Saturday, June 7, 2008

Mushroom Hunter’s Tools: The Walking Stick

The Mushroom Hunter's Tools segment explores some common (and not so common) tools of the hobby. Let's take a look at what our bearded friend below has got in his hand . . .

Gandalf here has a good idea. Now, I’m not suggesting that the average mushroom hunter should invest in a magical staff to aid in the casting of spells (although more power to you if you can do it ;p). However, a walking stick can be a valuable tool for any MH that frequently hikes in the woods.

What are the advantages to having a walking stick?

  • Having a walking stick can obviously help the MH keep his balance in situations where this would normally be very difficult. I can’t tell you how many times a trusty walking stick has saved me from a serious fall in my usual foraging spots.

  • Using a walking stick to discretely poke around underbrush, leaves, and even mushrooms is an even more important reason to keep one with you. Having stumbled upon several Copperheads and Rattlesnakes (both types of snakes are common to my area), I can say that a walking stick has also saved me from a few snake bites and other hazards. You never know what can be lying below the leaves or even the next mushroom cap.

  • They simply look cool. Who doesn’t want to think of themselves as the sagely mycologist as he scours the land for prize finds? . . . Ok maybe I’m the only one who thinks like that . . . ;p

MH walking sticks can come in many different makes, shapes, and sizes. I’ve seen and used everything from sticks I’ve found in the woods to four foot long metal poles (nicknamed the rocking stick) and everything in between. Some MHs I know have taken great care in carving and personalizing their walking stick. The stick becomes very symbolic, just like a MH’s basket. Exactly what you choose to help your hunting – if you use anything at all – is completely up to you.

Dried Shroom: Preventing Premature Decay

The Dried Shroom is a series covering the many different ways MHs can preserve their mushroom finds.

So what exactly is premature decay? It's a term that the other contributors and I have coined to describe mushroom decay that happens before a mushroom hunter is able to preserve his or her find. Confused? Have you ever gotten home only to find that one or more of your mushrooms are browner, withered, or even a pile of dark goo at the bottom of your basket? That is premature decay.

But how did this happen? Well, as we know, mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of their particular fungi. As far as fruiting bodies, mushrooms are often short lived - sometimes extremely short lived. With that in mind there may be several reasons why your finds look worse for wear - high temperatures, high humidity, lack of ventilation, and physical damage can all lead to premature decay to some extent. Each one of these factors can accelerate the decomposition of typical organic material . . . so it is even more likely that they would affect a mushroom. This is due to the mushroom's high water content and often delicate nature of it's features. Simply put, a mushroom just wan't meant to have a whole lot of staying power.

So how can you prevent premature decay from happening to you? Minimize the factors that cause it:

  • Humidity is a factor that MHs can have little control over (at least not unless you keep a portable refrigerator on hand). I suggest you focus on the other three factors in order or reduce or prevent premature decay.
  • The temperature is something MHs can have marginal control over with judicial use of a towel or basket top - anything to keep your 'caps out of the sun. Remeber, direct sunlight is a recepie for mushroom jello!
  • A broken or bruised mushroom is much more likely to suffer from premature decay than a healthy one. You can prevent physical damage to specimens by using a material like wax paper or basket sections to minimize jostling.
  • In my experience, the biggest cause of premature decay is a lack of ventilation or breathable material in what you are using to transport finds. Although it would seem like a good idea to take along Tupperware containers or ziplock bags to contain and organize your finds, this will actually increase the chances of premature decay. These can limit ventilation and, in turn, do nothing to help the humidity and temperature within these containers. Instead I suggest the use of wax paper and a wicker basket. Both of these materials allow your finds to be organized and transported while still allowing them to be well ventilated.
  • Also, you should consider the "hardiness" (read as resistant to decay) of any species you are gathering. If you are collecting relatively hardy species then you shouldn't have to worry too much about the lenght of your hunt. However, if you are collecting short lived or quickly decaying species, no amount of hunting precautions will save your finds - it's best to get home as quick as possible to save your them!
By using the above methods the average MH should be able to minimize or prevent premature decay. Do you have any other suggestions for keeping your mushrooms safe on the trip home?

Mushroom Hunter's Tools: Wax Paper

The Mushroom Hunter's Tools segment explores some common (and not so common) tools of the hobby. Today we'll feature one of the more common materials used safeguard our finds - wax paper.

In the last installment of Mushroom Hunter's tools we learned that a basket with sections can be useful when you need to separate different species of mushrooms. Well what if your container doesn't have sections or dividing features at all? Enter wax paper! This common kitchen amenity can solve much of the disorganization mushroom hunters often face by simply wrapping individual mushrooms or groups. What are the benefits of using wax paper?
Here are a few:

  • As stated above wax paper can be used to separate mushrooms into either individuals or groups. This makes an accidental mix up very unlikely.
  • The wax paper protects specimens from the jostling damage they would likely receive during your journey home. Incidentally this can also help your chances of getting an accurate spore print when you get home. (Nothing is more annoying than having to wait for a spore print that will never happen!)
  • The paper can be written on, further organizing your growing collection. This becomes especially useful when you are collecting many different species.
  • Wax paper is, by nature, a breathable material. Using this instead of something like a ziplock will insure that your mushrooms stay fresh till you can get them home to properly preserve or cook them. Read more about preventing premature mushroom decay here.
So whether you are looking to protect your finds from hiking damage or you are looking to better organize them, wax paper is a good place to start.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Glossary of Terms

Note: The following post is not meant to be a definitive list of mycological terms, but a constantly evolving set of common names, abbreviations, and terms that both novice mushroom hunter and advanced mycologist can use as a reference. All links currently lead to wikipedia.

Agaric - the mycological term for a fruiting body of fungus which has a pileus (typically referred to as the cap), stipe (stalk or stem), and lamellae (gills). i.e. the typical mushroom.

Annulus - the mycological term for a remnant of a partial veil. This is often a key identifying feature of wild mushrooms. See also: skirt.

Button - the common term for an immature mushroom. A button is often covered by a partial or universal veil.

Cap - the common term for the saucer-like structure that sits atop the stipe of a mushroom. The lamella are typically located underneath this structure. See also: pileus.

Fairy Ring - the name for a group of mushrooms that form a circle or oval shaped fruiting pattern. This is often caused by the natural circular growth of the mycelium underneath the ground.

Gills - the common term for the plate-like structures underneath the pileus (cap) of mushrooms. These structures harbor spores until they are mature. See also: lamella.

Lamella - the mycological term for the plate-like structures underneath the pileus (cap) of mushrooms. These structures harbor spores until they are mature. See also: gills.

LBM - abbrev. of little brown mushroom.

Little Brown Mushroom - one of a number of smaller brown or dust colored agaric species which have few unique identifying characteristics. This makes it difficult to identify specimens without the use of a microscope and a deep understanding of each genus or group. This is why most amateur mushroom hunters simply refer to them as LBM's.

MH - abbrev. of mushroom hunter.

Mushroom - the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus. Although this term is most accurately associated with agaric species, most mushroom hunters use the term "mushroom to refer to any fruiting body.

Mushroom Hunting - the process of finding mushrooms in their wild environment. One who hunts mushrooms is a mushroom hunter.

Mycelium - the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae. Mycelium can be compared to the roots of a tree or plant as it performs the same function.

Mycology - the study of mushrooms. One who studies mycology is called a mycologist.

Mycophagy - The act of eating fungi - especially mushrooms. One who eats mushrooms is called a mycophagist.

Mycophobia - The fear of mushrooms - particularly eating them.

Parasite - a term used to describe fungi which obtain their sustenance from living tissue.

Premature Decay - a term used to describe mushroom decay that happens before the mushroom hunter has a chance to properly preserve his or her find.

Pileus - the mycological term for the saucer-like structure that sits atop the stipe of a mushroom. The lamella are typically located underneath this structure. See also: cap.

Saprotroph - a term used to describe fungi which obtain their sustenance from dead or decaying matter.

Skirt - the common term for the remnant of a partial veil. This is often a key identifying feature of wild mushrooms. See also: annulus.

Spore - the reproductive structure of fungi. These are comparable to the seeds of typical plants.

Spore Print - a process in which an imprint of the spores and gills of a capped mushroom is left on a medium (commonly plain black or white paper). This process leaves something much like a mushroom fingerprint and reveals the spore color of the mushroom in question. Spore printing is often a key step in identifying some species.

Stipe - the mycological term for the stalk or stem of a mushroom.

Veil, partial - the mycological term for a fungal structure which runs from either the base or middle of the stipe to the edge of pileus during the development of a mushroom. This veil protects the stipe and lamella while the mushroom matures. Once the mushroom reaches an appropriate size the veil ruptures and may leave remnants that become the volva and the annulus (although not always).

Veil, universal - the mycological term for a fungal structure which covers the entire mushroom during its development.
This veil protects the entire mushroom as it matures. Once the mushroom reaches an appropriate size the veil ruptures and may leave remnants that become the volva, the annulus, and warts or patches on the pileus (although not always).

Volva - the mycological term for the cup-like structure at the base of the stalk of some mushrooms. This cup is a remnant of a partial or universal veil and is often a crucial identifying feature of wild mushrooms.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Mushroom Hunter's Tools: The Flat Bottom Basket

The Mushroom Hunter's Tools segment explores some common (and not so common) tools of the hobby. In this post we will take a look at one of the most basic tools in a hunter's tool belt - the flat bottom basket.

So you are romping through the woods and stumble upon the mother load of mushroom finds. After inspecting some individuals closely you find that they are none other than yellow morels. Great! . . . but how do you carry your lucky find home? Most seasoned mushroom hunters will agree that a flat bottomed basket is the container of choice. What's more, many hunters will, over time, become attached to their basket. The basket becomes more than just "what they carry mushrooms with" and becomes more symbolic - kind of like the knight's sword, so to speak. But enough of that hokey stuff . . .

So why do mushroom hunters like baskets so much?

  • They are light, which can be a real boon when hiking during the late summer months.
  • The are cheap - even the nicest basket will cost less than $10 and can be found at most hobby and craft stores.
  • They can be easily replaced if they are damaged. (Se the above reason ;p)
  • Their realitively open construction allows the mushrooms to breathe. This becomes extremely important when dealing with species that quickly decompose.

So what should the potential MH look for when choosing his Excalibur? Here are some things that both Travis and I look for in a basket:
  • A wide and (obviously) flat bottom. This will allow you to keep many more specimens without having to stack them uneccisarily. Also, having a flat bottom will minimize rolling around. This can be a big help when heavy hiking can potentially mix specimens up.
  • Sides that are at least 8'' tall. This will keep your find inside while keeping the overall size of the basket down.
  • A short to medium sized handle. While those huge looping handles may be good for Easter baskets, a novice MH will soon realize that carrying your finds so low to the ground can be a real pain. Especially when an errant root or rock decides to trip you up!
  • A non-solid make (like woven wicker) makes an ideal material for a MH's basket. This will allow the specimens to "breathe" while also allowing small particles of dirt and leaves pass through the cracks. A basket of solid make can prove hard to clean indeed!
  • A basket that is separated into 2 or more sections can prove useful when trying to separate different species. This is especially important when trying new species/identifications for the first time.*
  • A matter of personal taste: Personally I prefer a basket without a hinged handle (read as picnic basket). Others, however, may find hinged handles easier to deal with while hunting.
As you can probably tell, I believe that the image above is an example of a perfect basket. Of course, you may find that you prefer different features, or even a different medium altogether. If you have any tips or suggestions for holding your finds feel free to post a comment below and tell us about them!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Awesome Fungi: Glowing Mycena!

Each week, Awesome Fungi puts the spotlight on a mushroom species that is simply awesome. This week we take a look at a species of Mycena:

National Geographic recently featured an article that introduced these glowing beauties which were recently discovered in Brazil. According to NG, this species of Mycena has developed bio biluminescent properties. Visit the link to read the article about this interesting and fungus.
Note: clicking on the pictures in the left-hand column of the article reveals more of the article.

Incidentally, another mushroom in the "glowing awesomeness" category is the "Jack O' Lantern" mushroom (Omphalotus illudens). They are called this because, when full grown, they resemble a large group of pumpkins. What makes these mushrooms particularly interesting is that, under perfect conditions - a dreary, rainy, and dark day - these mushrooms will give off a faint green light from their gills, which is due to the fact that these mushrooms contain small amounts of the same chemical(luciferase) that fireflies have in their tails.

However, if you find some and simply must see this interesting effect, you can try to recreate it on your own. Pick one(they are most commonly found on rotting stumps in early/mid fall, around Halloween, coincidentally), mist it lightly with water, and take it into a pitch-black room for about 5-15 minutes(or long enough for your eyes to adjust to darkness). Although the mushroom will give off a very faint glow, remember that nature does a much better job at this.

Do you know of any other mushrooms that fall under the "glowing awesomeness" category?

Safety First: 5 Different Interpretations of the Golden Rule

The Safety First series takes a look at the dangers of mushroom hunting and how hobbyists can avoid these dangers.

"When in doubt, throw it out!"

This phrase is often regarded as the most important advice any potential shroomer can take into consideration. In my opinion, this distinction is well deserved. One can never be too careful when foraging for your own mushrooms . . . here are some interpretations of the rule to consider before you toss that newest find into the frying pan:

  1. Unlike hobbies like, say blogging, a mistake in the identification of a mushroom isn't a situation that can be corrected by a simple backspace or edit. A mistake in the mushroom hunting hobby can range from a night over the toilet, to serious hospitalization, or even death - hence the motto!
  2. As always, you should be aware of any potential look-alikes and be COMPLETELY sure that the mushroom you have is not one of them. (On the rare occasion that you happen across an edible look alike, it is still a good idea to know what you are getting into.)
  3. Be careful when adding buttons to your basket. Very young specimens may not have fully developed all the typical identifying characteristics of their species.
  4. Much like my last tip, very old species can be a hazard as well. Not only can many of their identifying characteristics be faded or completely missing (rings, veil specks on the cap, etc.) but the specimen can be infested with bugs! I don't know about you, but getting a mouthful of bugs when I'm expecting sweet mushroom bliss would ruin my day.
  5. Be on constant alert for signs of an inappropriate environments while foraging. These include but are not limited to areas of industrial/city runoff, treated fields/crops, and areas within ~100ft of a major highway. Just like you wouldn't by tomatoes covered in pesticide More on this later.*
Although most novice mushroom hunters will be conscious of the first two concepts, I have found that fewer hobbyists consider the last three. Do any of you have any other interpretations of the Golden Rule? Feel free to leave a comment and tell us about it!