Big rains make for fungal fun
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Saturday, Aug 18, 2012 06:00 am
Local mycologists are licking their lips this weekend as they get set to chow down on a bumper crop of edible mushrooms.
Heavy rains have produced an explosion of mushrooms in the St. Albert region. Local lawns are now overflowing with fairy rings, spring agarics and golf-ball sized puffballs.
The last three years have been great for fungi due to the wet weather, says Paul Monilaws, a local mushroom fan who works at the St. Albert recycling depot, and recent rains have brought out species he’s never seen in town before.
For example, he spotted some delicious wrinkly black morels by Big Lake for the first time this year, as well as some puffballs the size of soccer balls. “They look like brains and can be quite large.”
He and other mushroom fans will be headed to the Devonian Botanic Garden this Sunday for the 2012 City of Champignons mushroom exhibition. Run by the Alberta Mycological Society, this free event gives people a chance to see, smell, and taste many of the edible mushrooms that can be found in the Edmonton region.
Mushrooms are the fruit of fungi – fibrous creatures that live underground and reproduce through spores.
Fungi play a vital role in nature as recyclers, says Martin Osis, past president of the Alberta Mycological Society, and are an essential part of most root systems. “For the trees to survive, they need the fungi.” They’re also food for many creatures, especially flying squirrels.
Monilaws says he’s been into mushrooms ever since his mom took him out looking for edible shaggy manes as a kid. “They’re one of the most widely spread life forms on Earth,” he says of mushrooms, “but we know so very little about them.”
Researchers have found fungi that can clean up everything from radioactive isotopes to Sarin nerve gas, Monilaws says. “They even found a variety of fungi in the Amazon recently … that can subsist entirely on polyethylene plastic.”
Osis says he’s seen great numbers of yummy green lobster mushrooms as of late, as well as the infamous stinkhorns. “The stinkhorns are these phallic-looking mushrooms that literally smell like shit,” he says, and are notorious for attracting flies.
Local mycologists plan to sweep the Devonian park Saturday to gather samples for display on Sunday, Osis says. Initial surveys suggest that there should be scores of ’shrooms to find.
Experts will be on hand Sunday to talk about fungi and identify mushrooms visitors bring in, he continues. Chefs will also prepare edible mushrooms for people to sample.
While many mushrooms are edible, it takes considerable skill to spot the safe ones. Anyone who wants to eat wild mushrooms should have an experienced guide and detailed guidebook with them, Osis says.
While he likes the looks of the amanita ocreata (a bright white mushroom dubbed the “destroying angel” due to its deadly properties), Monilaws says he’s most partial to the taste of the shaggy mane. “They make a delicious soup.”
The exhibition runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Aug. 19 at the Devonian Botanic Garden. Visit www.wildmushrooms.ws for details.
Elk Island foray
Mushroom lovers will also get a chance to make history next week as volunteers perform the first-ever fungal study of Elk Island National Park.
This region has never had a formal fungal biodiversity study done before, Osis says, and the park’s managers have asked the society to perform one. Volunteers will spend three days combing the region to catalogue every mushroom they can find.
“This is of tremendous interest,” he says. Elk Island is one of the few patches of undisturbed aspen parkland left, he notes – much of it is now farmland – and one of the only patches with wild bison on it. “We’ve destroyed so much of our landscape,” he says, and this region gives us a glimpse of what it looked like in its healthy, undisturbed state.
The fungal study runs from Aug. 23 to 26.