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.
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.
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. (2022 edit: Possibly this is in fact the non-deadly but undelicious bitter bolete, per six years further experience and a comment below.)
Now on to the scary, confusing, variously blue-staining, variously poisonous red and yellow boletes, at which my gorge rises Lovecraftian despite their beauty.
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.
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?
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.
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.