PRIEST LAKE, Idaho – Mushroom expert Michael Beug led an expedition into the damp forest near Priest Lake Saturday morning, pointing out the visible fruits from a mysterious subterranean world.
There were baseball-size specimens smelling of almonds, wet logs covered with slimy “witches’ butter,” peculiar mushrooms dripping with white liquid when cut, prized white matsutake mushrooms worth $100 per pound in Japan and clusters of buttons tasting of fried chicken.
After five years of dry summers in which some species were scarce, forests are again bursting with mushrooms. Beug, keynote speaker at the Spokane Mushroom Club’s annual fall foray, could barely speak fast enough as he darted between mushrooms poking through a soft carpet of electric green sphagnum moss. A contingent from the mushroom club followed behind, clinging to every word while trying to gather specimens for their own stewpots and sauté pans. They carried baskets or buckets with holes in the bottom – to help spread spores. Many took notes or snapped digital photos during Beug’s speed-walking lecture.
“Ooh! Let’s stop and talk about this,” the retired Evergreen State College professor said, pausing before a colorful Amanita muscaria. “This is the Alice in Wonderland mushroom. You can end up in the hospital after eating it. But it won’t kill you.”
Many of Beug’s statements ended with similar warnings, or a brief description of the consequences of a mistake – typically just a sore stomach for species growing in the Inland Northwest. The Amanita muscaria, however, often causes distortions of space and time and commonly leads people to think they are Jesus Christ. The Alice in Wonderland reference comes from the fact that Lewis Carroll experimented with the species while writing his famous book.
Each year members of the Spokane Mushroom Club spend a weekend exploring the region’s fungal jungle around Priest Lake. The area’s fusion of coastal and Rocky Mountain climates is a mycologist’s paradise, with more than 1,000 mushroom species believed to be growing in the area.
The pickers were abuzz Saturday morning with reports of a bumper crop of matsutake, which is the mushroom world’s equivalent of a gold nugget or a rookie Mickey Mantle baseball card. On Friday, Beug filled an 80-quart cooler with matsutake. He estimated his take to be worth $9,000 in Japan, where the strong-flavored, cinnamon-scented flesh has been prized for centuries. Beug plans to give away all of the mushrooms to his friends.
During most years, Beug said, he picks three or four matsutake the entire season. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Beug compares picking mushrooms to picking apples – the fungi poking out of the forest floor are the fruit of a massive underground network of mycorrhizae. Some of the underground fungal specimens are believed to be more than 1,000 years old, he said.
“They’re incredibly important to healthy forests,” he said. “Without the decay function of mushrooms, the forests would be piled high with litter and cease to function.”
Mushrooms are also good sources of nutrition for both humans and forest wildlife. “They’re comparable to peas and beans, but they’re very high in protein. They’re extremely nutritious.”
Just as mushrooms occupy a mysterious middle earth between the plant and animal worlds, mushroom pickers are in their own kingdom, too. While others walk through the forest staring at the tree canopy or watching birds, mushroom enthusiasts keep their eyes on the ground, searching for all that is damp, pungent and slimy. Their faces brighten at the mention of boletes, chanterelles, corals and morels.
Spokane contractor Orlando Ferraro compared it with fishing, but with better chances of success and less expense. Trips to the forest are calming and powerful tonics for his sore back. He’s also able to gather ingredients for his favorite recipes, including a New York steak covered in a porcini mushroom sauce.
“This is just like a postcard out here,” Ferraro said, speaking while Beug peered at a stump a few feet away. “Why do people travel to Mexico to look at the scenery when we have this right out our doorstep?”
Nearby, another club member held up a contorted, colorful specimen that looked like it came from a horror movie set or an alien spaceship’s pantry. Beug’s eyes widened. “What the hell is that?” he said.
Club members laughed. “That’s the first time you’ve said that!” said Michael Fox, a Spokane resident and novice picker.
Within seconds Beug had regained composure and sputtered out a name: “That’s fusco boletinus ochraceo roseus.”
Fox grinned. “Oh yeah, that’s what I was thinking.”
Even all the joking wasn’t enough to distract one club member’s focus from the forest floor. Her basket was heavy with matsutake and she rarely paused in her foraging. One of the mushroom foray participants – a beginner who barely knows mushrooms beyond the stems and pieces found in a can – nicknamed the zealous scavenger “The Shroomstress.”
Beug has taught more than 1,000 people to pick mushrooms and has never had a student become ill. Much of his mushroom safari consisted of safety lessons.
“If you eat this raw, it will rupture your red blood cell walls and you can die,” Beug said, holding a gelatinous-looking false morel.
Some mushrooms are easy for beginners to identify. Others require elaborate tests, including placing the cap atop white paper and observing the color of the spores. Pink spores could mean a trip to the hospital. Blue bruising on the cap or stem might just mean a long, strange trip, Beug said.
Jo Johnson, a longtime picker from Libby, Mont., soaked up Beug’s fountain of mushroom lore. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in the world’s most perfect classroom.
“This is really a treat,” she said.