We've all seen wild mushrooms. They spring up overnight, some of them boasting bold colors and fascinating shapes.
You might have kicked them with disdain, fearful that they might be toxic. That reaction is typical, according to Fred Rhoades, a member of the Northwest Mushroomers Association and a retired biology professor and mycologist at Western Washington University.
"Misconceptions abound about mushrooms," he says. "From an ecological standpoint, most people think they're something evil or nasty, but mushrooms are actually natural recyclers and play a very important role in helping trees get what they need out of the soil.
"The fungus provides the tree with minerals and water that the tree couldn't get otherwise, and the tree provides the fungus with carbohydrates."
A Bellingham resident, Rhoades is one of 250 members of the association, which meets each spring and fall for monthly mushroom-hunting forays in and around Whatcom County. Recent forays have included excursions to Silver Lake, Larrabee State Park, Lake Padden and Lummi Island.
Each October, the association holds a fall show at Bloedel Donovan Park, where members display some 200 or so species they collect in the two days before the event.
"You don't find all of them in any one place at any time," says Pete Trenham, association president. "They're like plants; you find different kinds all over the place. Some live in drier areas and come up opportunistically, but the majority are in moist, forested areas."
Most association members are amateurs who want to learn to identify edible mushrooms in the wild. Some, like Trenham, have fostered a lifelong interest in mycology. A biological consultant, Trenham teaches evolution and ecology at WWU.
"I've always found mushrooms interesting and mysterious," he says. "We live in an area with an amazing natural abundance of thousands of mushrooms. I love the surprise of going out looking for them, never knowing what you'll find, especially in the fall when it's prime time mushroom season.
"The mushroom forays give me good motivation to get outside, wander around and stumble upon interesting things I wouldn't see if I were sitting inside."
There are only about 10 species of mushrooms that people eat on a regular basis, a tiny fraction of the species that grow in the wild.
"With a little practice, you can quickly become knowledgeable enough to identify some of those 10 and go out confidently and collect mushrooms," Trenham says. "You don't need to know a thousand species to accurately pick the good ones."
Rhoades' list of favorite edible mushrooms includes Northwest chanterelles; oyster mushrooms; Agaricus campestris, which is a relative of the store-bought button mushroom; Agaricus augustus, which has an almond-like taste; Boletus mirabilis; and Boletus edulis.
"I'm not the most daring of mushroom eaters," Rhoades confesses. "I stick to the ones I like, because I've had my share of run-ins with mushrooms, and I know which ones are good for me."
By "run-ins," Rhoades is referring to mushrooms that have given him a mild stomach upset.
"The vast majority of mushrooms out there are not deadly poisonous," he says. "They might make you sick to your stomach, but they won't kill you."
HUNT WITH CARE
According to the North American Mycological Association, less than 1 percent of all mushrooms are toxic, and only a tiny fraction of all toxic exposures are the result of people eating mushrooms.
Toxic mushrooms can carry telling names, such as "the sickener" (Russula emetica); "poison pie," (Hebeloma crustuliniforme), and "the death cap" (Amanita phalloides). The latter is not a native species here, but it was found in Bellingham twice last year, for the first time ever.
Famous poisoning victims in history include the 18th century composer Johann Schobert, who, according to popular legend, died in Paris with his wife and one of his children after insisting that certain poisonous mushrooms were edible.
Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, credited with creating the Fahrenheit temperature scale, lost both of his parents from mushroom poisoning in 1702. And legend suggests Roman Emperor Claudius was murdered when he was given a meal containing toxic mushrooms.
Some mushrooms are more toxic for dogs and cats than they are for humans, so if you're concerned about your kids or pets consuming mushrooms in your yard, it's best to pick and remove them.
There are no easy clues about a mushroom's potential edibility.
"Mycologists look at things like the color of the spores that are produced, the habitat of the mushroom, its size and overall shape, how the gills on the undersurface relate to the stem, and whether or not there are features on the stem, like a ring or a cup on the base," Rhoades explains.
He estimates there are 3,000 to 4,000 mushroom species in the Pacific Northwest, but says no one really knows for sure.
"One of the interesting things about our area is that although many people have collected mushrooms here, they haven't all been assignable to known species," he says. "There's still a lot to be determined."
Trenham suggests that novice mushroom hunters pick up a useful handbook, such as David Arora's "All That the Rain Promises and More."
"It's a pocket guide that offers a good introduction to most of the common species and includes the ones people actively seek for consumption," he says.
It's also a good idea to join a mushroom hunting foray with the association, where the fee is $15 per year per family.
"A big part of why we exist is to educate people about the varieties that are edible," Trenham explains. "After the forays, we gather to cook the edible mushrooms, always ensuring there's nothing problematic in our selection of species."
The gastronomic value of mushrooms has attracted lots of attention in recent years, Rhoades says, "but more and more members are getting interested in more than just eating."
Some members are passionate about photographing the species they come across. For others, it's about broadening their awareness of mushrooms in general.
So the next time you encounter mushrooms in the wild, stop for a minute and consider their delicate beauty, their ephemeral nature and their beneficial relationship with the trees around them.
But don't taste them unless you're 100 percent certain what species you're looking at.
"There's not a lot of room for error," Trenham cautions. "We really warn people against eating something that could be toxic, especially because there are mushroom species that have close look-alikes and can be easily mistaken for something else."
IN CASE OF POISONING
If a person or pet appears to have been poisoned by mushrooms, try to collect a mushroom sample to help identify the source. Put any samples in waxed paper or a paper bag, but not a plastic bag, and refrigerate them until they can be studied.
Keep track where the mushrooms were collected, in case pesticides or other toxins may be to blame.
Source: North American Mycological Association
The Northwest Mushroomers Association's annual Wild Mushroom Show will be held Sunday, Oct. 16, at Bloedel Donovan Park. Attractions include mushroom identification, displays, cultivation kits, and mushroom books for sale.