Friday, May 30, 2008

’Shroomers find spores galore

Express Staff Writer

Robin Hagenau searches for mushrooms Wednesday in the Draper Preserve in Hailey during the Wood River Land Trust’s annual Mushroom Walk. Photo by David N. Seelig

Some 50 eager mushroom hunters spread out across the Draper Wood River Preserve in Hailey on Wednesday afternoon. They wore rubber boots and carried baskets, digging spades and walking sticks. An hour later they gathered to compare fungi. Some were worth eating, some were not.

Spring rains had well prepared this 84-acre cottonwood forest on the east bank of the Big Wood River for the third annual Wood River Land Trust Mushroom Walk. Moist conditions allow for the emergence of mushrooms from spores within decaying wood and leaves.

"This is the first year the Land Trust has owned the 84 acres in the Draper Wood River Preserve," said Scott Boettger, executive director of the Wood River Land Trust. "We are thrilled to see it being used for public education."

The area was previously called the Cedar Bend Preserve and borders the Big Wood River for nearly half a mile.

Amateur mycologist Cathy Richmond gave a brief lecture on the diversity of Idaho mushroom species before setting the hunters loose. Mycologists study the use and classification of fungi, including mushrooms. Richmond gave special attention to the much-sought-after Morchella esculenta, or common morel, which many had come to find.

The morel species is a favorite of chefs and can fetch $35 dollars per pound. They can be eaten fresh or dried and stored for years.

Yet Richmond pointed out that there are thousands of mushroom species to be found in Idaho, many of them poisonous. The "false morel", or Verpa species, closely resembles the pitted and ridged appearance of the Morchella esculenta, but is toxic and can cause vomiting and diarrhea.

"True morels have no space between the stem and the cap," said Richmond, who is a member of the Southern Idaho Mycological Association and has learned to identify 400 species of mushrooms in Idaho.

The "shroomers" were advised to cut out the entire mushroom plant from below the surface of the ground, in order to study all its parts for proper identification. They were also told never to use plastic bags for collecting, as a mushroom will rot in plastic within an hour.

Richmond recently explored some of the burned areas west of Ketchum left in the wake of last year's Castle Rock Fire in search of Morels. To collect morels in the 48,520-acre Castle Rock burn area, households must get a free permit from the Ketchum Ranger District.

"Morels typically grow in abundance the first spring after such a forest fire," she said. "I still think it's too early up there. Maybe they will be there in another 10 days or so."

Yet the "shroomers" working the Draper Wood River Preserve on Wednesday found a few morels right in downtown Hailey, along with a few false ones that could easily fool a rookie. Also found were several examples of the edible Pleurotus ostreatus, or oyster mushroom, one specimen as big as a dinner plate.

All told, the mushroom walk produced about 10 species of fungi, many of them what Richmond described as "l.b.m.s" or "little brown mushrooms," a collection of species that are nearly indistinguishable from one another and should not be eaten without a thorough taxonomic identification. Identification can be made using a guidebook, and the more intensive practice of "spore-printing," which studies the particular colors of various species of mushrooms.

The Wood River Land Trust will hold another mushroom walk on Sunday, June 8, to gather edible mushrooms for the Sun Valley Food and Wine festival. For more information, call 788-3947.

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