Obsession [noun] – an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on one’s mind.
I am prone to phases of intense obsession. The infuriating elusive bird that is STILL periodically waking me up at 5am has launched a small obsessive phase of compulsive bird spotting. My obsessions seem to keen my senses into hyperdrive and awaken my inate Kalahari bushman skills – I cannot tell you the number of times I have stopped someone mid sentence, or stopped dead mid stride when I hear this particular bird call. I am compelled to drop everything and run in the direction of the bird call in a desperate bid to visualise and identify it. Sadly, much to the Co-pilot’s amusement, I now involuntarily point and snarl at birds whilst barking names like wattle bird, magpie lark and the ultimate offender, the bleeding noisy miner. Hopefully, for my own sanity, this is a passing obsession.
Obsession is also an apt description of the mushroom foraging madness that has utterly consumed me. Ever since my mushroom foraging expeditions in Oberon earlier this year, my curiosity about mushrooms hasn’t waned but grown by many orders of magnitude. Since autumn I’ve bought a few more mushroom field guides which have provided many late nights of fascinating bedtime reading. The mystery surrounding mushrooms is part of their tantalising allure that begs you to devour all the information there is on the subject. If there was a course in practical field mycology I’d enrol in a heartbeat. The Co-pilot experiences this obsession by proxy – he often gets nudged just as he is drifting off to sleep only to have some pictures thrust in his face with excited exclamations and fervent page tapping. I’ve pored through the guides from end to end marvelling at the many different species and willing autumn to make its lazy return to Sydney.
Thankfully springtime in Sydney is an unpredictable season. Blisteringly hot days punctuated with endless periods of drenching rain and cold blasts of arctic weather have created a little bubble of artificial autumnal conditions – perfect mushroom conditions. Whilst driving past some pine trees on our way home, my forager sense tingled (I liken my perceived sixth sense to Spiderman’s “Spidey sense”, only mine is a lot more useless and infinitely less impressive). I spotted something in my periphery vision nestled amongst pine needles and exclaimed “shaggy parasols!” so loudly the Co-pilot initially thought we’d hit a pedestrian. Hastily explaining that no-one was hurt and it wasn’t an unusual choice of profanities, I scrambled out and raced into the undergrowth to investigate.
There is some sort of primal joy that is unleashed when a forager hunts down mushrooms. Delight greeted my eyes as an abundance of large mushrooms were just nudging their broad white caps through the pine needles. They were white with brown scaly caps and slender white stems. They certainly looked like the shaggy parasols stored in my memory bank, and if they were then I’d just stumbled on the motherload!
But, the first rule of mushroom foraging must be obeyed: if you can’t identify them, you can’t eat them! So I carefully collected a selection of the mushrooms at different growth stages for further in-depth analysis and identification.
Once home I carefully laid out all mushrooms and went about systematically identifying them. The following pictorial process is an amalgamation of the identification processes recommended by the 4 mushroom guidebooks in my possession. It is of course, not intended as a definitive guide to mushroom identification, but merely a brief speculative analysis by one amateur forager.
First – a little basic introduction to the subject matter is required. The mushroom belongs to the Fungi kingdom, is not a plant (a different kingdom) and represents the fruiting body of a cotton wool-like mycelium mass. The sole purpose of this fruiting body is to help the fungi reproduce, thus, it is a reproductive organ – apologies to those that thought they’d never eat a reproductive organ! Sometimes if the fungi associates with certain environments (like saffron milkcaps and pine trees or truffles with oak trees), then they are said to have formed mycorrhizal association. The most common fungi we recognise and associate with the term “mushroom” are fungi with gills – as per the common cultivated button mushroom. But there are lots of different fungi shapes from capped fungi with tubes instead of gills (e.g. the well known porcini or ceps, the respective Italian and French terms); to more exotic shapes like puffballs, brackets, cages, cups, coral and more. Our understanding of the fungi world is truly shallow and limited. There are undoubtedly countless specimens that haven’t been identified and categorised and in Australia, where the foraging movement is not as progressive and established as Europe, there are even fewer resources available for identifying Australian fungi specimens. The best we can do is use a mix of Australian and European guides and extrapolate.
My first point of call is arrange the mushrooms in order of maturity as analysing maturity stages can yield important clues. It is also useful to collect the entire mushroom including the stem base as it can aid in identification. Some mushrooms have a cap-like sheath or cup at the base called a “volva“. Some guides recommend cutting the mushroom at the base when foraging and collecting as it is supposed to promote new mushroom growth. This is misguided – once cut, the mycorrhizal connection is cut off and a new mushroom won’t grow from the stem like a new shoot. It might grow nearby – but that is the magical work of spores and the mycelial network. Cutting off the base will insure your nice mushroom specimens won’t be sullied with dirt but may mean you miss vital identification clues in the stem base. It sounds extreme, but it may mean the difference between an edible and a poisonous species.
Immature “button” stage:
At the immature stage the mushroom is a tight bud, white in colour with a white stem and a prominent bulbous stem base. It looks like a volva at first glance, but lacks the sheath – it is merely a bulbous stem base. The closeup reveals that even at the stage the cap is beginning to peel to create the scales seen at later stages of maturity. This stage can aid in identification as sometimes the button will show features that are lost with age and can be a differentiating factor to similar species.
The guides I had didn’t describe the stages of maturity as much detail as I would’ve liked so I’ll term this mature button stage the “adolescent” stage. In this picture we can see that although the mushroom is still quite small and far from maturity, the cap is already “shaggy” and the “veil” is just beginning to lift away from the cap to reveal the perfect, unadulterated alabaster white gills hiding beneath. I love that the veil is named so – such an apt, descriptive and romantic name. The veil is also an important identifier as in some species this will go on to form a “ring” or “skirt” on the stem.
The mature stage is the most important and will provide most of the clues for identification. The series of photos below highlight these features but in short, it’s important to note all the distinguishing features of the cap, the stem and in particular the gills – or whatever the underside of the cap looks like.
In older mushroom specimens, the cap turned from concave to convex with the cap lifting and flattening.
Performing a cutaway dissection can also provide differentiation. The cutaway allows the structure of the gills to be confirmed on whether they are free (not attached or touching the stem) or adnate/adnexed (touching the stem). It could also, as in this case, show evidence of colour change or staining when the flesh is bruised. In this case, the flesh bruised red although not immediately and quite subtly.
As it is good practice to take field notes, here is a scan of my original field notes taken on site. Complete with a few mistakes that I later cleared up when I referenced my mushroom guides. These notes are a really useful way to provide a summary that will help you with the identification process.
Many mushroom guide books use spore colour as a major differentiating level in identification keys, so I dutifully performed a spore print. This is done by taking the caps off a mushroom, placing it on paper and covering it overnight with a bowl. I used a half black and half white sheet in case the spores were difficult to see. I also used an older and a younger specimen in case that affected the amount of spores dropped.
White spores! Not surprising I guess since the gills hadn’t discoloured from white appreciably, but spore colour isn’t always obvious from the gill colour. And for the record, the younger specimen didn’t produce any spores – they’re dropped by mature specimens.
And finally, it was time for the part I was most anticipating – the dramatic reveal! Had I stumbled upon my own supply of delicious edible wild parasol mushrooms? Or were they something infinitely more sinister with colourful names like Death Cap, Funeral Bell or Coffin Web Cap warning me of the fatal dangers that lurk behind its innocent façade.
I consulted my 4 mushroom guides:
- Mushrooms (River Cottage Handbook number 1), by John Wright, Bloomsbury Publishing
- Mushrooms, by Thomas Læssøe, Dorling Kindersley
- Field Guide to Australian Fungi, by Bruce Fuhrer, Bloomings Books
- A Field Guide to the Common Genera of Gilled Fungi in Australia, Cole et. al., Inkata Press
And.. *cue electronic readout sound bite*
Nothing. I couldn’t definitively identify them. Using the information collated between all 4 guides the closest I could get was that they belonged to the genus Macrolepiota and was some form of “Parasol“. But I’d figured out as much without even consulting a guide. It wasn’t a “Smooth Parasol” as the cap was clearly shaggy; it wasn’t a “Parasol Mushroom” as it didn’t have snakeskin like scales on the stem and exhibited red staining; and the young white specimens ruled out being a “Shaggy Parasol” as younger specimens of that species were brown. It also didn’t have the long thin stem that many of the Lepiota or Macrolepiota specimens seemed to have. So perhaps I identified them incorrectly and they actually belong to the Amanita family. It was a frustrating process imbued with more questions than answers and without a handy mycologist to consult, an anti-climatic and unfulfilling outcome.
As much as I hated to, I threw the specimens away as I couldn’t identify them – no delicious wild mushroom dinner for this amateur forager. Knowing that a few of the more toxic mushroom specimens can cause severe liver damage was just one motivating factor. If there are any mycologists or budding foragers out there who can identify this specimen – please, any advice would be appreciated!
Unfortunately, mine was not by any means a unique or unusual experience as there are many undescribed mushroom species. In Thomas Læssøe’s book, he estimates that of the estimated 1.5 million species of fungi, only about 4.4% have been described. The unknown world of fungi is indeed a vast sea with unknown horizons.
Despite the disappointment, I’m still addicted to mushroom foraging. My vision has been permanently peeled back and I find myself both consciously and subconsciously surveying the ground in the vague hope that I find something of interest. And sometimes, the persistent searching pays off!
Amongst the pine needles where I found the parasols were some earthstars – a type of fungi called “gasteroids“, which quite frankly sounds like a painful medical condition.
These appeared to be “arching earthstars” or Geastrum fornicatum. At maturity, these little guys split their outer layers into the star shaped base and arch up to release their spores to the elements. Unfortunately for me, these were also inedible.
And with so much rain, mushrooms were popping up everywhere. The impressive mushrooms below miraculously appeared in my parents’ backyard. I don’t remember ever having seen these growing up, but my dog sitting by my side sheepishly wagging her tail whilst surveying the mushrooms could be a clue. I went about identifying these too and at first glance, they looked much like the parasols I found amongst the pine needles.
On closer inspection, these mushrooms were definitely different to the first batch I’d found. The flesh didn’t stain red on bruising and the gills in older specimens were tinged a mossy green hue. Unfortunately these weren’t edible parasols at all, these were the infamous False Parasols, Chlorophyllum molybdites, which are toxic, cause severe gastrointestinal upsets and apparently are the most commonly ingested poisonous mushroom in North America. A timely reminder that amateur foragers need to exercise extreme caution – a hasty forager who doesn’t notice the presence of green spores and lack of red staining would be in for a royally severe gastrointestinal disturbance.
And finally, to finish off my foraging finds, there were these impressive mushrooms. Again associated with pine trees, these large bright white mushrooms were hard to miss.
These specimens were mainly white and emerged from the soil as shy, squat little buttons shaped like flying saucers. Curiously, the buttons were slightly rust red on their caps and I found that they were very sensitive to bruising, changing to red with even the most minimal impact.
With age, the cap grows and splits to reveal an almost fluffy spongy white layer and a thick, sturdy stem emerges. The surface covering of the stem appears to split with growth to form a distinctive ring. Although still at the adolescent stage, this mushroom has already reached an impressive 10cm cap diameter!
This was only an adolescent as nearby lay the mature form. A behemoth mega mushroom measuring an impressive 25cm in cap diameter stood like an abandoned umbrella speared into the earth. Both cap and stem had turned a dirty speckled brown with age and the stem was more befitting on a tree trunk than a mushroom.
So what was this mushroom’s identity? Was it edible? To be honest, I’m not sure – it was so majestic that I didn’t want to unearth it to do the rest of the analysis. I was more than content to let it be and allow other passers-by to marvel at its size.
I was hoping to secure one of the immature specimens once they’d had some time to grow to maturity, but on my return I was saddened to see that someone had kicked over and uprooted the mushrooms. They lay there scattered around a crime scene, sun-dried and decomposing, the spiky pine needle fingers reaching out to reclaim the magical fruiting bodies and draw them back into the earth.
This post took me much longer than a normal one to compile and a phenomenal amount of reading, researching, and head scratching was done to get to this completed post, and even so, I’m still dubious on whether I’ve gotten the correct facts. As there was no positive outcome and no meal of delicious wild mushrooms to celebrate my foraging success, I deliberated on whether I should actually write this post. The Co-pilot was of the opinion that as there was no resolution, I should wait till I found an edible mushroom before I published the post. But that’s not portraying the foraging experience accurately. There’s no guaranteed tasty meal at the end of a forage – at least not for amateurs like myself, but the culinary reward is icing on the cake – the foraging, finding and discovery detective process is the main reward for me. Mushroom foraging is like hunting, for urbanites. It’s dangerously addictive and I encourage you to take it up.
But for the sake of closure – a request to any mycologists reading, any ideas on what the specimens featured in this post are?
A final word of warning: if you are considering mushroom foraging, buy a few guide books to guide and consult and exercise caution. If you can’t identify it, you can’t eat it!
I should have added in my recommendations on which of the 4 books to get!
The first book I bought was John Wright’s River Cottage handbook – which is both at once a very light, entertaining and engaging introduction to the world of mushroom foraging whilst providing a very handy and simple identification key. The only downside is that the mushrooms he describes are British! Similarly, Thomas Læssøe’s book mainly describes European species, but is so comprehensive, informative and easy to use that I would highly recommend it as a first point of call.
Guides on Australian Fungi are few and far between but getting one is a good idea – however, if I’d started with the Australian guide alone, I would undoubtedly have lost interest in mushroom foraging. Bruce Fuhrer’s book is designed for mycologists not foragers (not amateurs at least), doesn’t provide identification keys, doesn’t list information on edibility and only lists by the Latin name – I use this book for cross referencing once I think I know the species/genus. He also contributes to Mary Cole’s book, and I find this book more useful for mushroom identification – but as the title suggests identification is restricted to a small group of fungi.
There’s no definitive answer on which book to get as all guides all recommend having many books to reference. John Wright mentions that he has 15 books that he references – and he runs foraging courses! With my limited experience, I’d suggest the same thing as I always seem to reference all 4 books and supplement findings with internet searches – if I had more books, I’d probably use them all.
Hope that helps! Happy foraging!
Additional edit: I now suspect that large unidentified white mushroom at the end of the post is Amanita thiersii, or at least, is related to it.