Mushrooms (A Lovesong)

Martin Osis leading a mushroom forayMy mind is still reeling from the Labour Day weekend, when Lisa and I attended the Great Alberta Foray in the Bow and Kananaskis valleys. The foray was run by the Alberta Mycological Society.

One month ago, I didn’t know what mushrooms were. Of course I had cooked and eaten them, but I didn’t understand, for instance, their anatomy (why do they have gills?) or their role in my front lawn (why do they grow in rings?).

Here are some mushroom basics I learned that weekend.

1. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi.

I was sure of one fact before attending the foray: mushrooms are fungi. (Mycologists, however, pronounce the word with a soft “g”, which precludes any “fun guy” homophone jokes.) “Mushrooms are fungi” is actually a misleading statement, as the visible, fleshy mushrooms we all know are only a small part of the fungal organism. Beneath the mushroom, in the substrate, which may be soil or a dead tree or an old shoe, is a network of microscopic fibers called hyphae. There can be 2km of hyphae in a square centimeter.[1] These strands collect water and nutrients from the environment. The mushroom is just the fruiting body of the fungus. It pops out of the ground or tree and ejects spores into the air. The gills on familiar grocery-store mushrooms are fertile, spore-producing ridges. However:

2. Not all mushrooms have gills.

These spore-producing layers come in all types. Some mushrooms have teeth instead of gills. The Hericium ramosom is a branched mushroom covered in tiny teeth, making it look like a miniature shrub covered with hoarfrost, or perhaps a piece of white coral.  Others have rough folds beneath the cap, or a spongy layer full of holes.  Some don’t have exposed fertile layers at all. The puffball, for example, produces its spores in a golfball-sized sack.

One mushroom we saw looked like a red eyelid wearing black mascara, growing on a dead tree. I have no idea where its spores are produced…

I could go on all day with these clumsy descriptions. What I mean to say is that I was shocked by the diversity of mushrooms that were more or less in plain sight around our camp. The smells and tastes were as varied and exotic as the appearances.  We cooked with a mushroom that smells strongly of seafood.  By divine providence, it is also bright orange, and so is called a lobster mushroom.

Not only are mushrooms extremely various:

3. There are mushrooms everywhere.

While I have occasionally noticed mushrooms while walking, I had never purposefully looked for them before this foray.  Once I started looking groundward, I saw them every few paces.

To give you an idea of how common mushrooms are: 90% of all plants have a symbiotic relationship with fungi.[2] Wherever there are plant roots, there are fungal hyphae. The hyphae collect water and mineral nutrients for the plants in return for sweet, sweet glucose. This is called a mycorrhizal relationship (Greek for “mushroom-root,” I think).

The strong relationship between plants and fungi is one of the major obstacles in mushroom cultivation. Of the thousands of species of mushrooms in the world, very few are cultivated. Several of the most prized edible mushrooms, like morels, truffles, chanterelles, and matsutakes, are mycorrhiza. To cultivate truffles, for instance, you essentially need to cultivate an oak forest for them to grow alongside.

How to get into mushrooms.

Most of us are mistrustful of mushrooms. Yes, several are poisonous, and not in boring ways like arsenic or cyanide. For example: mushrooms of the Cortinarius genus contain a toxin that stops the neogenesis of kidney cells. After consumption of the toxin, your kidneys continue to work fine, but as old cells die none are built to replace them. It sounds like something from a CSI episode, but after a few weeks your kidneys suddenly fail.

Don’t let stories like this scare you away from mushrooms. The Leni Schalkwijk Memorial Foray was one of the most interesting culinary and intellectual experiences I’ve had in years. Enjoyment is a simple matter of practicing safe mushrooming.

If you’re interested in learning more about mushrooms, Martin Osis, the president of the Alberta Mycological Society, gives the following advice.

  • Buy a good field guide.  Field guides list the characteristics of the most common wild mushrooms, identifiers such as size, colour, how the gills are attached to the stem, what tree the mushroom grows by, and so on. All of these characteristics must match for a positive identification, as mushrooms often have near-identical look-alikes. I think the most interesting technique for identification is spore-printing: leaving gilled-mushrooms gills-down on a white piece of paper for a couple hours and then observing the colour of the spores that collect on the paper. The print forms in the radial shape of the gills, and can range in colour from yellow to purple to brown to white.
  • Pick with experienced foragers.  Mushroom identification is certainly a field of study that requires mentorship. Even with a detailed field guide, I was completely stumped by most of the mushrooms I came across (“Is that spore print dark brown or chocolate brown? Do these gills feel waxy?”)
  • Join a mycological society.
  • Take a mushroom course.  NAIT has recently joined forces with the Alberta Mycological Society to offer a course on Alberta wild mushrooms.
  • Use scientific names.  While common names may seem descriptive, they are much less precise than scientific names. Plus they vary across time and place. For instance, in Alberta the common name “destroying angel” (probably the most bad-ass mushroom name…) refers to Amanita virosa. Down east the handle refers to Amanita bisporegia.
  • Keep field notes with pictorial record. The more information you record from each foray, the more tools you will have to aid in the identification process.


1. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. ©2004 Scribner, New York. Page 345.
2. I read this little factoid on a poster published by the Alberta Mycological Society. Not a very academic citation, I guess, but good enough for my purposes.