Adirondack Experience museum celebrates wild world of fungi
By Tim Rowland
Long viewed with circumspection or ignored altogether, mushrooms are having a moment.
Last weekend, mycomania came to the Adirondack Experience in Blue Mountain Lake, where crowds packed the auditorium to hear a noted New York mushroom expert, pored over trays and trays of fungus in an exhibit hall and learned how these sometimes beautiful sometimes grubby growths play an outside role in the health and welfare of the planet.
Mushroom expert Susan Hopkins credited new literature including the books “Finding the Mother Tree” and “Entangled Life” with piquing public interest in the wonder and complexity of fungus, upon which other life forms are so dependent.
From cancer prevention to addictions and mental-health treatment; from carbon sequestration to natural insecticide; from upscale cuisine to dyes for woolen hats, mushroom news is popping up like, well, mushrooms.
Adding to the mystique, Hopkins said, is how little is known, both in the scientific community and the public at large, about fungus. As such, mushrooms are something of a new frontier for field-guide-armed outdoor people who may have mastered their trees, scat, pawprints and birds.
As a conservation consultant, Bernie Carr said he was quite familiar with most aspects of the Adirondack wilderness. “I’d be in the woods, and I’d know what this is and what this is and what this is — then I’d see three mushrooms and I’d have no idea what they were,” he told the Adirondack Experience audience. So of course, he set out to learn — and he’s not the only one.
Tim Baroni, professor emeritus at SUNY-Cortland and author of “Mushrooms of Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada,” thought that between the Adirondack Experience bookstore and the stash he had in his car, he would have plenty of field guides to sign and sell. They were gone almost before he could take a seat at the table.
“Fungi have a big responsibility,” he told a standing-room-only audience. “They have these symbiotic relationships (with other species) that have been going on for 400 million years.”
Fungi connect with the tree roots, tapping into the sugars the tree or plant creates through photosynthesis. In exchange, the fungus provides the valuable nutrients, such as potassium, that the plant needs to thrive. Anyone who has seen a colorless fungus pop from the ground is seeing a species that is letting some other plant somewhere photosynthesize for it.
These mycorrhizal relationships have caught the public fancy because they suggest a great, previously unexplored connection in the forest, subterranean IV lines that were scarcely noticed because it was all taking place underground and out of sight.
Baroni said a seedling might stand for years with little growth until the right fungus connects to its roots, acting as a botanical accelerant.
Mushrooms, too, may have had a hand in more overt aspects of the culture. Rudolph and his fellow flying reindeer — makes sense when you think about it — may have been inspired by hallucinogenic mushrooms, said Garrett Kopp, founder of Birch Boys, a Tupper Lake business that sells teas, tinctures and skin-care products made from chaga (a fungal growth peculiar to birch trees) and other mushrooms.
Chaga contains antioxidants and is thought to boost immunity and overall health.
So, too, might mushrooms explain the Viking Berserkers, a class of warriors reputed to fight with out-of-their-mind fury. “Whether you believe (these stories) or not, it’s a really interesting rabbit hole to go down,” Kopp said. “It’s a part of human history that we never really talk about.”
More mainstream today is the foraging of edible mushrooms, a rewarding but potentially risky enterprise.
“People are always asking me, ‘can you eat that mushroom?’ I say, well sure, once.”— Tim Baroni, professor emeritus at SUNY-Cortland and author of “Mushrooms of Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada”
Experts advocated going into the field with an experienced mushroom hunter before venturing out solo. Some of the tastiest edibles have toxic look-alikes that are easy enough to distinguish with instruction.
The morel is among the most sought-after, appearing in early spring, typically under dead elm or apple. Baroni said it also seems they are most prevalent on ground with a limestone substrate. It looks like “a sponge on a stick,” Baroni said, while the toxic false morel resembles “a brain on a stick.
Chanterelles are popular as well, appearing later in the summer in pine forests. The toxic jack-o-lantern somewhat resembles the chanterelle, but, among other tells, glows in the dark.
“Become an expert, it’s easy to become an expert,” he said.
It’s worthwhile as well from a health and nutrition standpoint, said Tina Ellor, whose family owns Phillips Mushroom Farm in Kennett Square, Pa. Mushrooms have typically been known for what they don’t have, like calories and gluten. But they are rich in nutrients — far more potassium than a banana, for instance — and are said to have properties that fight chronic inflammation and oxidative stress that contribute to rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
“There is no single drug that can do what mushrooms can do,” Ellor said.
She recommends taking supermarket mushrooms out of the plastic wrap upon purchase and placing them gills up on the windowsill to maximize their Vitamin D potential, before putting them in a paper bag. Brush off any obvious dirt, but don’t wash.
That dirt is actually compost from an exacting recipe of more than a dozen ingredients, based on wet hay, but also making use of biowastes, such as spent brewers’ grains and cocoa hulls from Hershey’s chocolate plants.
In catacombs beneath the City of Paris in the 17th century, Ellor said, mushroom growers were doing much the same thing, using compacted horse manure cut into rectangles called “cakes.” So, if Marie Antoinette did indeed say “Let them eat cake,” which she probably didn’t, it would explain why the peasants were so bent out of shape.