Amanita muscaria, photo by Hugh Griffith
by Hugh Griffith
Beware, fungophobes, the weather has conspired against you.
Fungo-phobe. Noun. One who fears or dislikes fungi, including mushrooms.
The rains since mid-August have awakened a vast fungal army that has been sleeping in the soils beneath the birch and hemlock trees of our island. Thanks to September’s record rainfall, mushrooms have been popping up like new condominium developments. The most spectacular species, in appearance and shear numbers, is the bright red, white-spotted Amanita muscaria. (Because they are mysterious, most mushrooms only have unwieldy Latin names - sorry.)
Amanita muscaria are almost impossible to miss. Nothing else in the forest is coloured like a stop sign. Spread out in vast, bursting numbers among the trees they look not quite real. Nature is supposed to be more subtle than this.
Hah. Mushrooms are always with us, and are always very busy, but only under the right conditions do they emerge. They live as expansive networks of thread-like mycelia near the surface of the soil. Many species, including Amanita muscaria live symbiotically with trees, intertwined at the roots. I cannot remember when exactly I first learned this, but it was somewhat of an epiphany. Mushrooms actually do stuff. They extract nutrients from the soil otherwise unavailable to their tree partners and assist with the absorption of water. In return, they receive needed sugars created by the tree’s photosynthetic activities, which help produce their fruiting bodies, the mushrooms. Without this cooperative relationship, the trees of our forests would keel over and die, or at least be in very sad shape. Amanita muscaria lives in symbiosis with a number of trees throughout its wide range. In Richmond it is most often associated with paper birch.
A swarm of Amanitas, photo by Hugh Griffith
Because this mushroom is such an eye-popper, it begs questions. One of the most common is, "Can you eat them?"
Old mushroomer's joke: "You can eat any mushroom - once."
Real answer: "No, no, no! Do not eat any part of this mushroom. It is very toxic." At the same time, don’t freak out over these things. Do not fear them. They are not asking to be eaten.
I wonder why the question even pops up. Personally, I don't see the link. I can appreciate many cool things without contemplating eating them. My neighbour has a handsome blue spruce in his yard and a snazzy new car in his driveway. I feel no need to consume either of them.
Don’t be a fungophobe, be a fungophile. Fungophobia is largely a North American cultural misstep. People in other parts of the world are quite knowledgeable about and comfortable with the fungi among them, the edible and the not.
Take advantage of the turn in the weather and marvel at these spectacular things, these miraculous toadstools. Be a virtual elf. Photoshop yourself sitting on one. Wear green. It would make a great Christmas card.
Hugh Griffith is a BC biologist
and science writer.