Hunting the Grand Dame of the Forest
By Jennifer Tarnacki
Special to Glacier City Gazette
In northern latitudes back in days of yore, the first dew drops of spring brought with it promises of underground growth. People would wait to collect basketfuls of the favored stuff, and would eat it raw or sautéed. It is alternately called earth tongues, forest steak, and the grand dame of the spring. Neither animal nor plant, it’s a food protein from a different kingdom altogether spring brings forth: mushrooms.
In the next few weeks as the soil warms and rain falls, mushrooms will bloom in the mossy Alaskan undergrowth. June brings morels and boletes to Alaska, both of which have an earthy, rich, tangy flavor. As soon as soil temperatures warm to 50 degrees you’ll start seeing them pop.
POP they do, with surprising force. What’s a mushroom doing above ground? Mating!
The cap we usually refer to as a mushroom is really just the tip of the iceberg. Called the fruiting body, it’s the spore producing reproductive organ of the mycelial network.
Both morels and boletes, like all mushrooms, play serious roles in their environments. Mycelia, the long, thin strands that make up mushrooms, can attach themselves to the roots of plants, forming a symbiotic relationship. Fungi of this kind are known as mycorrhizal fungi. They spread out and respawn, creating giant networks and extending the area in which to find water and nutrients.
Morels are thought to be mycorrhizal with spruce and cottonwood, whereas boletes play a role in deciduous birch and aspen. Referred to by mycologists as “extended stomachs, lungs, and neurological membranes,” the mycelia in fungi are capable of collecting intelligence and sharing it with whatever they’re connected to. Its up to mushrooms to connect trees, decompose dead matter and build soil, making them underpinning of the whole plant kingdom.
Yet mushrooms are strangely foreign to us. Classified scientifically as an entirely different kingdom, it’s almost as though we either ignore or revile them. It doesn’t help that the scientific term for the little caps is “fruiting bodies,” a term that makes one queasy.
Everything about mushrooms is enough to make one queasy – their mysterious, subterranean dwellings; their slimy, gilled underbellies; their toxic threat. It’s been referred to as mycophobia, a strange revulsion, an instinctual hesitation tinged with distrust, or worse, disgust, to mushrooms.
Oddly, this is a cultural bias, not a purely biological one, as evidenced by the existence of mushroom-loving, or mycophilic, societies. Eastern Russia is one such place. In fact, they love mushroom hunting so much it’s a national holiday. Entire trains fill up to stream into the countryside.
In rural Zambia and Zaire, mushrooms are widely consumed during “hunger” months, second only to caterpillars as a food source. Malawi contains mushroom gourmands; traditionally women’s knowledge, and over 60 edible species are known. Mushrooms also play a very important role in Slavic and Asian food cultures.
Anglo-Saxon culture is notoriously mycophobic. The sudden appearance of mushrooms in the shape of fairy rings played roles in English and Germanic fairy tales and appeared in nature folklore along with elves, fairies and nymphs. Appearing overnight, seemingly magically, the fairy rings imbued mushrooms with an inexplicable mysteriousness, causing fear. And as poisonous Amanita were confused with edible ones, images of the red spotted “death cap” and “destroying angel” were sensationalized in Britain for their deadly toxins.
In America, despite some of our mycophobic cultural inheritance, subcultures of mushroom-loving folks abound. Laurie Constantino, a local Alaskan food expert, author, and forager, works with the mushroom-lovers of Alaska. She explains, “Alaskans enjoy foraging for mushrooms because it gives another way to enjoy the beauty and bounty of our glorious natural surroundings. Because they are used to hunting and fishing, Alaskans appreciate the extra flavor in wild foods and often have more open minds about foraging.”
Prized in restaurants and farmers markets around the country, morels go for outrageous prices per pound, and hunting them can be lucrative. The market for mushrooms is an odd one, shrouded in secrecy. Mushroom hunters are notoriously mum about their prime picking locations.
They can’t tell you, or it wouldn’t be a secret. As in fight club, with mushroom hunting there are also two rules: Don’t talk about morel hunting, and don’t talk about morel hunting. Or, at least don’t give away your secret spots.
Wild beings on an evolutionary trajectory of their own, those seeking the elusive mushrooms must hunt them down. With none of the high drama of an animal hunt, mushroom hunting requires different skills: patience, knowledge of seasonality and edibility. Though it takes a guide, for those who seek to find the edible in the Alaskan woods, they will find.
As Constantino says, “In a world where most foods are available year-round, foraging allows you to experience the joys of seasonal eating. Foraging gives you access to flavors that aren’t available from shops. There is also the “something for nothing” aspect to it. Dried wild mushrooms are incredibly expensive. Finding your own makes it possible to enjoy luxury food on a shoestring.”
While its true that the thought of a deadly mushroom lurking in the forest is enough to send a chill up your spine, the fact that its toxins are so powerful is testimony to their strength, an invisible strength below our feet we’ve been ignoring.
Paradoxically, in the same way that toxic fungi can cause damage to your DNA, those that are medicinal are powerfully healing. Lions Mane contains nerve growth factor, known to have healing potential for neurodegenerative disorders.
Aside from human health, scientists are only now beginning to realize the amazing and myriad skills of fungi. Soil alchemists, creating the humus that covers the Earth, they are nature’s great molecular disassemblers.
Mycoremediation, or the breaking down of waste using fungi, has been shown to decompose matter otherwise hard to decompose, such as plastic and petroleum waste. Certain mycelia can produces enzyme that break carbon-hydrogen bonds, rearranging hydrocarbons into carbohydrates, or fungal sugars, to feed themselves.
In addition to remanufacturing our waste into biologically harmless material, fungi sporulate where they stand. Spores attract insects, which lay eggs, larva feeds birds, birds scatter seeds, and seeds grow into green new plant life. As such, fungi are gateway species, opening doors to other biological communities.
They are connectivity experts. The networks they form are a biological synthesis of the computer network, as the mycologist Paul Stamets puts it, “The original biological network.”
The more one learns, the more a familiarity seems to unfold, a kinship with the kingdom of fungi, a reorientation to mushrooms. Us from the Animalia are genetically more similar to fungal kingdom than plant, sharing similar pathogens, enzymes, and biological pathways. A team of 20 scientists recently proposed a kingdom underpinning and joining Animalia and fungi – a super, symbiotic kingdom.
Whether that porcini gets sautéed in butter or not, the little cap peeking through the Alaskan undergrowth is the mere tip of the mycelial iceberg beneath our feet, keeping the whole show going, not to mention a treasure trove of knowledge with nature’s secrets of symbiosis.
That’s pretty amazing for a bolete.