“Winter is coming.” - Game of Thrones
by Brendan McGarry
- The Capitol Hill Times -
When I was little, my Irish-born father told me to avoid treading on “fairy rings,” the circles of mushrooms growing on our lawn. Fairies would curse me or force me to dance till madness. I took his words in earnest. For years, you couldn’t catch me near them. Then, one fall evening, I got curious about the fairies whose music we could hear in the backyard. Creeping up, expecting to find joyous sprite musicians in the garden, I instead found a small tape player beneath rhubarb leaves. My imagination hasn’t faded since, but I’m less cautious of fairy rings because I now find mushrooms inescapably fascinating.
What exactly is a mushroom, anyway? Most of us know that they’re not plants, but it wasn’t until 1784 that they were classified as anything otherwise. Almost all plants photosynthesize, but mushrooms cannot. They are heterotrophic, they don’t create food within their cells. Instead, they rely on secreted enzymes to decay organic matter and extract nutrients. Mushrooms themselves are just the sexual reproductive bodies of organisms we call fungi. Hidden from view underground, beneath leaves, or in a log are the mycelia, the main fungal bodies, functioning out of sight and, for the majority, out of mind. Ever dug into the ground and found a strange web of white strands in decomposing organic matter? That’s likely mycelium. The mushroom’s job is to disperse tiny spores that, going airborne, eventually land like seeds to establish new fungal bodies.
Fungi are their own kingdom in Linnaean classification. Covering them in an article is synonymous to attempting to encompass animals or plants. They are innumerably complex, and many professionals make careers elucidating their copious mysteries. So why try to bring up mushrooms at all? Well, you may have noticed, the rain has come.
Most bemoan months of sogginess, but for the mycologist, the Pacific Northwest’s fall climate is a particular joy. Mushrooms don’t show up whenever or wherever, but under specific conditions of moisture, soil, and temperature. Our early fall is the best time of year for study, as conditions hit a sweet spot for many species. The identification guide, “The Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest” even says boldly that the “PNW justifiably is known as a mushroom paradise.”
You’ll start seeing mushrooms everywhere if you look. All over Capitol Hill they can be found on lawns, in woodchips, on rotting logs, or on tree trunks (they are most diverse near trees). Many are the classic parasol shape, but look closer and you’ll see wild diversity. Names like “slippery Jack,” “Witches’ Butter,” “shaggy mane,” and “turkey tail” bring to mind many shapes, colors, and textures. Their amazing colors and strange shapes can be arresting, leaping from our damp and dark fall.
Yet, a pervasively negative attitude exists toward fungi. Representing decay, many assume that mushrooms signify a problem. However, many species are symbiotic with plants, mycelium connected to roots, trading vital nutrients like nitrogen for carbohydrates created by photosynthesis. There’s evidence that they may help seedlings establish and guard their hosts against pathogens. Overall, the few harmful fungi, like dry rot or athlete’s foot, vilify the majority of beneficial or benign species.
Many experienced people harvest wild, edible mushrooms, but an identification guide doesn’t grant expertise. Eating the wrong mushroom could potentially kill you. Transplants from elsewhere, with traditions in harvesting, have been known to mistake certain of our native mushrooms as ones from their homeland, barely surviving the mistake. Several edible species have dangerously toxic look-a-likes. Harvesting mushrooms is big business, but it’s done by experts in permitted locations. In Seattle parks, it is strictly forbidden.
Humans have a long history with mushrooms as food, textile dyes, hallucinogens, and sources of folklore. However, scientific (let alone popular) interest, didn’t develop until relatively recently. In that light, we are lucky to have the local Puget Sound Mycological Society (PSMS).
With a goal of fostering appreciation for fungi, PSMS is one of the largest groups of professional and amateur mycologists in the country. Amongst many things, they host classes and have an identification help e-mail service (firstname.lastname@example.org). Fall being mushroom season, they run an ID clinic every Monday from 4 to 7 p.m. at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture. Their annual Wild Mushroom is coming up on October 12 and 13 at Magnuson Park, an opportunity to see our region’s wondrous diversity in hand picked displays, and mushroom walks with experts. If you want to know more about fungi, even in an urban setting like Capitol Hill, look them up.
Admittedly I rank as a mycological amateur. I can recognize a bolete, but not much more. Yet, appreciation doesn’t have to revolve around names. This fall, explore what rain brings to the Hill and maybe ignite a new passion. Just promise that you won’t eat those you find.