April 08, 2008

A Talk on Edible Plants and Mushrooms of Massachusetts

Last night, I attended a presentation on Edible Wild Plants and Mushrooms of New England given by Russ Cohen, author of Wild Plants I Have Known... and Eaten. Having a bit of a hunter-gatherer streak — more gatherer than hunter —I'm always interested in finding out what I can eat that isn't available in a supermarket. It's the ultimate in eating locally and, armed with a bit of knowledge, I have no hesitation about adding foraged food to my diet.

The talk was generally quite informative. Cohen told the audience about approximately two dozen edible wild plants and mushrooms. I fully intend to try ostrich fern fiddle heads, Japanese knotweed and stinging nettle, among others. Cohen brought some snacks made from nettle that were quite good; stinging nettle tastes just like spinach. We learned of where and when the plants were available and a couple of distinguishing characteristics for each of them. We also got to sample some fruit leather made from autumn olive, which tastes much more like cherries than olives and is a problematic invasive in New England. Several of the plants mentioned in the talk, in fact, were invasives and the message about these was essentially "eat all you can." There are programs in place to eradicate them, anyhow. I'll do my part!

The only downside to the otherwise excellent talk was a certain incautiousness about wild mushrooms. Mostly, this wasn't a big deal. He mentioned Boletus edulis (porcini mushroom), for example, without talking about any lookalikes with which new collectors might confuse it. There are no lethal boletes, though, and those that might be mistaken for porcini are generally going to taste very bad. Nobody's going to bother choking down a bitter bolete (Tylopilus felleus) and it wouldn't kill them if they did.

False morels are a different story, though, and I was a bit surprised that when Cohen talked about morels that he didn't bring up false morels and inform the audience about how to distinguish the two. To someone who has some experience, it's not difficult to tell a Morchella from a Gyromitra or Helvella, but first one has to know that both exist. Eating a false morel can be very dangerous due to a toxin called MMH, a metabolic product that starts in the mushroom as gyromitrin (N-methyl-N-formylhydrazone). Just one ingestion of the stuff usually isn't fatal, but it builds up in the body over time. Poisonings are very unpleasant to say the least. Symptoms include a precipitous drop in blood pressure, delirium, shivering, muddy urine (due to hemolysis), swelling of the liver and jaundice, all of which generally begin six to ten hours after consumption. Even cooking the mushrooms can result in poisoning, as gyromitrin is volatile and inhaling it in steam is enough to cause some damage. All in all, false morels are bad, bad mushrooms. Even if a victim doesn't die from gyromitrin intoxication, symptoms can last for up to five days. Worse, the toxin can build up in the body from repeated ingestion, resulting in the onset of symptoms after someone has cooked and eaten the mushroom several times (see Tom Volk's write-up on Gyromitra esculenta for more on this).

During the brief Q&A period, I raised my hand and when called upon mentioned that I was new to the area and that I didn't know whether false morels grow in New England — which is true. I haven't found one here yet and hadn't looked it up. I know they grow in California but here, not so much. Cohen confirmed that they did and said that the way to tell Gyromitra et al. from true morels was that the "cap" in true morels has pits, whereas that of false morels was merely undulating. That's true enough, but for someone who has no experience with either fungus it may not be a very meaningful distinction. I mentioned that false morels have a free edge at the bottom of the "cap" and that no such edge exists in true morels; I was a bit puzzled when Cohen replied that he'd seen false morels "both ways" — with and without a free edge. As far as I know, both Gyromitra and Helvella species always have a free edge; it's a developmental difference and a fundamental character that has to do with how the fungus builds a fruiting body. Of course, another way to tell the difference is to simply cut the mushroom in half. True morels will have a cavity inside, false will not. I think people without any experience with fungi can readily distinguish hollow from filled and free from attached; pits vs. undulating is a bit trickier. In fact, the first time I ever found a black fluted elfin saddle (Helvella lacunosa) in California, I thought I had gotten lucky and found a morel precisely because that distinction didn't really mean anything to me. It was only when I checked for a free edge that I realized that I shouldn't eat the thing... although I did try it once, having cooked it in such a way that I wouldn't inhale fumes. It wasn't worth it; the thing tasted terrible. Kids, don't try this at home!

Cohen also brought up sulfur shelf (Laetiporus sulphureus). Anyone who has been reading this blog awhile already knows it's one of my personal favorites and one that I would highly recommend everyone try at least once. Nonetheless, some caution is advised. Some people can have an allergic reaction to it and for others it can produce severe gastrointestinal irritation. Children tend to have problems with it more often than adults. The best way I know of for testing whether one has such a sensitivity is to try a small piece the first time — no bigger than the size of a quarter — and see what happens. The first symptom to show up in those who could have severe reactions is said to be a mild numbness in the lips. That will pass in an hour or so in most cases. If it happens, simply don't eat anymore of it. This is probably a fine point, though, because the vast majority of people won't have any particular trouble with Laetiporus. Knowing a bit about how bad mushroom poisonings can be, even in non-lethal cases, I tend to err strongly on the side of caution. As the old saw goes:

There are old mycologists
And there are bold mycologists,
but there are no old, bold mycologists.
I don't mean to harp too much on all this. Cohen's talk really was very good and I'm sure his book is as well. Still, it bears repeating a thousand times if it saves just one person just one terrible night of suffering — don't mess about with eating fungi unless you are really certain of what you're about to put in your body! If you're not sure, ask someone who knows what they're doing. The fun of eating a wild mushroom is not a good reason to risk your life.

That being said, morel season starts here in about two weeks and I fully intend to try my luck at finding a few. They're a lot tastier than the Pycnoporus I found on Sunday's outing.

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