By Bob Brett
Date: October 5, 2001
Only a couple of weeks ago fungus lovers were lamenting the lack of rain, but the gods have been kind since. Keen mushroom hunters with dollars in their eyes are out scouring the woods for pine mushrooms to trade for big bucks. Others, concerned more with filling their dinner plates than their pockets, are searching for chanterelles, boletes, and other gourmet treats.
Both types of mushroom hunters ‘commercial and culinary’ share a similar dislike of one type of mushroom. Not because it is poisonous or ugly or slimy or smelly, but because it is everywhere. Hunters looking for other quarry appreciate this mushroom about as much as a big pimple on prom night.
The maligned mushroom of which I speak is the Short-stemmed Russula, and it’s the one erupting in amazing abundance under the green shag carpet of moss in our woods. You’ve no doubt seen it. It has a big white stem and a huge, funnel-shaped cap. The whitish cap, often as big as a dinner plate, is covered in dirt and other litter, and maybe a beanie of moss from where it has pushed through.
Russulas are usually very firm and even crisp. Breaking the stalk will feel and sound a bit like breaking chalk (if it then bleeds a latex-like substance, it’s a Milk Cap not a Russula). All very well, but can ya eat’em?
After checking with various guidebooks and confirming with Todd Bush, it turns out some Russulas are choice edibles. The ubiquitous and humongous Short-stemmed Russula is not one of them. Edible, yes, but then again so is this newspaper. “Edible” in fungus-ese means only that it won’t kill you or cause you a night conversing with the big white telephone. It doesn’t say anything about taste.
According to David Arora, fungus guru and author of the quirky, 959-page “Mushrooms Demystified,” this “harmless, prolific mushroom” is: (1) better punted than hunted; (2) better trampled than sampled; and (3) better kicked than picked. You get the drift.
But focussing solely on taste and edibility misses the point of mushrooming. There’s lots of beauty in the woods and it doesn’t matter most of it would make a poor (or deadly) meal. The fact that an old-growth Douglas-fir tree or a carpet of moss would never grace your dinner plate doesn’t diminish their beauty either.
I have Todd Bush to thank for helping introduce me to the beauty of the mushroom world. He’s out in the woods again this Saturday leading the Whistler Naturalists’ mushroom walk (more details below). If you want to bone up on mushrooms for the walk, drop by the Whistler Library. Mushroom books are kept behind the counter (I’m not sure what this says about the morality of mushroomers) so you’ll have to ask one of the helpful librarians. Read the first 30 or so pages of Mushrooms Demystified and you’ll see that that fun and fungus are not mutually exclusive. You can read the other 929 pages later, just be sure to return the book.