Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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Grab a stool

Take home the forest’s bounty during a mushroom foraging excursion on Vancouver Island

Until I began visiting “the old country,” a mushroom meant a bland beige button that was sautéed up with steak. Like my fellow Canadian fungophobes, I bought mushrooms in a supermarket. The idea of eating a wild mushroom plucked from the forest seemed semi-illegal or downright dangerous — who hadn’t heard about hippies embarking on magic mushroom “highs” or about the dread Destroying Angel?

My re-education began with family forays into the forests of the Czech Republic where my son has lived for the last 18 years, absorbing many European customs. One of these was the weekend mushroom hunt, a diversion so widespread in Europe that even young children quickly become authorities on which mushrooms are edible and which are not. If Europeans grow up with wild mushrooms, why hadn’t all those generations of newcomers brought the custom to Canada?

Enter Sequoia Lesosky whose unusual name comes from his Polish roots and early life on a BC island “where everyone had an oddball name.” Lesosky’s father introduced his son to wild mushrooms and, today, the pair has a full-time business harvesting mushrooms and seaweed and selling them in places like Vancouver’s Granville Island Market.

I ask Lesosky why Canadians seem so leery of wild mushrooms: “It probably comes from the country’s British heritage, since the Brits traditionally have not been into eating mushrooms,” he says. It’s a valid theory if you look at British literature, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland where an amazing mushroom makes her grow and shrink, to mysterious poisonings in Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories.

Nose to the ground

On a particularly glorious August morning, Lesosky and I meet at the trailhead in Vancouver Island’s Strathcona Park for a brisk walk in search of elusive fungi. “And they will be elusive,” he says because of the extended drought BC had during the summer. Mushrooms need moisture to develop and most species like temperatures between 5 to 20°C. So while I burble on about what a lovely summer we’ve had, Lesosky explains that mushroomwise, it’s been a washout.

Gathering mushrooms has its seasons and timing is everything — too early and they may still be invisible under their mulch, too late and they may be gone. Prime mushroom season in Eastern Canada is during the summer and fall, while the best season in the West is usually September to October after fall rains cool down the hot temperatures.

In the spring, morels are among the earliest fruiting mushrooms under oak, beech, maple or elm trees. They’re followed by chanterelles either in the spring or later, and then a succession of other mushrooms during the fall months.

As Lesosky and I walk, his eyes dart along the sides of the path. Even though I am trying my hardest, I see nothing. “You have to look for a flag that will indicate there are others about. Mushrooms send up their strongest fruit and once you spot that you will usually see more.” I double my efforts but still don’t see a thing, even when he bends over to pick up a small suillus (aka a Slippery Jack). This fungi is related to the delicious boletes, but has a slimy covering that should be removed before cooking.

According to Lesosky, there are more than 50 edible species of wild mushrooms in BC. Vancouver Island is a particularly rich source: there are 30 varieties of which chanterelles are the best known.

Lesosky also points out that what we generically call mushrooms are actually the fruit-bodies of fungi or mycelium that spread underground, sometimes for vast distances. These mycelium can be hundreds of years old. The “fruits” appear basically to scatter spores around and have a very brief life — days and sometimes only hours. An area that is empty one day might be flush with mushrooms the next.

The whole fungi kingdom is enormous and includes everything from pin moulds on rotting food to long-lived bracket fungi on tree trunks. For the forager looking for edibles, the main areas of interest are several groups that can be identified by their shape, stems, gills and bases; these include the chanterelles, the mushrooms and toadstools, boletes and puffballs. There are also edible species in a large group called the Ascomycetes — morels and truffles mainly.

Cautionary Tales

So how do you become a gatherer of fungi without poisoning yourself in the process? Lesosky recommends anyone interested in serious mushrooming take one of the many courses in identifying fungi that are held across the country; he conducts walks through the Campbell River Museum (tel: 250-287-3103; www.crmuseum.ca) each fall.

“You can also learn on your own through books and by taking one species at a time and getting to know it,” he says. “It just takes longer.” Since mushrooms can be found all over Canada, the best bet is to contact the nearest mycological society.

Being able to tell the difference between a delicious Springtime Amanita (Amanita calyptrata) and a deadly poisonous Destroying Angel (Amanita ocreata) is definitely in your best interests. The two mushrooms can easily be confused so this is why learning from an expert is highly recommended — experts will also advise on which mushrooms are the most delicious and which are edible but need to be cooked.

Lesosky strongly recommends that you study the species that are dangerous and poisonous first and get to know them before you start sampling other species. “If you’re not sure a new mushroom is edible, take a small nibble and then spit it out.” If the taste is bitter, it’s likely one of the non-edible variety.

Experts also advise that if you handle species that are questionable that you wash your hands before touching your mouth and that you keep all the species you collect separate in your basket. (Wrap each of the same species in wax paper and harvest specimens at various stages of growth to make identification easier since their shape at different stages can vary.)

Most mycologists will classify mushrooms as edible, edible but not recommended, poisonous with qualifying explanations or deadly. For example, a mushroom may be edible when cooked but not raw, or edible but bland or with an unpleasant texture.

Truth or Dare

Of the poisonous varieties, the most lethal are the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) and the Destroying Angel (Amanita ocreata or Amanita verna.) Both these mushrooms, the most poisonous known, are fairly easy to recognize because of tell-tale features: they have white gills and spores and a sack (volva) at the base of the stem along with a partial veil that forms a fragile ring on the upper stalk. What makes both of these mushrooms so dangerous is that symptoms don’t appear for six to 24 hours after ingestion — by this time, the body has absorbed the toxins.

There are numerous myths associated with mushrooms such as telling if a mushroom is deadly if it turns a silver coin black — all totally untrue according to Lesosky. Another myth is that mushrooms have no food value — according to David Arora, mushrooms are high in protein (on a dry weight basis they are closer to meat and fish than to vegetables) and they form complete protein when eaten with grains since they contain lysine. They’re good sources of vitamins and trace minerals and are low in calories.

I ask Shannon Berch, who is president of the Vancouver Island Mycological Society, how many poisonous varieties are found on the Island. “No one knows for sure since a complete inventory has not been done,” she says. “There are probably 20 to 30 poisonous species.” One of these, the lethal Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) is an introduced species, likely inadvertently transported here on the roots of nursery stock.

She adds that every year there are incidents of people becoming seriously ill. “These are often folks who think they know more than they do or others who want to experiment with species that have hallucinogenic properties.”

Curiosity and appetite whetted? Beside the joy of collecting a basket of chanterelles or lobster mushrooms that cost $33 or $55 a kilo in a market, having the whole family embark on a fall mushroom scavenger hunt could become a bonding tradition.

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