to keep adding to your personal list can be irresistible. You never know which of the estimated 10,000 species of North American mushrooms you might discover on the next hollow log.
Ask someone to draw a mushroom, and he will most likely sketch something recognizably close to the grocery store variety, Agaricus bisporus. Even though mushrooms are as varied in appearance as cacti and bluebonnets, the life cycle of an agaric is fairly representative of how mushrooms are born, mature, and die.
The life cycle begins with a spore, the fungal equivalent of a fertilized egg or a seed. Each mushroom produces millions of spores, microscopic bleps of protoplasm. When temperature, moisture, and aeration suit them, the spores burst forth from their cases and germinate; until then, they’d rather wait. Spores dried by scientists at the University of Minnesota in the late nineteenth century, for instance, were discovered 64 years later and moved to a warm, damp comer, where they promptly germinated.
As the spores begin to germinate, they develop a gossamer network of hyphae, transparent tubules rushing with protoplasm, that branch and weave together. The result, a white, flossy mat known as the mycelium, forms the underground portion of the plant. Some fungi, such as truffles, attach themselves to the roots of a living plant, but the mycelium of agarics breaks down dead leaves, trees, and other bits of organic matter. Without mushrooms we would be up to our Resistols in dead trees.
An ever-expanding cable system, the mycelium goes on branching and feeding until suddenly, for reasons mycologists continue to ponder, the hyphae begin a series of elaborate twists and turns as highly coordinated as the halftime show of a marching band, intertwining to form the stalk and cap of the mushroom, which pushes inexorably through the soil with enough force to shift rock.
Some baby mushrooms emerge from the mycelium wholly or partially swaddled in a gauzy veil or membrane. As the stalk elongates and the cap expands, the universal veil is soon stretched to the breaking point, and it leaves behind a cup at the base of the stalk that is known as the volva. Fragments of the veil may also remain as a ragged fringe around the outer edge of the cap, sometimes as scaly flakes on the cap. Another membrane, the partial veil, can leave a shredded ring called the annulus around the stem.
As the gills, or spore plates (the fan of membranes on the underside of the cap), mature, thousands of microscopic clubs, which are known as basidia, form. Every basidium sprouts prongs (typically four, each topped by a spore). When the spores are plump and ripe, they shoot off into the air to generate new fungi, settle on our food as mold, or get up into our noses as allergens.
A mushroom’s progression from birth to death is often completed within days or hours, although its mycelium can live for years. Contrary to popular belief, foraging mushrooms, like picking apples, does nothing to endanger future generations of the plants, unless every specimen is picked every year, preventing new mycelia from being established. Some of the meadow mushrooms growing today in the circular patterns known as fairy rings could have been fruiting when the first cultivated mushroom was grown, during the reign of Louis XIV in seventeenth-century France.
It was not a love of nature but rather Louis’ devotion to the good life that proved the catalyst that led one of his subjects to develop a horse-manure compost that was agreeable to the finicky champignon. Both the French and the English extended that enterprise over the next hundred years, and by the 1900’s Americans were also busy converting abandoned mines, tunnels, and even Hudson Valley icehouses into mushroom farms. The only thing that slowed them down was the increasing scarcity of horse manure, thanks to the Industrial Revolution.
Today even cave farming of mushrooms has evolved into a highly controlled technology, although specially constructed mushroom houses are favored in the U.S. One such house is found in Texas: Monterey Mushrooms (another, Texas Mushrooms Limited of Waxahachie, went out of business in 1985). When Monterey Mushrooms set up housekeeping in Madisonville eleven years ago, fresh mushrooms had never graced the produce bins of most Texas grocery stores. Now the house produces a whopping 15 million pounds of mushrooms a year.
While the French cultivate twenty or more species of mushrooms, American farms grow mainly the neat Agaricus bisporus, a cultivated cousin of the wild meadow mushroom. Only recently have growers started cultivating exotics like shiitake, enoki, oyster, and lobster mushrooms; Chang Hak Kim of Whitewright does a thriving business with specialty stores. All agarics sold in the United States are said to be the direct descendants of a pristine clump of mushrooms discovered by a Pennsylvania farmer in 1926. When those inoffensively bland white fungi proved highly marketable among Americans, who were predisposed toward white bread and sugar, A. bisporus was refined into five shades (and hundreds of strains): pure white, off-white, light cream, cream, and brown. Although the mushrooms are identical in every way except color, subtle differences in shade have been invaluable in dealing with consumer whims. Almost all colors are grown and marketed in California, where aficionados say that brown mushrooms are nuttier in flavor than their pale-skinned relatives. In New England pure whites sell like the Official Preppy Handbook, whereas Texas is a decidedly off-white market. And what of the wishy-washy light creams? One suspects they sell only in election years.
The ultimate temptation of wild mushrooms is to eat them, but it’s a temptation tinged with danger. Though a number of mushrooms are highly prized edibles and many more are harmless, others can make you as sick as a dog and a few can kill you. The novice forager should never eat wild mushrooms without an expert’s advice, preferably backed up by a solid field-guide identification; some of the most desirable species are maddeningly similar to poisonous ones. No unknown fungus should ever be eaten raw or consumed with alcohol, which can compound the effect of certain toxins (some experts say that alcohol in moderation is okay). You should not be greedy and gorge on a discovery; the toxic effect is related to the amount consumed. It is also possible for a person to develop an adverse reaction to a species that he has consumed safely for years.
But don’t let discouraging words keep you from discovering the world of Texas fungi at your feet. Even if you never sauté so much as a slice of a wild mushroom, you can still have a splendid time looking for, identifying, and admiring them. The following are some edible species you have a fair chance of stumbling across in Texas, plus a few to stay well away from.
In the spring, when the earth warms and the first rains fall, the delectable conical fungi known as morels pop up beneath cedars and along wet-weather creeks, generally unseen and unappreciated, left to the ravages of insects or trampled by cattle. Human foragers of this wily fungi consider themselves fortunate to find a dozen table-worthy specimens a season. Even the plentiful harvests in the Pacific Northwest fetch farmers’ market prices as high as $10 a pound. Considered rare and unpredictable in Texas, morels are a prize awarded to the diligent.
A bonus is that once a novice has identified a morel, he isn’t likely to confuse it with another mushroom; the irregularly pitted surface, spongy appearance, and hollow interior are unmistakable characteristics of the genus Morchella. All morels are considered choice edibles, and M. esculenta is the most common and delicious of all. Specimens vary in size (usually three to five inches tall, morels can grow to double that size late in the season), and their colors range from pale gray to yellow-ocher or light olive.
Look for morels from April until June in sandy or clay soils beneath conifers and in burned spots (during medieval times in Europe, peasants burned entire forests in hopes of cultivating morels). Don’t return only to proven gathering areas; the elusive fungi seldom appear in the same location two years running. Familiarize yourself with false morels, like Verpa bohemica (it has a cap like a wrinkled thimble, with elongated grooves or folds rather than pits) and Gyromitra esculenta (see below), before collecting Morchellas to cook. Once you are sure of the identification, carefully wash your morels, slice (the hollow shape slices perfectly into rings), and sauté them in butter. Or leave them whole, stuff with meat and cheese, and bake — morels rellenos.
CONIFER FALSE MOREL
Considered by some connoisseurs to be edible, this false morel is known to contain life-threatening chemicals similar to those found in rocket fuel. Enthusiasts maintain that it is possible to remove the toxins by cooking the mushroom, but they overlook the fact that G. esculenta also contains a potent carcinogen.
Fortunately, G. esculenta is as easily distinguished from a true morel as a Volkswagen Rabbit is from a Beetle. False morels do not have the pitted caps of the Morchellas, but rather a series of ridges, wrinkles, and folds, or lobes, for which these fungi have been nicknamed “brain mushrooms.” A cross section will provide proof positive: morels are hollow; Gyromitras have chambered interiors. Even luckier for foragers, G. esculenta is probably not very common in Texas.
(Bovista pila, Calvatia cyathiformis, Calvatia gigantea)
If some summer or fall morning you should wake up to discover a host of what appear to be Ping-Pong balls blowing across your front lawn, or if you catch a glimpse of something the size and color of a sheep collapsed in your horse pasture, don’t be concerned. It’s probably just an invasion of puffballs brought on by a recent rain. The giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea), usually the size of a soccer ball, is less common than either the tumbling puffball (Bovista pila), which has a white outer skin, or the purple-spored Calvatia cyathiformis, which is tannish outside and sits on a violet cup.
Despite their diversity, all true puffballs have a round shape and solid interiors, which start out white and darken to yellow, olive-green, or even purple as the spores dry. When the interiors are immature and white, they are edible. Caution should be taken, however, not to confuse a puffball with the button stage of a poisonous amanita — a cross section of an amanita button will reveal the baby mushroom within; puffballs are solid. (Note also that B. pila is not a true puffball, but it is edible.)
Chiefly meadow dwellers with a fondness for manicured lawns and golf courses, puffballs are common throughout North America from July through November. The choice edible C. cyathiformis is frequently sighted in Texas in the Big Thicket. When fully grown, puffballs belch their powdery spores into the air. Were it not for the fact that the majority of the giant puffball’s spores fall on hard times and fail to germinate, this meaty fungus, which takes readily to breading and frying, might already have replaced chicken-fried steak at the local cafe.
Agaricus arvensis, the horse mushroom, is known as a close relative of A. bisporus, the domestic mushroom you can safely forage in the produce department of grocery stores. A spicier version of its packaged relation, the longer and leaner horse mushroom sports a slightly scaly cap and prefers to live in fields and pastures, where it often springs up in fairy rings. Although it has a predilection for grassy compost areas, A. arvensis is as genteel as its sanitized cousin. It can be distinguished by its elegant almonds-and-anise scent, and it rebuffs rough handling by bruising yellow. Nutty in flavor, it is an edible that should be taken only by experienced foragers; the ragged collar and white gills of certain poisonous amanitas are dead ringers for the pale gray gills of young A. arvensis. It is true that amanita gills remain whitish and those of the horse mushroom soon darken to a charcoal-brown, but anyone harvesting its paler, immature fruit bodies for veal aux champignons should make a spore print (see below). The print of an amanita is white, and that of the horse mushroom is blackish brown.
A snowbird of the mushroom world, Pleurotus sapidus is one of a complex of species partial to the mild winters of Texas; sometimes it sticks around all year long. More common in Texas than its well-known cousin the oyster mushroom (P. ostreatus), the cornucopia oyster is equally delicious, though its variable appearance can make it difficult to identify. In warm months the caps of both the oyster and the cornucopia oyster are white, flat, and spatula-shaped; in fall and winter those of the oyster round off and assume a shell shape and a brown hue.
Usually attached to the stumps or trunks of deciduous trees by a lateral or off- center gilled stalk, the cornucopia is distinguishable from the oyster mushroom chiefly by its lilac spore print. The oyster’s print is white. Both mushrooms are coveted edibles when harvested while young (they toughen with age), and they are two of the few wild mushrooms easily cultivated. Write Kurtzman’s Mushroom Specialties of Berkeley (445 Vassar Avenue, Berkeley, California 94708) for a grow- your-own-oysters kit and join the FFA (fungi farmers of America).
Virginal white, as beautiful as it is deadly, the amanita known as the destroying angel (Amanita virosa) is among the three dozen species of amanitas in Texas. Two others (A. vema and A. bisporigera) look so similar to the angel that they are often grouped with it. Many other amanitas are just as dangerous. This genus has caused more deaths than all other mushrooms combined. You should know amanitas — white, red, brown, and green-so you can avoid them.
When young, all amanitas have a membrane called the universal veil, which stretches from the top of the cap to the bottom of the stem. It gives the baby mushrooms an oval, egglike appearance and provides their most easily recognized adult characteristic. In a mature amanita the veil’s remnants form a membrane, the volva, at or around the base, like an eggshell-shaped cup. The veil may also leave patches, or warts, on the cap. Another structure, the partial veil, can leave a membrane around the edge of the cap or stalk, like a tiny skirt or a ragged collar.
The volva is one of the three positive identifying signs of an amanita, but it can be torn or concealed by soil or debris. A forager who fails to dig up the entire stem of an unknown mushroom, including some of the surrounding soil, to see if a volva is present, could be flirting with danger. Besides the volva, amanitas have white spores (which you ascertain by making a spore print) and free gills (the gills grow out of the cap and do not touch the stalk). Also, an examination under a microscope reveals that the spores do not have a pore at the apex.
Prevalent in Texas throughout the summer and into the fall, amanitas are found under or near trees, usually in sandy or acidic soil. Angels stand three to eight inches tall, with caps two to five inches wide, and they glow with a compelling whiteness; they also have a nasty, yeasty odor. Deceptively dilatory, these angels of death offer no symptoms of poisoning for 6 to 24 hours after they have been eaten. By then, treatment may be too late.
A member of the order that could have given birth to the Blob, this rubbery, lobed fungus is likely to turn up along decaying logs, especially conifers, at any time of the year. In Texas it is especially fond of rainy winters and early springs. Reddish brown and slightly translucent in appearance, it has no stem or gills, and its silky surface is distinguished by a series of waves and ridges. In general, the tree-ear resembles the ears of some bats. Edible when young for those who don’t find the mushrooms’ appearance off-putting, mild-flavored tree-ears add texture to salads, omelets, and stir-fried vegetables. Unfortunately, the members of the group found in Texas are not known to share the healthful properties assigned to the mo-ehr (“small ear” or “cloud ear”), a Chinese cousin sold in oriental groceries and said to contribute to the low incidence of heart disease in that country.
The order of the jelly fungi, to which the tree-ear belongs, is quite benign — its members are not known to be toxic. Although they vary in looks, all are gelatinous to rubbery. With a microscope, you can confirm identification by inspecting the basidia, which are segmented or resemble tiny tuning forks.
If dead trees were left to rot naturally in suburbia, doubtless we would find Hericium ramosum, nicknamed the “comb tooth” fungus by the Audubon Society mushroom guide, in our back yards. But our mania for hauling off logs means that we are likely to find this white chandelierlike fungus only in forests and woods, where it appears from August through October.
All of the known species of the genus are edible when young, and they are easy to identify. The comb tooth, whose irregular “teeth” have a random, fringy quality that belies its name, is the most common. Two cousins, H. coralloides and H. erinaceus, have teeth that more closely resemble those of a comb, regularly spaced and downward growing. The spore prints of all three are white.
Springing from a downed tree, H. ramosum appears as a large, white, toothy mass of branches with numerous tufty “spines.” The stubby stalk can scarcely be seen amid the mass, which may spread from four to ten inches. sauté them in butter for a woodland hors d’oeuvre.
TOOLS OF THE HUNT- A FORAGER’S CHECKLIST
You can go out and look at mushrooms anytime without planning ahead, but if you want to collect them, you will need a few items to help you along.
A plastic garbage bag or a painter’s drop cloth can be spread on the ground to protect the recumbent forager-photographer from poison ivy and mud. When a sudden shower occurs, you can turn the bag or drop cloth into an instant rain poncho simply by cutting a neck hole. A two-pronged dandelion digger or a trowel is an ideal digging utensil for making sure that you collect the entire specimen. A pocketknife or a kitchen knife is handy for a number of tasks: collecting woody shelf mushrooms (like the cornucopia oyster), obtaining a cross section of a specimen, cutting a hole in your garbage bag.
The best way to preserve specimens is to wrap each one in a cylinder of waxed paper, along with your field notes on that specimen, and twist each end of the cylinder closed. Such wrapping protects specimens from damage and from contact with one another (especially important if you are gathering poisonous and edible fungi). Never wrap mushrooms in plastic or stuff them into plastic bags. Without air they decay rapidly. You’ll also want paper and pen to record information about the site where you find a specimen — notes about trees, soil, and anything else that might be of help in later positive identification. A hand-held magnifier will give you a good look at gills and other characteristics (also any bugs, spiders, and molds of interest). Take a camera to record your specimen in its native habitat before picking. You could also just collect photos and no fungi; that’s much less to carry. A close-up lens is useful.
It may seem odd, but you never know when you’ll need a whistle. The Texas Mycological Society once lost a forager in a national forest and had to call out the park rangers to find him. A whistle can keep you from getting lost or help you find a strayed buddy. A basket or a box comes in handy for stashing your bounty. A divided box is ideal since you can use half for your gear, half for your specimens. Baskets and boxes — even buckets — are preferable to sacks, because they will not get crushed. Whatever you use, attach a shoulder strap so your hands can remain free. An obvious necessity is a field guide (see bibliography). Plastic covers for the books are most practical. Finally, for creature comfort, be sure to take a hat, a water bottle, and insect repellent.
Once you find a specimen, you may need a spore print for positive identification. To make one, cut off the stalk of the mushroom close to the cap. Set the cap, gills down, on a piece of paper that is half black and half white (tape two pieces together); white or pale spores are more easily viewed on dark paper. Cover the cap with a glass, or — if you are in the field — wrap the paper and cap in wax paper. Many mushrooms will drop their spores within hours, but some must be left overnight. The useful field guides note the color of a specimen’s spore print and the size, shape, and color of its spores, which can be seen under a microscope.
For the names of mushroom groups, write the Texas Mycological Society, 7445 Dillon Street, Houston 77061. You may also sign up for the society’s annual Big Thicket mushroom foray in October. The society was formed in 1976 to catalog Texas fungi and to train novices to identify mushrooms.
SELECTED FIELD-GUIDE BIBLIOGRAPHY
Lincoff, Gary H. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. $13.50. Has 756 color photos, more than any other guide, but the pictures are not opposite the text. The pictures are arranged by appearance rather than by family, as in other guides.
Miller, Orson K., Jr. Mushrooms of North America. E. P. Dutton, 1979. $16.95, cloth; $12.50, paper. Includes more than 680 species, with full descriptions of 422. More than 280 species are photographed in color. Probably the second-best source for Texas species.
Pacioni, Giovanni. Simon and Schuster’s Guide to Mushrooms. Gary Lincoff, U.S. editor. Simon and Schuster, 1981. $9.95. Has color photos and information on 420 mushrooms and other fungi of Europe and the United States. Logical and easy to use.
Weber, Nancy Smith, and Alexander H. Smith. A Field Guide to Southern Mushrooms. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1985. $16.50. Some say that this is the best guide for Texas mushrooms, especially those in the eastern half of the state. The illustrations of 241 species are all in color.