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Mushroom Identity Crisis

11 March 2004


Foraging for fungi in the forest can be fun-and also fatal. It's not a sport for amateurs, warn two local mushroom experts.

"Hunting for mushrooms can be a great deal of fun, but one must also be somewhat careful before eating what is found. No one wants to risk his or her life for the sake of a pasta dinner with chanterelles," said Susanne Biancardi co-owner of Eclectico a new local store specializing in mushrooms.

Marc Kummel, a science teacher at Dunn Middle School in Los Olivos and a mushroom "enthusiast" for 30 years, said there is a "learning curve" when it comes to looking for edible mushrooms.

"You have to learn to recognize the deadly ones. Learn from books, learn from other people and learn from trial and error," he said. "Every mushroom has distinctive characteristics. Learn them. There are no shortcuts. Don't eat any entire mushroom the first time. Nibble to see if there is a reaction."

Always proceed with caution, said Ms. Biancardi. "A mushroom can often look exactly like a mushroom you've eaten all: your life, but those suckers are sneaky - sometimes you find a false mushroom."

Mr. Kummel pointed out that there are only a few mushrooms in the area that are deadly, "but quite a few can make you wish you were dead."

If you're planning to venture into the wild to search for mushrooms, Ms. Biancardi advises:

  • Learn as much as you can before you go out there. Books written by professionals are helpful in learning how to identify mushrooms.
  • Pick mushrooms thoughtfully. Look at it, observe the colors, the smells, texture and size.
  • Be selective. Pick ones in good condition and that you have learned to identify as edible mushrooms.
  • Just because an entire lot of mushrooms are all batched together in one spot, they may not all be alike. If you're not sure, separate them until you are able to identify them.
  • A good way to learn about specific mushrooms is to find out which species are in season.
  • When you take a mushroom home and you are not completely sure if it's edible, throw it out.

For Mr. Kummel, the bottom line is: "Find someone who knows about mushrooms and let him or her be your guide and teacher."

e-mail: mmcmahon@newspress.com