Fungi Roulette

What doesn’t kill you makes for a nice salad.

Robert Meganck

Beside the decaying, blackened remnants of a fallen oak, a splash of brilliant orange bursts forth from a choking tangle of English ivy. It’s a rigid, rubbery mass, silky smooth to the touch, with a creamy pale underbelly. To the uninitiated, it looks a little sinister, a bit otherworldly; like a bouquet from The Addams Family garden.

To Steve Haas, however, it is a bounty. “Laetiporus sulphureus,” he says, tearing away two-handed chunks, also known as sulfur shelf mushroom or “chicken of the woods.” Apparently meaty and quite delicious, it is just one among the remarkable variety of edible (and some decidedly inedible) mushrooms to be found within the Commonwealth.  

Haas should know. A native Virginian and professional cultivator of mushrooms at Steve Haas Mushrooms, he grew up in a family of wild mushroom foragers. “I started hunting as soon as I could crawl,” he says.

What does he hunt? Edible wild mushrooms in Virginia include morels, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, champignons and also “hen of the woods,” which, confusingly, is entirely different from chicken of the woods. To wild mushroom hunters, the delight of these fungi is how they pop up where they will, nature’s savory bounty hidden in plain sight to everyone but the people who take the time to learn, to look and to see.“

It is kind of like being part of a secret society with very select and minimal membership,” says mushroom hunter Carter Neville of Warrenton. “Once you head down the rabbit hole, mushrooms get curiouser and curiouser.”

What you see, the mushroom itself, is only the “fruiting body” of the organism. As with other kinds of fruit, the mushroom’s purpose is to help the organism reproduce—in the case of fungi, by releasing spores. A single mushroom can release literally billions of spores, and while some simply drop them, others, like the tasty morel, actually forcibly eject them; a mushroom blogger (yes, these exist) in Missouri writes of laying out his morels, “only to come back and find the entire room covered from the walls to the floor.”

What the mushroom fruits from is the mycelium, the “vegetative body” of the organism. It’s the mycelium that spreads through the soil or in your garden mulch or insinuates itself into the body of a tree. And spread it can; in Oregon, scientists discovered a single honey mushroom organism that is estimated to be some 2,400 years old and covers more than 2,300 acres.

Depending on the species, mushroom mycelia can play different roles in the ecosystem. Some mushrooms are saprophytes, which break down dead organic material. Other mushrooms (like the famous truffle) are mycorrhizal; they form a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with a host plant’s root system. Some mushrooms, though, are parasitic, attacking a living host—interestingly, chicken of the woods is one species that can be both saprophytic and parasitic.Mushrooms capture the human imagination—look at the lively lexicon of their common names, from the whimsical (bearded hedgehog, old man of the woods, fairy cap) to the evocative (stinkhorn, fuzzy foot, train wrecker) to the sinister (lead poisoner, witches’ butter, trumpet of death). Mushrooms come in a dizzying variety of shapes and forms and colors, beautiful to downright disgusting (look up, for example, the “elegant stinkhorn”).  

And then of course, there’s the always interesting fact that some mushrooms can kill you. Most won’t, but the wild mushroom’s reputation as the last dinner you’ll ever regret looms large in the mind of the public. There’s even a word for fear of mushrooms: mycophobia.

“Mention that you are going out hunting mushrooms, and people look at you like you are planning to juggle angry rattlesnakes in a patch of poison ivy,” observes Neville.

The deadliest mushrooms you’ll find in Virginia are both of the genus amanita: the aptly if prosaically named “death cap” (Amanita phalloides, an invasive species in the U.S.) and the bone-white “destroying angel,” a native encompassing several different species, the most common of which in eastern North America is probably Amanita bisporigera.

The nasty thing about amatoxin is that it’s insidious. The first bout of illness, which comes some hours after consumption, is comparable to a very, very bad case of food poisoning. Ironically, it’s when you’re starting to feel better that you are, in fact, dying; your liver and kidneys go down for the count due to some complicated business with enzyme RNA polymerase II and protein synthesis. You don’t want to go there.

The moral of the story? If you want to venture among the wild mushrooms, go with an expert. “The beauty of mushrooms,” says Steve Haas, “is they make their own rules. As soon as we think we understand them, they show us we don’t.”

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