Thursday, August 15, 2019
By MCHT Land Steward Kirk Gentalen
Maine summers get hot (I'm a broken record, I know). August is a great time to be an insect, or anything cold-blooded, really. For warm-blooded humans, though, these are the “sweaty days.” And as an observer, it’s hard not to notice that things in nature often slow down a little with the heat (and sweat). Not quite to a halt, but close to mid-winter levels of activity—a steady, but non-overwhelming pace. (The difference, of course, is how incredibly comfortable winter is. Okay, okay, I hear you—enough already!)
The oppressive summer heat and its associated dryness can’t stop fungus from doing what they do, however.
It’s all about relationships, man
Sure, when the top layers of soil dry up, most fungal activity dries up with it. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find fungal mycelium happily absorbing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Many fungus species will then trade these absorbed treasures with plants, via roots, for sugars made during plant photosynthesis.
It’s the classic “mycorrhizal” symbiotic relationship between plant and fungus, working together to build a robust forest habitat. We’ve been over this before, I know. Repetition (cloning) can be key to getting into the fungal state of mind, and it’s a relationship worth repeating. It’s a relationship worth repeating.
Just add water, and the shrooms show up
Summer mushrooms give credence to the catchphrase “just add water” from the old Gravy Train commercials. With a little rain, or even some thick fog, woods and yards alike respond with a bloom of summer shrooms. They may go quickly, sometimes lasting only a day or two before drying up. But they’ll last long enough to disperse their spores—and it’s all about those spores.
For any myco-novice, the number of mushroom species in mid-coast Maine can seem a little overwhelming, even when focusing solely on “mushrooms that look like mushrooms”—no shelf or coral or whatever.
Organize what you find, however, and you’ll see that around 80% of mushrooms in mid-coast Maine are members of four mushroom families: Boletaceae, Russulaceae, Cortinariaceae, and Amanitaceae. Understanding this gives mushroom observers a place to start in the identification process.
A Boletophile with a soft spot for Amanitas
And while I am a self-proclaimed Boleto-phile, in my mind the summer is owned by Amanitas, fungally speaking of course.
Amanita diversity can be good after a summer rain, with a mix of Cleft-footed (Amanita brunnescens), Tawny Grissette (A. fulva), Grissette (A. vaginata), Strangulated Grissette (A. ceciliae), Fly agaric (A. muscaria), Yellow Patches (A. flavoconia), Frost’s Amanita (A. frostiana) and the Destroying Angel (A. virosa) lining trails and sprinkled throughout a forest after a moist summer day. I may be a sucker for Boletes, but deep down inside I am an Amanita man.
In mid-coast Maine The Blusher (Amanita rubescens) is not a rare summer mushroom by any means. In fact, along with Yellow Patches it is one of the most abundant (early) summer Amanitas. And yet, pound for pound, it is one of the most overlooked and underappreciated Amanita. Let’s see if we can change that, shall we?
One issue with Blushers is simply recognition. American naturalist David Arora says that the Blusher “in many respects is an exasperatingly variable Amanita.” That is true. Blusher mushroom caps are mostly white(ish) to tan(nish) and covered with scales representing a good portion of the color spectrum—ranging from white to pinkish to brownish, to grayish.
Sometimes edible, sometimes not so much…
All parts of a Blusher mushroom stain red when torn, chewed or incidentally bumped (thus, the common name “Blusher”). Arora states that “the “blushing” of the cap, stem and flesh “is the one infallible fieldmark for this fickle fungus.” This staining process may take minutes or longer before being noticeable, and so while the blushing may be the reliable fieldmark for this species, the blushing itself is always on the Blusher’s terms—make no mistake of that.
As a family, Amanitas are the deadliest group of mushrooms in North America. And yet, most Amanitas are non-poisonous and a few species—Ceaser Amanitas in the east, Corcorra in the west—are considered “choice edibles.”
Field guides describe the edibility of Blushers as “good, with caution,” which is a standard phrase whenever you mention eating Amanitas to strangers. In other words, you can eat it, but it's on you to identify correctly. You are taking your life into you’re your own hands. For you see, even though Blushers are “good,” they need to be cooked thoroughly as they contain “a hemolytic toxin in its raw state and hence causes anemia if eaten raw.” Just another mushroom that is edible when prepared correctly. Remember: do your research before eating any wild mushroom!
Blushers and more blushers
When you find a patch of Blushers (or any Amanita for that matter), it’s a safe bet you’ll be able to find more in the same general area year after year. Over time you can get a feel for Amanita populations and dispersal in your area, another step in “getting to know your neighborhood.”
But the knowledge doesn’t stop there as Blushers are routinely parasitized by Amanita mold (Hypomyces hyalinus). The mold turns Blusher mushrooms into “a phallic, chalky, pimpled mutation of its former self,” writes Lawrence Millman. Molds gotta live, too. So, as you learn about Blusher distribution, you can also learn where the Amanita molds live as well! The learning, like the music, never stops!
There’s a lot going on with Amanita rubescens. They are mycorrhizal with trees as a fungus, a non-poisonous, “good” edible as a mushroom, and seem to have an endless variety of looks while changing color over time. Blushers are also a great way to learn about Hypomyces mold distribution, for those interested in mold distribution (you know you are interested!). A species easy to dismiss, but one worth a second viewing for sure. And then a third…
See you out there!
A version of this story originally appeared in the St. George Dragon.