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Some Tentative Explorations into the Genus Boletus

August 17th, 2016

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.

   Fungi, Summer | 1 Comment »

By the Brook Today: A Foraging Adventure

May 10th, 2016

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.

   Fungi, Spring | No Comments »

The Poison Mushroom: A Cautionary Tale

July 31st, 2015

After eleven years hunting mushrooms, eight of those since I built up the confidence to actually eat some of what I found, yesterday I had my first bite of poison mushroom. It put me in the emergency room.

Boletus sensibilis

I was shown no revelations about how all life on earth is intimately connected in a profound but delicate web (though of course I knew this already). I did not see David Bowie. For four and a half hours I felt completely normal. Then, over three hours, my body voided the entire contents of my digestive system between brief stints of shivering on the bathroom floor. Then I sat in a hospital bed for three hours with a saline drip in my arm while a series of medical professionals asked me, “WHY?”

Read the rest of this entry »

   Fungi | 6 Comments »

Mushrooms 2014

October 13th, 2014

It was getting a little echoey in here, so here’s some pictures of wild mushrooms I ate this summer–yes, only the ones I actually ate. Otherwise we’d be here all night.

Chanterelle

July: Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius. My reliable, abundant, delicious mainstay. I ate it on pizza, in lasagna, in omelette, and I still have some left in the freezer.

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August: Chicken aka sulphur shelf mushroom, Laetiporus sulphureus. On sandwiches and in stew. Does not really taste like chicken. More like a firm, slightly crumbly mushroom.

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August: Honey mushroom, Armillarea mellea. I ate these raw, actually, which you are strictly not supposed to do. I was fine, but don’t go letting that be a lesson to you.

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September: Painted suillius, Suillius pictus. An old favorite, abundant in season back in Massachusetts, few and far between here in Michigan. This made me happy. I sauteed it with olive oil, balsamic, swiss chard, garlic, jalapeño and the below.

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September: Pear-shaped puffball, Lycoperdon pyriforme. New for me, found on a very old, dead oak positively overrun with fungi. Really tasty sauteed with the above. When very young, as these were, they have a heavenly soft marshmallowy inner texture just like the giant puffball, but with outer skin much less tough.

Maybe I’ll get a few more under my belt if global warming obliges and October remains warm and wet.

   Fungi | No Comments »

Is it time yet?

April 22nd, 2014

Is it time?
Okay, yes, this is just me measuring soil temperature to see if it’s time to hunt morels (not yet!) but I think it gets the point across.

Wikipedia says Earth Day is celebrated in 192 countries. Where? By who?

This week’s Cosmos episode was about how we probably would have all died of lead poisoning if somebody hadn’t convinced the corporations…or wait, not convinced…forced the corporations to accept that the absurd lead levels in the atmosphere were their fault and were likely to kill everybody if things went on as they were. Fascinating. It took 20 years between when Clair Patterson pointed this out and when enough people accepted it to actually do something. That happened in 1984, when I was five. This–2014–was the first I’d heard of it.

Why is this not a common cautionary tale, like the bomb?

Seems to me the science about global warming has been in since at least 1991. If we consider Wallace Smith Broecker to be global warming’s Clair Patterson, the science has been in since 1975. When I was negative five. Which would make the year we were supposed to have done something about it 1995.

How long is it going to fucking take?

   Angry, Environmentalism, Fungi | No Comments »

Summer Mushrooms 2013

September 10th, 2013

A mild, wet summer makes for a mushroom cornucopia! I’ve done this before, so I’ll try not to hit any repeats. I found all these in my local woods, Bald Mountain Recreation Area North Parcel, Lake Orion, MI, between July and August.

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White Hedgehog, Hydnum albidium, purportedly edible, but I was flush with chanterelles at this point.

old man of the woods - Strobilomyces floccopus
Old Man of the Woods, Strobilomyces floccopus
Old Man of the Woods
tremella_reticulata
White Coral Jelly Mushroom, Tremella reticulata. Heavily rotted oak stump.

Horn of Plenty - Craterellus cornucopioides
Horn of Plenty, Craterellus cornucopioides, also known as black chanterelle, black trumpet, trompette de la mort or trumpet of the dead. So velvety and beautiful. Again, could have eaten this but had a basketful of yellow chanterelles already.

And these are just the ones I could identify and take a decent picture of before the mosquitoes found me!

   Fungi | No Comments »

Honey Mushroom

September 15th, 2012


Honey mushroom, Armillaria mellea, found growing at the base of a dead oak, Bald Mountain Recreation Area North Parcel, Lake Orion, MI.

This is what I had for lunch yesterday, sauteed with garlic and tomato on toast. It’s the mushroom my Italian great-grandmother Domenica referred to as “the good-a kind-a”, the kind she used to take her children and grandchildren hunting in the woods around St. Moritz Ponds in Quincy: i.e. the kind that was most abundant, easiest to identify, tastiest. My grandfather has been nagging me to try this mushroom for years.

Funny, then, that of the 4 books I’ve consulted (including an old field guide of my grandfather’s), only one referred to it as a choice edible. The Peterson Edible Wild Plants doesn’t even mention it. I am warned that honey mushroom has several dangerous near look-alikes, and that even when it is positively identified, it doesn’t agree with everybody.

I thought it was delicious–four generations of my family have thought so. But that’s all the more reason for me to give you the same warning I always give: don’t go eating any mushrooms you find in the woods just because I did. Do the research first. Find an expert. And if you’re going to do it anyway, cook them first at the very least. Please?

   Fungi | No Comments »

Broken My Fairy Circle Ring

June 16th, 2011


Conifer mulch under hemlocks, Hemlock Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA. I’m not going to be able to positively identify the species… best guess is the deadly Galerina marginata.

O I am so neglectful of posting…these are from the end of May, nearly a month ago. I’d say I promise to get better, but it’s busy times. No dancing in fairy rings for me, not these days. Not that I’d do that. It would hurt the mushrooms.

Someone has drained the colour from my wings
Broken my fairy circle ring
And shamed the king in all his pride
Changed the winds and wronged the tides
Mother mercury
Look what they’ve done to me
I cannot run I cannot hide

—Freddie Mercury, “My Fairy King”

   Fungi, Spring | No Comments »

Soma

April 4th, 2011

Pardon a short hiatus from the Guatemalan ramblings while I dig myself out from under this pile of work. In the meantime….

The word “soma” came into Sanskrit from some even more ancient Indo-European root tongue. I’ve seen it translated as “flesh of the gods”; it referred to a sacred ritual drink of the Vedic culture in the third millennium B.C. Little is known about it except that it was made from an eponymous and equally unknown plant, but I think it can safely be assumed to have been a psychotic doom hallucinogen of some sort. Occasionally I’ve come across the titillating but unsupported speculation that soma might have been Amanita muscaria. The Olmecs held a certain mushroom sacred too. These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night. Or at least give me interesting dreams.

And sometimes they work their way into my fiction. This month’s Apex Magazine #23, edited by the fabulous Catherynne Valente, features a rather dark story of mine about the beginning of time, “The Eater”, in which soma plays a passing role. Should you care to try it out, there’s a teaser here on the Apex site. Get the whole thing in print through the Apex store or in ebook form from none other than Weightless Books.

   Fungi, HM, Writings | 4 Comments »

Veiled Lady

March 21st, 2011


veiled lady stinkhorn, Dictyophora indusiata

In a clearing among thick brush under ceiba and palm trees, Quiriguá archaeological site, oh about 25 metres west of the ballcourt plaza. This may be the nicest mushroom picture I have taken. Look at the texture in the full size image. D. indusiata appears in tropical regions all around the world. In China it’s cultivated for cooking. I did not eat this one because I had no idea what it was at the time, and even if I had, they were blanket-gassing banana fields with pesticides on the other side of the forest.

But of course I’ll eat those bananas later.

Happy equinox.

   Banner, Environmentalism, Fungi, Guatemala | 1 Comment »

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