The world of mushrooms is for many, a rather alien world of mystery and misconceptions. While many may be familiar with local plants & animals, the realm of fungi seems slightly strange and shrouded in secrecy. We are often warned to be cautious with mushrooms and told that they’re best left alone. Sage advice, but unfortunate, as well. While there are many poisonous and even deadly mushrooms, they are, for the most part, harmless, and certain varieties, incredibly delicious! Some of our local mushrooms rank among the best in the world.
My boys and l enjoy going out to harvest our mushrooms. We collect mostly chanterelles, both yellow and white. We gather quite a few, and then dry them in our dehydrator, package them in freezer bags, and store them in our freezer for year-round use.
Chanterelles are collected commercially here in the B.C. coastal region. Their harvest begins with the fall rains and continues until frost becomes severe, usually around mid-November. They can be found in mature forests of hemlock and fir. When the whites are dried, they turn yellow and look just like the yellow chanterelles. Their texture is tender, yet does not break apart like other mushrooms, making it ideal for salads, stir-fries, soups, or sauces. Their flavor is similar to spicy apricot, and they’re best when fried in garlic butter and served up with seafood.
Chanterelles are one of the most popular mushrooms collected here. They are commercially harvested and shipped fresh to Europe, where they sell for a premium price.
Another mushroom we enjoy gathering is the coral mushroom. They are found in late summer and fall, at higher elevations here on Vancouver Island as well as in all the coastal region. They are most commonly found in wooded areas, especially in conifer forests – on the ground, on stumps & fallen logs, or in open fields. Most are shaped like the ocean coral they’re named after. They are white to off white in color, with groups of stems that grow upward & branch out. Some species resemble heads of cauliflower or lettuce, in appearance, while others look like upright worms, forks or clubs.
We have many inedible mushrooms, here, which are quite spectacular to observe. One such variety is the black cup fungus, found at higher altitudes on the Island. It is native to western North America & Asia, and while not fatal if eaten, it will make you ill. This mushroom strain was first described in 1928, as a unique fungus growing on conifer wood debris. It develops under the snow, maturing as snow melts, and reaches its visible fruiting stage, between late July and early September.
There are several ways to identify the black cup fungus in its natural setting. It grows in scattered groups, attached to buried woody debris. This species often appears in areas where snow is melting in early summer. They can be easily overlooked without the presence of a white, snow-covered background.
Examine the shallow, goblet-shaped, black cup fungus. Its body is 1-3 cm wide, with a 1- 4 cm long stem. The stalk is attached to mycelium, a mass of branching, thread-like filaments that act as a root system. The cup-shaped fungi that grow from this structure are the fruiting bodies.
Identify the fungus by its distinctive dark brown or black color. The interior is black, and the exterior is dark brown, with orange coloration on the lip of the cup & outer wall. It is smooth when young, becoming wrinkled with age, or when drying. The cup’s edge is slightly wavy & curving inward, and flaring out with maturity & time. Its external surface is covered with delicate, brown-black hairs, while its inner side contains the spore-producing tissue layer.
Another inedible species, here, is the witches cap. Also known as the blackening wax cap mushroom, this type turns black as it develops. This fungus flourishes along back roads where the grass is well-shaded. Witches cap can be bright red, orange, yellow, or even jet-black in color. It can be found growing in groups of one specific color, or individual mushrooms may contain all of these colors.
Lichens are another very interesting type of fungi, and the freckle pelt is one of my favorites. It is an interesting leaf lichen – dull grayish-green when dry, turning freckled, bright green when wet. The bottom surface sometimes has broad cotton-like veins that darken inwardly from the tips of the lobes.
A northern plant, and common on Vancouver Island, they can be seen in forested areas, growing on moss, humus, and decaying logs & rocks. Interesting to note – freckle pelt can be boiled to make a healing wash to treat chapped skin on the face, hands, feet, and babies’ diaper rashes.
Mushrooms are not actually plants. In the 1960’s they were reclassified into a separate family called fungi. The part of the fungus that you see growing is the fruit, the living body of the fungus is the mycelium, a root-like system.
Mycelium is usually found underground, in wood or some other food source. It may fill a single ant, as in the case of parasitic fungi, or can cover many acres. The branching hyphae can add over a kilometer of total length to the mycelium, each day. These webs dwell undetected until they develop their fruit. Seeing that mycelium will sometimes only produce macroscopic fruiting bodies, you may never even recognize they’re there, as you walk about, exploring.
There are many types of mushrooms or fungi, and lichens on the Pacific Northwest coast. Take a walk in our island forests, and discover this fascinating & mysterious world, and all that it has to offer!