Some Tentative Explorations into the Genus Boletus

Last year around this time I poisoned myself, rather severely but not life-threateningly, with a mushroom by the name of Boletus sensibilis. A surprising amount of hilarity ensued. People love to hear that story; I will never live it down, and I can’t say I feel bad about that. It’s a story I enjoy telling, a cautionary tale, and something not a lot of people have or hopefully will experience.

However, it has had the inevitable side-effect of making people doubt my mushroom hunting erudition and caution. Believe me, both have improved dramatically as a direct result of poisoning myself. But I expect I’ll spend the rest of my life combating that judgment. And that’s fine, well and good. Don’t eat wild mushrooms unless you know what the fuck you’re doing.

To that effect, this summer I have undertaken a hands-off study of genus Boletus, a rather large class of mushrooms that distribute spores through a porous membrane rather than laterally separated gills. I don’t expect to be eating much in this genus ever again; among the people whose faith in my skills at positive taxonomic identification I have permanently shattered is my wife, who forbids me from eating any mushrooms I haven’t previously eaten without poisoning myself. I can still look. I can touch and smell. I can learn.

First, the easy ones.

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Strobilomyces strobilaceus, the old man of the woods mushroom. Found on the North Country Trail, Newaygo County, MI. A hard mushroom to mistake, and yet I learn it has three subspecies distinguishable only through microscopic identification of spores. All three, as I understand it, are edible only when very young, otherwise rather unappetizing.

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Boletus edulis, aka porcini, like you’d find in the grocery store, this one again found on the NCT in West Michigan. A rather aged specimen, though lovely, as you can tell by the bug-eaten decay in the cross-section. I am surprised to learn that there are not actually very many species of buff to tan, white-pored boletes, mycorrizal with mixed deciduous and evergreen woods, fruiting in late summer in the American northeast. And all of them appear to be choice edibles. Not that I would know.

Now on to the scary, confusing, variously blue-staining, variously poisonous red and yellow boletes, at which my gorge rises Lovecraftian despite their beauty.

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Baorangia (formerly Boletus) bicolor? var. borealis? This is (perhaps) the mushroom I thought (hoped) I was eating when I poisoned myself. Found a mile from my house in Bald Mountain Recreational Area, Oakland, MI. Beautiful soft creamy flesh, smells wonderfully of something very much like Indian yellow curry, tastes…well, I’ll never know. But delicious, they tell me.

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Boletus sensibilis, aka the Brick-Red Bolete? The one that poisoned me. Maybe. Or maybe it’s another variation of bicolor. Beautiful thing, isn’t it?

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Boletus flammans? or etc. Note red pore surface and blue coloration in pore cross-section, which came on almost as soon as I sliced into it. Here we have the trouble. There are just too many of them, with too much commonality of season and habitat, too much commonality of color and form factor, too much variety of color and form factor depending on age and habitat.

For example:

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Boletus subvelutipes, the red-mouth bolete. Or not. Just look at that monster’s deadly, blue-stained jaws.  I feel like a mouse hypnotized by a snake. How could I not be fascinated? After an experience like that, how could I not want to learn more?

Now I’m going to go donate some money to Michael Kuo, whose website is dauntingly detailed about all this and makes very clear what a vast and complex discipline is mushroom identification, and at which I have probably spent more time this month than facebook.

In conclusion: I need a microscope.

Also, here’s that caveat again:

Don’t eat any mushrooms you find in the woods unless you really, seriously know what you’re doing or have someone with you who does. Don’t come crying to me if you do and it doesn’t work out. If you do, and it doesn’t work out, and you find yourself violently expelling the entire contents of your digestive system, go to the hospital. You’ll live, and if nothing else you’ll have a very interesting story.

By the Brook Today: A Foraging Adventure

By the brook today, I had such a fruitful and thoroughly representative comedy of errors I decided it was worth more than the usual tweet.

I arrived at the brook with my foraging kit (bag, basket, camera, knife) not expecting much. It had rained a bit that morning, not enough to get my hopes up.

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So I started with a visit to the nettle patch. The brook is Paint Creek, so called because the textile mills used to dump industrial dyes in it. That was 150 years ago; it has been cleaned up–but not so much that its environs don’t remain very obviously a post-industrial landscape. The Grand Trunk Railroad used to run a stone’s throw away; now it’s a bike path. The nettles are native—they’re native practically everywhere—but here they’re fighting a pitched battle with invasive garlic mustard, acres of it, so much there’s no hope of getting rid of it. Still, the nettles hold their own. I help as I can, ripping up the garlic mustard by the roots before I harvest the leaves, harvesting only the top few leaf pairs of each nettle so they’ll grow back bushy. I get stung. I don’t mind.

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Then I climbed over the brook along this branch. I had figured out this was possible (and really very satisfying, though it’s touch and go there in the middle) back in the fall. I’d never done it with my foraging kit, but I wasn’t worried. There’s another way back, hopping across the graffitoed bridge ruins a quarter mile downstream; I always go back that way, it’s less acrobatic, and safer, as long as the water isn’t running too high. Much less risk of losing any found riches.

I forayed upstream a bit, then cut uphill to the top of the ravine and then back downstream again, not looking very hard for mushrooms because I didn’t expect to see any. I never expect to find morels. I’ve never even seen one in the flesh. And like I said, it was relatively dry. So I made it to the bridge ruin, I skipped across, dropped off my nettle and garlic mustard harvest at my bike, then lingered by the brook a bit more. And that’s where I came across the dryad’s saddles, growing in profusion out from under this old, burl-ridden willow log dragging its roots in the brook.

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Polyporous squamosa, lovely, tawny-textured on top, hexagonal-pored white underneath. Considered a poor consolation prize for the morel hunter, but I love them. They’re best when young, which these were, brand new, some no bigger than a quarter.

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Gleefully, I reached for my knife…but it was gone. Lost! The precious! It had fallen from my pocket somewhere. A sinking feeling. Then a stubborn resolve. You have no idea how often this happens to me. I drop things in the woods. Important things. Wedding rings, garage door openers, phones. I’ve had remarkable luck finding them. I retrace my steps. I search, keen-eyed.

Back around through the nettle patch I went. Had I left it when I went to pack up my basket? No. Two other possibilities: I’d climbed a black cherry tree up above the ravine on the far side. Or there was that branch across the brook. But if I’d dropped it there, wouldn’t I have heard the splash?

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In fact it appears I would not have. Yay! Finding of lost things streak sustained.

On my second trip up and over the ravine and down, I paid more attention. I was tireder, slower. I saw this:

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False morel, Gyromitra brunnea. Easily distinguishable from true morel by lack of a hollow central cavity in the stem.

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Never seen one of these before either. Wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t dropped my knife. I call that a win.

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Broken arrow. Took it home for propping up tomatoes.

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Sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum, naturalized European ground cover; flowers widely used in Germany for flavoring May wine.

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And then again across the graffiti bridge and back to harvest the dryad’s saddles.

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Quite a gratifying and productive day in the woods, I must say. And that’s not even counting the wild mint I picked up on the bike ride home.

In the Woods Today: Will-o-Wisp

This one was too long for a tweet.

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Windy and warm in the woods today. Not like yesterday, when the wind shifted and died and came to life again and gusted in such a way that everywhere around me trees creaked and branches clattered and I could tell thereby that I wasn’t actually surrounded by distantly laughing children, barking dogs and shouting men even though that’s just what it sounded like. Not so today: a west wind, strong and steady. I biked out to this peninsula I like that sticks out into lake and swamp and hosts a half dozen huge old red oaks. Last year it suffered a brushfire, but the oaks survived. Aspens rise from the marshy ground to the west. I climbed my favorite oak. I heard a voice. Loud, not quite clear, but almost: “not my lake”, I thought I heard the first few times. No–the first few times I thought it was a pine tree creaking.

No kidding it’s not your lake, I thought, it’s everybody’s. Fuck off.

Then, maybe the tenth time, I heard “Caught my leg”, and then for the next twenty or so repetitions, clearer all the time. I stared across pond and marsh. It wouldn’t have done any good to yell–the wind was right in my face. I couldn’t see anyone. I scrambled down out of the tree and started into the marsh. Ice, that slickly clouded ice you only get when it’s been below freezing for weeks and then suddenly well above for three days straight. Twenty paces, no sign of anybody, I realize I am doing exactly what the will-o-wisp would want. His leg is stuck? What’s going to happen to me? So, temperately, but with a twinge that I’m abandoning some poor guy, I turn back. The shouts keep coming as I walk the quarter mile back to my bike. Keep yelling, I thought furiously at him, or I’m never going to find you, as I slogged through thick mud onto the west trail, a mile and a half clockwise around the marsh until I was on the far side of where I thought I’d heard him. I left my bike and plunged into thick brush. Now I was windward of him, so I started yelling. I followed deer trails, meandering all along the shore and out onto another little marshy peninsula I hadn’t known was there, then further out among the ice. I climbed another tree. I kept yelling, kept looking. I clung there in the tree, listening.

Nothing. Wind.

Rarely have I gotten so thorn-scratched and covered in muck for so little. Stupid will-o-wisp.

Maize God’s Journey


On a balmy, wet winter solstice necessitating raingear and waterproof clodhopping boots, Maize God prepares himself for a journey into the wilderness seeking his allies, the forest spirits.


Fox meets him at the standing stone; in memory of the ancestors, she offers wintergreen. Maize God has brought citrus.


They seek out Owl in the crooked tree by the marsh. “And what exactly do you expect this to accomplish?” she asks.


“We know it’s the humans who are really the problem. Nothing we do here is going to make a lick of difference until they quit mucking everything up. But Owl, we must still come together and mark the time like we always do.”


“Change is in the air, in the soil and the water, but isn’t it always? So let’s feast tonight and sing! How else can we be ready for the dawn when it comes?”


“Fair enough.”


At the sacred place under the ring of pines, Maize God prepares the offering fire. The three sit in contemplation, awaiting the appointed hour.

The Fortean Forest

Freetown State Forest in Bristol County, MA: apparently it is full of weirdness. It’s in the middle of the Bridgewater Triangle, the Hockamock Swamp abuts it, the Dighton Rock museum is just across I95 on the Taunton River estuary. I’m not especially one for touring the apocryphal weirdness; there’s just so much actual, true weirdness to be had. But with exactly one afternoon available to me amid Thanksgiving to drag a few semi-unwilling members of my family out to some wilderness within range of SW Boston suburbs to celebrate not supporting the capitalist establishment on Black Friday, the Fortean forest was it.

Profile Rock

Profile Rock, Assonet, MA. I’m pretty sure that 1902 postcard on the Wikipedia page is completely wrong.

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Delightful incidental art on Joshua’s Mountain.

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Both of these appear on the same forked beech.

From Profile Rock, looking towards Dighton.

Not pictured: flooded, 350 year old foundations along Payne Rd; ugly, locked concrete building in the shape of a pair of octogonal spectacles which now encloses Dighton Rock; vast fields of solar farms; marina; deer; donkey; Wampanoag ghosts, bigfoot, pterodactyls.