Biology lessons on the trail

The woods are full of food and I’m just starting to learn a little about foraging in the Pacific Northwest. In the spring there’s nettles, dandelion and sumac and in the damp fall and winter: mushrooms.

Mycelium with fruit.

Yesterday we reaped the benefits of a raffle win from a Slow Food/South Whidbey Tilth benefit and joined Ida Gianopulos for a guided mushroom walk. We thought we’d be searching for edible mushrooms but we got so much more in terms of a biology lesson on local fungi.

Wandering through the towering cedars, firs and alders of Saratoga Woods just outside Langley, Ida taught us about the network of fungi that spread out just beneath our feet along the forest floor. A few feet in we gathered around a rotting tree trunk teaming with mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus, along with the fruit it produces, the mushroom. According to our guide, it’s rare to see this in such mass quantities out on the open, normally we only see the mushrooms produced by this sort of decomposing work.

Whether in the kitchen or in the woods, I’ve always loved the mushroom. When my friend Jen and I get opportunities for hikes we love taking pictures of our fungi finds. Our guided hike yielded all kinds of great images, but with Ida’s knowledge we now had names for some of our favorites: witches jelly, red belted polypore, elfin saddle, slippery jack, shaggy parasol, zellers bolete, artists conch, and, the favorite and currently elusive, chanterelles.

Our walk provided a tactical experience too. Some fungi were spongy while others were slimy or crisp. And upon a closer look at each sample we viewed, not all mushrooms had spines or gills. Some, like the slippery jack and zellers bolete had pores and some had tiny teeth under their cap. The artists conch’s spores scratched off easily allowing writing or designs to be drawn under the cap.

“Is it poisonous? Will we die if we eat it?”

I asked this question a lot. Ida recommended that if we planned to forage mushrooms on our own we should use a field guide by American mycologist, David Arora.

The zellers bolete were plentiful along the forest floor. Ida recommended that we take some home to taste test as these were not poisonous. A tell-tale sign she shared was if the mushroom turned blue when scarred, could mean it’s not the best culinary choice. Boletes we were told won’t kill you if you find the wrong kind, but could make your tummy rather unhappy.

We also found some shaggy parasols which we plan to try tonight. So much food availability simply sitting on the forest floor. It was amazing how much we saw as our guide opened our eyes to what is available.

We learned how to identify yellow and winter chanterelles and even found two…. one however had been nibbled on by a forest local. We also learned how to find oyster mushroom which normally grow on alders. We found one large one but it was too far from reach.

Foraging problems.

My husband began getting excited about what mushrooms we could possibly forage from the dense woods on our own property. I kept asking how to keep us from dying.

New forager fears.

As we dive into foraging territory we are so thankful we had a a couple of hours of Ida’s guidance. Looks like we will be purchasing some of Arora’s publications, especially his pocket field guide.

Love shrooms too? Check out photos from our walk on Instagram @LifeintheSound.

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