Fabulous Fungi: Spring Treasure & Autumn Gold

photo of two chantrelle mushrooms in the woods

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By HOLLY ENDERSBY

You don’t need a reason to walk in the woods, but going on a treasure hunt sure adds fun to the outing. In spring, as the snow melts, days grow longer, and the sun warms the earth, fruiting bodies of fungi begin to appear. When nighttime temperatures stay in the 50-degree range, wood walkers know to start looking for mushrooms.

One of the oldest and largest fungi clubs in Idaho is the North Idaho Mushroom Club, started in 1968 in Coeur d’Alene by Kit Scates-Barnheart. An avid mushroom hunter, Scates-Barnheart started teaching small classes using some of her 20,000 slides of fungi to educate folks.

According to Tim Gerlitz, the club’s current educational outreach member, Scates-Barnheart’s slides and her descriptions were in all the published field guides. Her extensive knowledge and enthusiasm for fungi was the spark that got the club going.

After Scates-Barnheart’s passing, the educational torch was passed to Gerlitz.

“I started traveling around the Inland Northwest, giving talks on mushrooms and encouraging interested people to get educated and enjoy mushroom hunting,” he explained. “Within a few years we had 150 members, and our workshops and presentations had anywhere between 20 to several hundred people attending,” he said. “Interest just exploded.”

Now, due to the pandemic, the club has switched to Facebook Live workshops. Last spring, 6,000 live listeners participated, including some from other countries.

The fall Facebook Live workshop clocked in 3,000 listeners. Clearly, this club knows how to handle outreach in these challenging times!

The club’s Facebook page is loaded with terrific information, including the workshops, so give yourself a treat and check it out.

According to Gerlitz, the goal of the club is to educate the community to take the hobby seriously and learn about fungi, so they don’t make picking mistakes.

Although it happens infrequently, Gerlitz said every year people contact him because someone ingested a poisonous mushroom.

He’s an official contact person for poison control, he said dumb, careless mistakes lead to mishaps. According to Gerlitz, the best way to avoid that is through education.

The North Idaho Mushroom Club typically meets six times a year and is very family friendly. The June and November meetings are food events, featuring an array of different mushrooms.

“Typically, we have about 30 different species for the table,” said Gerlitz. “The spring food meeting focuses on coral mushrooms, the most popular one being morels. Most people know two or three mushrooms, and, while morels are delicious, there are certainly others that are just as good.”

According to Gerlitz, morels show up around Mother’s Day weekend, or when the lilacs are in bloom, depending on elevation. My friends and I begin finding them in May and follow them up through the forest as snow melts.

Spring also means some mushroom forays for club members who have been through basic orientation and sign a liability waiver.

“We spend four to five hours picking together in areas that look good and aren’t in terrain that’s too difficult,” Gerlitz said. “We try to find as many species as possible and make sure everyone knows which ones are edible and which are not.”

Gerlitz said club members are serious amateurs. Unlike most European and Asian residents, Gerlitz said Americans suffer from fungi-phobia.

“In many countries, picking mushrooms is part of the culture, and it’s really not as complicated as some people might think.”

Fall mushroom are more numerous according to Gerlitz, with some favorites being white and yellow chanterelles and bearded tooth, or bear’s head, which are white and have pristine, white icicles-type spines hanging down. They grow on dead wood.

Brilliant orange chicken of the woods mushrooms can be found on dead wood, and while they are beautiful, they aren’t as tasty as others.

Chanterelles are very popular in the West and come up year after year in the same spot, so GPS those babies to find them again! I admit that these are my favorite finds in the fall.

Fall also brings matsutake mushrooms, which are large, rubbery, and robust. They smell like a spicy, red-hot candy when grilled. These wonderful shrooms are a big hit in Asia.

“Matsutake are highly sought after on the Asian market and can cost between $30-$70 each, depending on the quality,” Gerlitz said. “They have a short season—two-and-a-half to three weeks—in Idaho. But like chantarelles, matsutake grow in the same areas every year, so get a GPS lock on them.”

Gerlitz said a younger crowd has been showing up at meetings and expressing interest in learning about fungi. “There’s really been a resurgence in the club, with young people leading the increase.”

Gerlitz stressed he is not a professional mycologist, but is an avid, educated, serious amateur who enjoys sharing his knowledge with others.

“A great way to start is to do some basic reading on fungi. Really, nothing replaces that basic knowledge,” Gerlitz said.

He realizes that more people are turning to the internet rather than books for information, but having hands-on experience is key to safe mushroom hunting.

Working with knowledgeable and passionate mushroom hunters is a great way to learn and be safe.

Mushrooms in Montana

Montana has its own collection of native fungi. According to Montana Mycologist and photographer Tim Wheeler, September and October are the most prolific months for foraging in western Montana. For more information about Montana fungi, visit the Wild Montana web page dedicated to foraging local mushrooms.

You may also want to visit Montana Mushrooms, an online reference for mushroom information in the state.

The Western Montana Mycological Association, based out of Missoula, offers workshops, events, and forays across the state. The group offers education about fungi, encouraging responsible and sustainable mushroom harvesting, while working to protect and preserve mushroom habitat. Visit their website for more information.

Fungi are Fun

With COVID keeping us from large gatherings, now is the perfect time to start learning about mushrooms. Come spring, get ready to find delectable shrooms popping through woodland soils.

But remember, these mushrooms are native species, so sustainable harvesting is important to continue to find spring treasures and autumn gold! MSN

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