Fall is mushroom season in B.C., a time when experts and amateurs head up mountains and onto trails searching for earthy morsels. Some find them, others get sick, and, this year, one died.
According to B.C. Centre for Disease Control, the number of people falling ill after eating a foraged toxic mushroom in 2016 is more than twice what it was last year. There are over 2,000 known fungi in the area, but new ones are found regularly. Researchers are not sure how many are out there, or how many are dangerous. Not knowing enough about mushroom diversity before going foraging can poison or kill a person.
“People are afraid of mushrooms,” said biologist Mary Berbee from the University of British Columbia. She studies the genealogy and variation in mushrooms, trying to understand how they fit in to the tree of life on Earth.
To make hunting for mushrooms safer, research and education is essential. Robin Kort, a professional chef and mushroom forager understands how little amateur foragers know about mushrooms. She sees the need to study more than just their edibility.
Studies on the role of mushrooms in sustaining the health of local forests and the planet also show the effects of human influence. Humans change the environment at microsystem levels that, in the case of mushrooms, could have a significantly larger impact on a forest’s ecology.
The role a fungus plays in its ecosystem depends on the type of mushroom and its environment. Kort likes to tell people on foraging tours that one Armillaria solidipes, or honey mushroom, in Oregon, is the largest living organism on Earth. This single organism covers several thousand acres and is more than 2,000 years old.
“It is in fact a wood decay organism and it can be really aggressive, so it can kill trees,” said Berbee. “But most often in forests, trees are moderately resistant so it infects them when they are dead, but doesn’t actually kill the live ones.”
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It was the diversity of fungi that initially drew Berbee into the study of mushrooms, or mycology. It is their mystery that keeps her motivated. Like an iceberg, most of the fungi organism’s body lives beneath the surface. The only way to study them is when the fungi fruit.
“The mushroom is considered to be similar to a blueberry, in that it’s for reproduction. It’s not the whole organism,” said Berbee.
Which is why foragers need to be careful not to take too many mushrooms from any location when picking mushrooms. Mushroom “berries” need to send out spores.
Beginner foragers should proceed carefully. A three-year old boy died this fall after eating a death-cap mushroom, one of the deadliest of fungi, and it looks a lot like a button mushroom.
Kort suggested learning about two mushrooms, and getting to understand where they grow and the often minute differences they have with other species that look like them but not edible. It makes foraging more fun.
“Look for chanterelles,” she said. “Chanterelles don’t have anything that look like it that would put you in hospital.”