On the hunt for fungi

The beautiful sunset colors of the American Caesar mushroom are unmistakable. Ali Akhyari found this one while playing a round of disc golf.

They have been used as a weapon to both impress kings and to dethrone leaders. They’ve been the muse and inspiration for many artists. They have saved countless lives with their contributions to medicine. They have even been a part of our Saturday morning cartoon ritual. Remember the Smurfs and their crazy houses?

Intertwined with human existence on a myriad of levels since before recorded history, mushrooms are all around us. They have the unfortunate association of a “fungus,” which brings an unpleasantness to most minds. However, they can be as beautiful as any flower, deceitful as a magician and as mysterious as a sprite.

They come in many shapes colors, sizes and entertaining names. Black trumpets, chanterelles, American Caesars, corpse finders, witch’s butter and pigskin poison puffballs are just a few of the crazy monikers one may encounter in the world of mushroom hunting.

When you start to get to know them, they are very interesting.

Recently, scientists have suggested that trees and other plants actually use the world of mushrooms to communicate with each other. Odds are, when you walk outside, then you are probably walking on top of the mycelium of a mushroom: long vermicular parts of a mushroom that trees can use like telephone cables to call each other.

In the Lowcountry, mushrooms enjoy the same semi-tropical weather that draws the rest of the world here. Living on the coast makes it easy to start finding mushrooms once you start looking because they are so abundant.

Like humans, different mushrooms have different tendencies. Some mushrooms like sandy soil. Some mushrooms only grow on dead pine versus oak. Have you ever seen tiny red mushrooms on a magnolia tree cone? Congratulations! You have found the magnolia cone mushroom, often classified in the “small and fragile” mushroom group. You’ve already checked off one mushroom on your hunter list!

While they certainly pique interest with their wild lifestyles and flashy clothes, mushrooms are also foot soldiers in the never-ending cycle of life, decomposing the world beneath our feet. They enrich the soil, break down dead plant life and provide a nursery for new plants.

The real question is not how to find mushrooms. The question is more likely what kind of mushroom you have found. Of course, once you are on the hunt for a particular mushroom, details will address the former question. However, for the one simply interested in getting started, you can start with an identification book. Success is guaranteed.

I personally started with and use the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms.” What I like about this particular guide is that there are pages dedicated to the basics of mushroom identification, maps for expected mushroom ranges, an easy to use identification key and lots of information on individual mushrooms, which includes look-a-likes, to help improve confidence in identification. A great companion book is one that focuses on mushrooms of the Southeastern United States. For serious foragers and hunters, cross-referencing is essential to positively identifying mushrooms, and books that focus on our area can be a huge help as the same mushroom may look a little different and appear at different times of the year than the same mushroom in Vermont or California. I like “Mushrooms of the Southeastern United States” published by Syracuse University Press.

In order to identify mushrooms, one must take into account a variety of factors such as season, location, size, colors, cap, veil, gills, stem, spore prints and even sometimes microscopic measurements. A good guide book will provide plenty of information to get started on all those fronts.

Please remember, eating wild mushrooms is extremely dangerous, even for experienced foragers. As you explore the world of mushroom hunting, keep this in mind if you’re tempted to taste any of your finds.

If you find yourself wondering about some crazy mushroom you passed on the sidewalk or that popped up in the woodpile in your backyard, don’t let the mystery end there. Introduce yourself, discover its name and get to know it. Welcome to the mushroom hunters club.

Ali Akhyari is a South Carolina Master Naturalist and an outdoor recreation specialist with the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission.