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The morel of the story: Be careful

Talk about a Thanksgiving bounty.

I have in front of me 30 different kinds of mushrooms, picked during a one-hour walk early this week (just before the blizzard hit) right here in the city limits of Spokane. Some of them are the size of salad plates.

I had no idea that there were so many mushrooms in our woods.

Nor did I have the slightest clue which one would cause me to die a horrible, gurgling death.

But last week, my almost complete ignorance didn’t stop me from doing a little experimenting. No, I didn’t rashly and naively scarf down a toadstool omelet and then check to see whether my kidneys failed. Give me credit for at least a few brains.

Instead, I handed them to my neighbors.

“Here, try these and tell me if you die a horrib – I mean, tell me what you think,” I said.

That doesn’t sound right. I should explain the context.

My neighbors know more about mushrooms than I do. They are naturalists, expert in all kinds of plant identification. So I wasn’t foisting my fungi off on a couple of innocents.

However, one of the appalling things I have discovered during my extremely brief tenure as a mushroom collector is that even mushroom experts aren’t entirely sure which mushrooms are which.

See, I recently read that there may be 10,000 species of mushrooms in North America. Most of them are exceedingly difficult to identify. A lot of them look different week to week and in different habitats. Nobody has any idea whether many of them are edible or not, due to a lack of testing volunteers.

So identifying mushrooms is a little like being a birdwatcher, if only there were 10,000 different birds and if, when you guessed wrong, the bird would murder you.

This fungal fascination all began for me two weeks ago when I took my regular walk through the woods and noticed that, suddenly, the forest floor was abloom with hundreds of mushrooms. Some were the size and shape of hamburger buns. Others looked like white chanterelles. Sort of.

So I picked one, brought it home, and tried to identify it with guidebooks. I finally narrowed it down to either a kind of “waxycap” or a clitocybe. They look pretty much the same, except one is safe and the other can cause respiratory failure. One sure way to find out is to eat one and then see if you wake up in the emergency room.

So I, rashly and naively, took a tiny nibble. I suffered no ill effects, aside from the fact that I could not, exactly, focus my eyes.

But who knows? That might have been from the pint of Northern Lights Winter Ale I had consumed at about the same time. At least I had confirmed that it wasn’t lethal in small doses.

Yet I finally came to my senses and decided that I really shouldn’t gobble a whole casserole of them, which is why I foisted them off on the neighbors. I was pretty nervous for a couple of days whenever I heard a siren in the neighborhood. (They were fine.)

Now I know why even a lot of experienced mushroom gatherers stick to three or four kinds that are particularly easy to identify, such as the morel. It’s impossible to mistake a morel for anything else. Except for the false morel, which is toxic. And the “stinkhorn,” which nobody would even want to eat.

Now I’ve decided I’m going to play it safe and never experiment with wild mushrooms. But just out of curiosity, I decided to see how many varieties I could gather in a short walk through Spokane’s ponderosa forests. That’s where I found these 30, but I know I overlooked many, many more.

So on this Thanksgiving weekend, I think we should give thanks for nature’s glorious abundance. And, especially, we should give thanks for the fact that nature’s glorious abundance did not, in this case, give us kidney failure.

Reach Jim Kershner at jimk@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5493.


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