In praise of the wild mushroom

by Jim Wells

This article was originally published in September 2006

Wild Mushrooms

(September 2006) — I am a mycophile — a mushroom lover. Hunting them is my passion. Whatever I have not yet done in the wild world of mushrooms, I hope to.

I also feel good participating in a Pacific Northwest business that has evolved over many decades to become an important component of the rural economy. Unlike extracting wild plants, such as old-growth trees, mushroom harvesting can be environmentally gentle.

Ninety percent of the organism’s “body” is a web of microscopic filaments (mycelium) below the surface. Under certain conditions, it thickens and blooms, producing mushrooms as “fruit.” Picking wild mushrooms is akin to picking apples.

Until about 20 years ago, the vast majority of commercial pickers operated in their local areas. Wild mushroom habitat was abundant and the scale of commerce small. Pickers tried not to infringe on one another’s “patches.”

Meeting as neighbors, they often shared advice and stories of picking successes and disappointments. They saw mushroom hunting as an integral part of being closely tied to the wilds, though their money-making time was spent mostly in other industries. Many were seasonal — loggers or teachers, for example. Some were hermits whose picking helped finance an independent lifestyle. There were retirees, school kids, farm wives and others who may or may not have needed the money, and low-income families to whom any money made all the difference in the world.

Rural sustainability
About 1985, things began to change. Habitat disruption accelerated due to logging and development. Foreign markets, facing increased demand with supply shortfalls, became willing to pay higher prices.

Economic opportunity drew more pickers into the woods. The ranks of all types of pickers swelled. Displaced forestry workers, Vietnam veterans, and methamphetamine abusers joined in.

Some of the newcomers were locals seeing mushroom hunting as the old-timers did. But most had other priorities. Their lives on the economic margins produced desires and habits geared more toward surviving today than toward a long-term vision of community. Those from other cultures tended to have social systems for gathering that made it possible to pick far more mushrooms per unit area than had been gathered historically.

This fueled intense picking competition — not only human to human. Herds of elk— previously known to graze on hundreds of pounds of matsutake mushrooms surrounding a picker sharing in their take — became nowhere to be seen. Elk are one of the many critters that seem to play important roles in the continued existence of mushrooms. Forestlands shut down to legal picking in many areas. Meanwhile, pickers became ever more accustomed to making more and more money.

These trends led to increasing social tensions and habitat disruptions as pickers concentrated. Domestic and gambling disputes played out in camps and in the field more often. Public land managers and law enforcement used these problems to rationalize bigger budgets and to generate revenues through permits and fines, at a time when timber cutting was declining from its heyday. Pickers’ costs rose and territorial feelings rose even faster.

In response, pickers fanned out to discover more areas of habitat — successfully — but the same spiral of degradation quickly played out in those places, too. Similar scenarios were repeated all over the globe until perhaps 100,000 pickers, plus the Chinese army, were practiced at scouring vast numbers of square miles of ground, bringing the inevitable. Supply began to meet demand, lowering prices to the pickers.

Without the lure of riches, Pacific Northwest mushroom grounds may once again become more the province of neighbors and animals living closely tied to the wilds, making healthy, sustainable, rural economy easier to achieve. But public policy changes would still be in order. Regional inhabitants who, during the last 20 years, have relied on wild mushroom picking (particularly chanterelle) as part of their community lifeways, have watched mushroom habitats be severely disrupted by land management choices that have failed to recognize the importance of fungi.

In my view, mushrooms are as important to our future well-being as anything can be.

The worldwide web
It has become generally understood that soil microbes play key roles in the provision of nutrients for plants, but now it’s beginning to be glimpsed that mycelia form symbiotic relationships with most vascular plants, and also with those microbes. Fungi play not only an essential role as decomposers, but also feed plants and animals directly. The mycelial web seems akin to the “worldwide web” — the connecting system between all the Earth’s other inhabitants.

Mushrooms have zero fat and more protein than any vegetable except soybeans — they are also an especially good source for vitamin D.

“Mat-forming” fungi (most that are symbiotic with trees are this type) stimulate trees’ roots to grow preferentially where the mats are. Precious droplets of moisture exude from the tips of their mycelium, where bacteria and fungal enzymes dissolve rocks. The fungus uptakes the dissolved minerals and transports them to the tree roots.

Mycologist Paul Stamets, founder of Fungi Perfecti in Olympia, reports that when broccoli and Brussels sprouts are mulched with sawdust inoculated with “elm oyster” (Hypsizygus ulmarius) mushroom spawn, the yields are four to six times than without the mushrooms. I’ve long proposed that organically grown vegetables are so much healthier as plants and therefore food because organic methods are more beneficial to the soil fungal communities.

Mushrooms perform miracles with toxic waste. Time-sequenced pictures show elm oyster mushroom mycelium absorb petrochemical black sludge out of chemical soups, and decolorize it. They eliminate toxics by digesting them, breaking the chemical bonds — using the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen as building blocks for new mushroom tissues. Fungi do more in weeks than genetically engineered bacteria take years to do.

But mushrooms are sponges for heavy metals. So after degrading toxins, they’ll retain heavy metal atoms, making them unfit to eat. This is why I try not to eat mushrooms from China or Eastern Europe, “certified organic” or not.

The wild side
Now, fasten your seatbelt and listen up: In 1935, the balloon Explorer II collected live mushroom spores at altitudes between 30,000 and 71,395 feet. That’s six to 14 miles high, where there’s little oxygen and the gravitational pull weakens. Scientists also discovered (Nature magazine, August 1, 1985) that mushroom spores could withstand even the conditions of outer space. This spawned a theory (“panspermia”) that mushroom spores brought life to Earth.

Mushrooms could prove to be important genetic cousins to humans. Our human DNA, in fact, is more closely related to fungi than to plants. Plant pathogens do not attack animals, and animal pathogens do not attack plants. But fungi and humans ARE attacked by the same pathogens.

There’s an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi on Earth. Each one manufactures specialized chemicals to ward off attacks by invading organisms. They probably are a source of 21st century miracle medicines.

A Japanese study (1972-1986) showed that Enokitake mushroom growers and their families had dramatically lower cancer death rates than the rest of their countrymen or neighbors. That launched the modern medical research movement into the anti-carcinogenic properties of fungi, most notably their immune system-enhancing constituents. Today, the field is developing rapidly with extremely promising results. Our government’s bioterrorism preparedness research also is hot on the trail, due to remarkable activity against pox viruses and pathogenic bacteria.

One species (Fomitopsis officinallis) found in the Pacific Northwest and used medicinally for thousands of years is thought to be extinct in regions of Europe, and is increasingly rare worldwide as trees decline in numbers and size. The Pacific Northwest is the only remaining home to another species (Bridgeoporus nobilismus); so long-lived in the harshest of environments that it may hold secrets for cell life survival and resistance to disease.

Treasure the mushroom
Let’s protect our treasures. Our health, well-being, environmental restoration, regional economies and national security cry out for land management policies that preserve and enhance mushroom habitat. We need to understand how precious mushroom habitat is.

With any luck, we might have a great mushroom year. If we have good late August and/or early September rains, don’t miss a chance afterwards to experience the visual ecstasy of the bountiful fungi of our magical forests before the cold, rainy season arrives. It’s something people forever remember and speak of in tones of awe and joy.

Anyone who is able to get out there should do so — along with kids, cameras and a field guide; I recommend David Arora’s “All that Rain Promises, and More.”

Because when one gathers and brings home an overflowing basket of chanterelle, lobster, king boletus, matsutake and (after expert examination) turns them into culinary wonders filled with the day’s memories, one will forget about the control that mega-corporations have over us, the threats to our democracy, how much it cost to get out into the woods, and instead feel, at least for one day, that life can and should be free, and just how wild mushrooms really are.

Jim Wells was an organic and other specialty produce distribution pioneer in the Pacific Northwest, a bioregional farmer for 14 years in the Oregon Cascades, and now operates Oregon Wild Edibles! specializing in Oregon truffles. Find them in season at PCC stores.

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