Wild mushroom foraging is wet and weird Washington pastime
By Tara Nelson
It may not yet be the season for hunting delicious wild chanterelles or shaggy manes, but members of the Northwest Mushroomers Association are gearing up for what they hope to be a second year of unprecedented fungal abundance.
Last year’s unusually wet and mild summer led to an early fruiting of lobster mushrooms, the king bolete (commonly called the porcini) as well as large numbers of other, more rare mushrooms.
Of the more than 170 samples brought in for display at the group's annual mushroom convention, NMA has identified 10 new species and some, which have yet to be identified, have been dried and sent to Scotland for further examination.
“There’s always something new out there, but last year was actually a good year for everything because of the rains in July, the particularly warm period after that and then ideal conditions in the early fall, so there was a lot of everything this year,” said NMA board member Jack Waytz, of Bellingham. “Still, it was unusual to find so many things that are rare,” he added.
Foray is adventure in fungi
It is a sparkling crisp early fall morning in 2007 and a group of about 20 dedicated mushroom enthusiasts clothed in rain parkas and durable fleece hats are foraging for a variety of different fungi on the rocky cliffs of Deception Pass Island near Fidalgo Island’s Bowman Bay.
Harold Mead, a member NMA, slices a small, white mushroom from the ground and holds it to his nose, cups his hands, and inhales deeply. He then snaps the stalk, which breaks neatly in two, which identifies the mushroom’s genus.
“It’s just another Russula,” he says, a phrase used so often by mushroomers it has been shortened to the anacronym “JAR” in the presence of other fungus affictionados. The Russula is a huge family and the stems snap like chalk.
Mead, a former climbing instructor for the Bellingham chapter of the American Alpine Institute and owner of McMillen Motors automotive repair in Anacortes, is referring to a genus that includes about 750 distinctive species of mycorrhizal mushrooms worldwide.
His wife, Maggie Sullivan, however, who was at the head of the group, explained it another way: “These guys are fanatics,” she said.
The expedition, called a foray in mushroomer speak, is one several monthly activities the group organize.
Other recent events included a presentation by Western Washington University mycologist Fred Rhoads on the subject of predatory and carnivorous fungi (that’s right, carnivorous) such as the edible and very tasty oyster mushroom and the shaggy mane, which get their nitrogen fix by trapping tiny snake-like organisms called nematodes in a network of super sticky microscopic rings (fortunately, no humans were harmed in the making of the film by giant flesh-eating fungi).
The organization’s annual mushroom show last September at Bloedel Donovan park in Bellingham also displayed more than 200 varieties of regional fungi, gave individuals a chance to sample delicious concoctions such as a rich porcini soup and sautéed chanterelles with garlic and olive oil.
Wet and weird Washington
Whether you're wanting gourmet edibles or plain buttons, the Pacific Northwest has more varieties of mushrooms than any other region in the world.
From the delicious Pacific golden chanterelle, the world-renowned porcini or king bolete, morels, shaggy manes, lobster mushrooms or immature puff balls, it's no wonder mushroom hunting is such a popular pastime here.
Waytz said he estimates there are 20 or 30 edible species available in Whatcom County. Additionally, of the 3,000 different species of mushrooms world-wide, nearly 2,000 of those can be found close to Western Washington.
Waytz said he moved to Bellingham in 2001 from central Texas because of the area's abundance and has been involved with the club ever since. Likewise, membership to the club has grown over the years and is now at an all-time high of 150 members.
Part of that attraction he says is both the scientific and culinary aspects to the foraging, although there’s also a sense of excitement in finding a new discovery.
“You’re out there in the natural wonders of our area,” he said. “It brings you out into the forest and the high country and the coast because it’s all about associating mushrooms with the substrate they favor as well as the plants and trees they associate with. So you have to become aware of the entire ecology that you're working in because that's how you find your way to the mushrooms."
Last year’s unusually wet and mild summer – while undoubtedly unpopular with recent Californian transplants – proved to be a boon for the window for mushroom hunting, a popular Northwest pastime.
This year could prove similar.
Waytz said residents of the Northwest enjoy a wide variety of mushrooms as a result of a combination of lots of different habitats and climates, as well as temperate forests dominated by trees in the pine family which form relationships with mushrooms called mycorrhizal, or the large fleshy mushrooms, that relate to trees.
Mushrooms are actually restricted to certain families of plants such as the oak, birch and pine families, so forests that are rich in those species tend to have lots of mushrooms, he said. And certain kinds of hardwood forest don’t have as many.
“Basically all of the trees, with the exception of cedars, form these associations and many of the mushrooms are quite large and many are very edible and delicious. For example, the Italian specialty Porcini, or the King Bolete,” he said.
“The other is because of our fall, we tend to have a pronounced, dry summer and a rather long, pronounced dry fall, so we’re not like the Northeast where things get really cold really fast and things get frozen.
Overall, that extends our mushroom hunting season. The only truly mushroom-free months are June and July and even then you can feasibly find some mushrooms. The truffles and false truffles tend to peak in the winter, most of their fruiting is during the winter because that’s when they can attract hungry animals “
Given this, it’s little wonder there is an organization in Oregon – The North American Truffling Society – in which Jim Traffey, a native of Stehekin, Wash., is the leading world expert on truffles.
Their next meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, September 11 at the Bellingham Library with guest speaker Alex Winstead of Cascadia Mushroom Works. Meetings are open to the public.
Subsequent monthly meetings are scheduled for 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month at the Bellingham public library and hosts leading mushroom experts and coordinate forays and events.
For more information about the club and their events visit www. northwestmushroomers.org or call 360/303-4079. Membership is $15 per year.
Other mushrooming resources
• David Arora’s All That The Rain Promises And More... A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms.