Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Picking Mushrooms for Identification

Geopora cooperi - ©M. Kilger

"I desired to know what Mushrooms they had in the Market. I found but few, at which I was surpris'd, for I have all my Life been very Curious and inquisitive about this kind of Plant, but I was absolutely astonish'd to find, that as for Champignons, and Moriglio's, they were as great strangers to 'em as if they had been bred in Japan."--William King's Journey to London, 1699, demonstrating the continuing English suspicion of fungi.


Episode VIII: A New Find

One day, a few years ago, I was picking Morels in a burn and came across a likely-looking 'shrump.

When I brushed the duff off of the top, I was shocked to find something that I had never seen before. Initially, it just looked like a Morel with a bit of dirt on top of it; but, pulling it up revealed it to be something far different.

Immediately, I brushed it as clean as possible, and bisected it to get a better look at its structure. Could this be some sort of bizarrely deformed Gyromitra??

I captured a few images of the mushroom in situ, brushed off, but whole, and bisected. I shot them off to one of the best identifiers with whom I am acquainted, and they pointed me in the right direction to discover which species I had found. This was my first experience with Geopora cooperi, and I learned a good bit from it.

You picked a mushroom that you didn't know!  

We have all seen it, in the online mushroom community, and even sometimes in person: "Why did you pick those mushrooms, if you don't know what they are?"

The answer is very simple: "Because I didn't know what it was, and I need a few specimens to work with for identification."

Realistically, we can take all of the images that we want and note as much information as possible about the environment in which a particular mushroom is growing, and do all of the things right - but still be missing information vital to the identification of that particular mushroom.

There is no substitute for having at least one (and preferably a number of them) specimen in hand.

With specimens in hand you can do many things that are simply not feasible in the field - microscopic inspection of the structures in the mushroom, such as spores, spore-bearing tissue, pileal tissues, etc.; chemical reagent tests; staining/bruising tests; changes in aroma due to temperature; as well as just a very thorough review of the morphology of the mushroom in question.

Why are you killing mushrooms for curiosity?

That's really the first argument that comes up, and its premise is unfounded. 

To rationally discuss the issue, we need to know a little bit about mushroom biology. 

What is a mushroom?

A mushroom is a sporocarp - an organ for developing and dispersing spores. It is, in actuality, a reproductive organ, analogous to a plant's fruit. 

The organism that produces it is the mycelium, which permeates the substrate and gathers energy from the nutrients therein. This organism is not damaged by picking its fruit.

When conditions are right, and all environmental factors are optimal, that mycelium produces fruits - mushrooms - to allow it to share its genes with the rest of the world. 

Those mushrooms produce spores which are dispersed in a number of ways, most commonly on the wind. 

Each mushroom produces hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of spores - each with the capability to germinate into hyphae, and grow into mycelia of their own, repeating this same cycle elsewhere. 

How does picking its fruit affect the mycelium? 

Realistically, it doesn't - no more than picking an apple, or a handful of berries, affects the tree or bush from which they came.

Mushrooms are fruiting bodies - not the life of the organism.

If we were talking about a plant, there are certainly good reasons to leave it in situ, as pulling up a plant often does end the life of that plant, and removes it from the gene pool.

However, fungi are not plants. They are completely different taxonomic kingdoms, and for good reason.

Without digging up the majority of the mycelium, you're doing no damage by pulling a mushroom out of the soil. The mycelium is unharmed, and may actually benefit (very slightly) from the act. We have over 60 years of empirical data to back these conclusions.

But spores are important for next year's mushrooms!

Yes... and no. 

Spores help to establish mycelia in other locations, and those mycelia may eventually provide fruits of their own; but, existing mycelia persist as long as their environment can accommodate them, and produce fruiting bodies whenever conditions are right. 

Moreover, the chances of anyone picking every single sporocarp produced by a single mycelium are fairly slim, especially when considered on a year-over-year basis. 

Even, however, if a person WERE to pick all of the mushrooms, every year, from a single mycelium, those mushrooms are often producing spores, or have dispersed most of their spores, by the time that you find them. By carrying them around with you, you may actually be helping disperse those spores into wind currents which they would have otherwise missed. 

How about food for the animals?

Very few animals use fungi as a staple food. 

Deer are known to nibble the occasional mushroom, and maybe even a few at a time; but their mainstay is vegetation. 

Turkeys seem to be a scourge when it comes to Morels; but, they are more interested in the larvae and insects within them. 

Squirrels are one of the few mammals that have developed strategies to deal with some mycotoxins. They also display storage behaviour, when it comes to fungi, and I cannot even count the number of Russula and other mushrooms that I have seen hanging in tree branches, or stuffed into cubbies in trees, for later squirrely feasts. That said, however, they still prefer nuts and seeds - which are far more nutritive than fungi. 

However, when we get down to microfauna, the base of the food chain, we see mycophagy as a more important food. Slugs, and a number of insects use mushrooms as food and nurseries. These insects also become food for larger fauna. 

However, we also tend to avoid harvesting insect-infested fungi, for the most part, so their food and nursery sources are probably pretty well covered. Certainly not threatened to the point where their species will die out, or become endangered. 

Unfortunately, I have not been able to uncover any research studies done on the topic of fungi as a contribution to the food web; however, our impact on that contribution is most likely minimal. 

If you find such research, please feel free to share them - primary sources, only, please.

How to harvest for identification

A few important things to consider, when harvesting specimens to identify. 

  • Keep the specimens intact and protected.
    If you carry a number of small paper bags for just such an occasion, this can help keep specimens separated and protected. Use a rigid container, such as a bucket, for transporting quantities of specimens for identification.
  • Gather the entire specimen.
    Carefully excavate the base of the stipe, keeping intact any tissue around that base. This tissue, especially in the case of Amanita species, can be diagnostic in itself, and should not be destroyed or lost.
  • Take notes.
    Note the nearby foliage, type of substrate (is there buried wood in that loam? Mulch? mosses? What species of wood is that growing from?), date, weather, location, terrain, etc. Gather as much information as possible.
  • Take pictures.
    For identification, start with a few images of the mushroom in situ - before you pick it. Follow that with images of all aspects of the mushroom, after excavating it. Be especially sure to capture any tissue at the base of the stipe, the point where the stipe attaches to the pileus and lamellae, annulus (if present), and other features. Cross sections or bruised areas also should be captured as completely as you can.
    Make sure that all images are taken in natural light, and do not adjust the images to make them "prettier" - use them as they came. 

Conclusion

The minimal disadvantages, if any, to picking mushrooms that you do not know, and which may just "go to waste" (i.e., become compost) are far outweighed by the knowledge that can be gained by bringing home those same mushrooms to study and identify. 

If you happened to gather a nice bunch, which turn out to be edible and good, then you also have given yourself the opportunity to try them as food, and see how you like them. 

Maybe you'll have to schedule a return trip to pick more of them, after you have added them to your "known mushrooms" checklist. 

In essence, don't pick-shame folks for collecting mushrooms that they have not yet identified. They are doing no harm to anyone or anything, and they are learning from the experience. 

If you choose not to do the same, then that is your own choice. It may slow your knowledge growth, or it may not, but the choice is yours. Don't attempt to shame others into compliance with your choice, when there is no impact beyond your own sensibilities. 

Happy hunting! 



Wednesday, 15 May 2019

The Mesh Bag Morass

Morchella importuna in da hat!
©M. Kilger

"Use a mesh bag, so you spread the seeds, otherwise they won't grow no more!" 


How many hundreds of times, per season, do you see something similar to this come across your Morel/mushroom feeds?

A lot, right?

Because a large number of people feel that it's vitally important that you carry your Morels (and, apparently, other species) in a mesh bag, so that they can "spread spores".

So let's talk about this.

Spores are not seeds


Part of the issue is that many people don't really understand how mushrooms work. 

Mushrooms are not plants, and spores are not seeds. 

Mushrooms are the reproductive bodies of fungi, which are members of the taxonomical kingdom, Fungi (surprising, no?), and are not members of the Plantae kingdom. 

Seeds are a more complex, multicellular structure that nourishes the nascent plant within, while it gestates.

Spores are unicellular structures which, when germinated, become hyphae - the first, filamentous stage of fungal growth. 

As mentioned, mushrooms aren't plants - they do not grow directly from the spores in a 1:1 ratio. They are the fruiting body of a larger organism, made up of hyphae, called a mycelium. 

Sporulation

The genus Morchella is in the family Morchellaceae - the Morels that we so love - which is part of the phylum Ascomycota. 

This is relevant, because it helps to describe the way in which Morchella sporulate - that is, how they distribute their spores. 

Ascomycota produce their spores in groups, within a structure called an ascus. 

Asci are vase-shaped organs, and in Morchellaceae, they are capped with an operculum, which covers the open end. 

As the ascocarp (mushroom) develops and matures, there comes a point where the pressure inside of an ascus exceeds the ambient pressure, and that operculum ruptures, causing the spores to eject from the ascus and catch the wind. 

This action, in many cases, causes adjacent asci to also rupture, resulting in a chain-reaction, referred to as "puffing" (yes, that IS the technical term), releasing clouds of spores at just about the same time. 

Morels, when mature, have already puffed out the vast majority of their spores, by the time that you find them, or during the process of harvesting and brushing them. 

This means that, by the time that they reach your bag, they have dumped more spores than they still hold. 

If you are picking immature mushrooms, they aren't ready to sporulate anyway, so mesh bags won't help spore dispersal at all. 

What does the science say? 

Honestly? Nothing. 

We currently have no data that supports or refutes any human effect on Morchella spore distribution. 

However, given the method by which they disperse their spores, it seems unlikely that there is any statistically significant effect. 

How should I carry my Morels? 

However you like. 

Use whatever method works best for you, whether it is a mesh bag, a bucket, a box, a hat, a shirt, a pillowcase, a backpack, your hands... literally, whatever you like. 

The important thing is protecting them from damage, and allowing them air flow. In a sealed environment, especially in warmer weather, they are prone to bacterial growth and quick decay. Allowing air flow helps prevent this, by allowing moisture to escape. 

Keep in mind, of course, that crawling over, under, and through brush, logs, and other obstacles can crush Morels, when kept in a non-rigid container. Depending on where you hunt, this may be a factor in determining the proper container for your finds. 

However you want to carry them, though, is not going to hurt the population, or their propagation. 

Good luck, and happy hunting! 






















Tuesday, 14 May 2019

The Root of the Problem - Cutting vs. Pulling

Morchella snyderii
@M. Kilger


As you've probably noticed, if you have been following along, there is a lot of mythology associated with Morel hunting.

Today, let's address one of the more controversial ones:

To Cut, or Not to Cut

That is the question.

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of other Morel hunters, whose mythology dictates that cutting kills the patch, or to take arms against a sea of misinformation and pull those dirty buggers out of the ground.

In reality, there is a considerable quantity of data which indicate that it doesn't matter how you harvest a mushroom.

In 2005, a team or researchers, comprised of Simon Egli; Martina Peter; Christoph Buser; Werner Stahel; and Fran├žois Ayer, published a research paper titled "Mushroom picking does not impair future harvests - results of a long-term study in Switzerland".

The data, on which the paper was built, were gathered over a period of approximately 30 years, and demonstrated that neither cutting, not pulling, mushrooms had a deleterious effect on the production of those same mycelia in the following years.

Concurrently, a study in the United States, in the state of Oregon, was being conducted which studied Cantharellus species (Chanterelles), specifically, and also ran for over 30 years. The Chanterelle Project, headed by Lorelei Norvell, published several papers on their research, including this one.

Incidentally, both studies came to the same, independent, conclusions: The greatest detriment, to the mycelia that provide mushrooms, comes in the form of soil compaction caused by trampling. How you harvest, whether by cutting above the soil, cutting below the soil, cutting at the soil, pulling out of the soil with your hand, pulling with your toes, kicking, biting, or a good golf swing - the organism that provided the mushrooms doesn't really care.

It will continue to produce mushrooms at the rate that its environment will support, until it dies, or no longer has the nutrients to provide the energy for that act.

So, no matter how you like to harvest, you do you - just walk gently, and pick up your trash after you.

Of course, if you ask me, you should ALWAYS cut your Morels at least half an inch above the soil. That way, when I'm walking in the area, I can see where you picked mushrooms, and find the ones that you missed.

As a side note, if you decide that pulling is the easiest method for you, I would highly recommend that you trim off the soil-covered base of the stipe, and then brush your mushroom clean (which you should be doing, in any case) before putting in your basket/bag/bucket/whatever.

This has no bearing on the productivity of the mushroom patch, but it certainly makes for less cleaning later, and can avoid having to soak or wash soil off of them.

Happy hunting!

Half-free morels and Verpa - The Fake False Real False Morels

Left: Morchella populiphila
Right: Verpa bohemica


Today's topic seems to be a bit of a stumper for many, who don't spend a lot of time working with, or identifying a variety of mushrooms: This LOOKS a bit like a Morel, but the cap doesn't meed the stem at the bottom. Is it poisonous?

The answer is, most probably, "No."

You probably have one of 5 species of fungi, on which there seems to be a lot of confusion. So let's work to clear the air.

North America hosts two species of "Half-free Morels", Morchella punctipes, and Morchella populiphila. These are morphologically similar, but easy to tell from the most common Verpa species, Verpa bohemica and Verpa conica.

While they are in the same family, Morchellaceae, they are different genera (Morchella and Verpa, respectively), and have differing characteristics by which they can be recognized.

Both are considered, by many, to be "true" Morels, and both are equally edible. The distinction between Verpa and "Morels" seems to be mostly a North American thing.

Morchella: West side vs. East side

The first difference that I want to address is specific to the Morchella species. 

There are two species of "Half-Free Morel" in North America - Morchella punctipes, and Morchella populiphila.. (Morchella semilibera is not a North American species).

Morphologically, they are pretty much identical, but they differ in location and host tree. In the west side of the country are M. popuphila, which live with Populus spp. (Cottonwoods).

The east has M. punctipes under various hardwoods. 


Verpa: Two species (OK, there are more, but we're focusing here!)

There are two species of Verpa of concern -  Verpa bohemica and Verpa conica. There are other species in this genus, but these are the most commonly found, and the most commonly confused with the aforementioned Morchella. 

V. conica is easy to differentiate from V. bohemica and Morchella, because the "cap" is smooth, without sharp wrinkles.

V. bohemica is the one that is most commonly mistaken for Morchella.



Here are the key morphological differences between the two genera:

Cap: 

  • Morchella - The cap is made of ridged, or netted tissue. It has sharply defined ridges or netting and pits.
  • Verpa bohemica - the cap is comprised of sharply folded tissue. A cross-section will reveal the difference, if you're uncertain by looking at it.
  • Verpa conica: The cap is smooth, without much texture or folded tissue. 

Stipe:

  • Morchella: The stipe is granulose (grainy, with many tiny bumps) in most specimens and generally completely hollow through the attachment to the cap.
  • Verpa: The stipe is smoother and, often, filled with a cottony pith. In older specimens gaps can develop in the pith, giving a hollow impression, but the walls of the cavity are generally quite moist in this case. The stipe may also show some lateral striations, though it does not have the granulose appearance of Morchella. 

Cap attachment:

  • Morchella: The stipe meets up and attaches to the cap part-way down the length of the cap (thus the "half-free" designation). In many cases, especially younger speciment, the attachment point appears constricted within the stipe, giving the appearance of a triangular cavity at the top. 
  • Verpa: In both Verpa species, the stipe only connects to the cap at the apex of the cap, leaving the cap sitting, like a thimble, atop the stipe. 

Aroma

  • Morchella: Well... they smell like Morels. A similar aroma to the Morel aromas with which you are already (presumably) familiar. 
  • Verpa: The aroma of Verpa is distinctive, and with some experience, a person can tell between the two, using this characteristic, alone. Verpa have an aroma that is reminiscent of chlorine or semen, sometimes also described as slightly metallic. This aroma fades, however, when cooked. 

Edibility: 


Both genera are edible, and excellent. Contrary to mythology, both the stipe and the cap of the mushroom are fully edible, and (in my opinion) the Verpa stipe is even more flavorful than the cap. 

Yes, some people have adverse reactions to Verpa... or Morchella. Adverse reactions include gastric distress and nausea. These are more inline with the symptoms of a food intolerance, and can be caused by any species of mushroom (or any other food). 

However, NAMA toxicology records indicate that both should probably be treated as toxic when raw or undercooked. 

There have been a number of reports of neurological symptoms such as loss of coordination, sneezing, numbness, dizziness, and others which have been linked to Morchella spp. (ALL Morchella species - not just the two described in this article), and to a lesser extent, Verpa spp. 

Therefore, be certain to always cook Morchella or Verpa thoroughly before ingesting. 

All of these mushrooms are very enjoyable to find, and eat. This article should help you to differentiate between them. 

Happy hunting! 

Verpa bohemica


Verpa Bohemica - bisected


Verpa bohemica - In some cases, the cap can dry up a bit, and closely resemble the ridges of Morchella, but the stipe is clearly Verpa.


Left:Young specimens of Morchella populiphila, bisected and whole.
Right: Verpa bohemica, bisected and whole

Morchella punctipes
(NOTE: This image came from Midwest American Mycological Information's Web page.) 

Friday, 10 May 2019

If It's Hollow, Chew and Swallow: Poor advice

Gyromitra Esculenta, and my li'l rainbow mascot
©M. Kilger


"If it's hollow, chew and swallow!"

We've all heard/seen this old chestnut in some form or another. The idea being that, if it looks similar to a Morel, you should bisect the mushroom, vertically, to verify that it is, in fact, a Morel.

This one, like many of these old adages dealing with mushrooms, is less-than-adequate and can even be dangerous.


What is wrong with it?

To begin with, very few of these sorts of adages hold up to any sort of scrutiny, and are best left as footnotes of amusing old wives tales.

This particular one is problematic because it doesn't use any external characteristics for identification of the mushroom in question. It just states that a hollow mushroom must be good to eat.

This is, in fact, incorrect.

Specifically in the case of Gyromitra esculenta, one of the acutely toxic "false Morel" species, this is a recipe for a bad time.

G. esculenta also has a hollow stipe; however, ingestion of this species can be acutely toxic, without proper preparation.


How SHOULD we distinguish Morels from other genera? 

Morchella spp. all have somewhat similar external morphology.

They all have well-formed, sterile ridges of tissue, that make up the texture of their pilei, and fertile pits between these ridges, in which the spores are produced.

They may have a sinus between the stipe and the "cap" which can extend up to two thirds of the length of the cap, in the case of Morchella populiphila, M. punctipes, and M. semilibera. This does not make them "false", it is just part of their morphology.

They all have more-or-less granulose* stipes, which are generally mostly hollow, though some species may have tissue within the stipe, giving it a chambered appearance. These species can be easily discerned from Gyromitra species with the previously discussed features.

One dichotomous key that can be of use, when in doubt, is at http://www.mushroomexpert.com/morchellaceae


But what about the hollow stem?

Again, a number of different mushrooms have hollow stipes. As far as I can tell, this adage is designed to help discern Morchella punctipes/populiphila from Verpa bohemica.

As Verpa are perfectly edible, when cooked, the use of this one characteristic, to distinguish between the different genera, really only serves to confuse the issue. If your primary focus is food, and you have not experienced any adverse reaction to Verpa spp. or Half-free morels, then there really is no need to be overly concerned about a hollow, or pith-filled stipe. Just enjoy the mushrooms.

See the upcoming entry on Verpa vs. Morchella - The Morel Madness for more information on Verpa bohemica.


*Granulose means covered with small grains or granules. Basically, slightly rough, as if it has sand on it. Almost all Morchella have some granulose texture on their stipe, especially as they age, unless it has been rubbed off. 

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Clarification of So-Called "False Morels" - The Greatest Fungal Falsehood

Gyromitra esculenta


Today we're talking about so-called, "false Morels".

Let's start with the fact that "false Morels" really do not exist. This is a common name that is applied to a number of species across several genera, which include Verpa, Gyromitra, and Helvella.


What does that mean, in practical terms?

It means that the term is confusing and is only one step away from using the term "mushroom" to describe a species of fungus.

Let's stop using this disingenuous term, and start calling things what they are.

Helvella are, generally, pretty easy to distinguish from most species of Gyromitra, which are also quite easy to distinguish from Verpa.

Verpa can be more tricky to tell from Morchella punctipes or Morchella populiphila, but the features that separate them are not too difficult to pick up.


So, what is wrong with calling them "false Morels"? 

This term is a detriment to learning, and its use should be stopped. The fewer people that use the term, the faster is will cease to exist.

Beyond the imprecision of the term, it also reinforces, in the mind of the person using it, that there is some sort of connection between the Morchella species which they seek, and these other genera of fungi.

It also implies intent, on the part of the fungi, to deceive us into eating them, by trying to look like Morchella. I would hope that we are all well aware that fungi do not have the faculties to perpetuate such a broad deception, nor would they have impetus to do so.

This is merely humans anthropomorphizing fungi, yet again. Let's stop doing that.

The worst part, however, is that there are two (perhaps three) species of Gyromitra which can be acutely toxic - that means that they can make you very, very ill and cause long-term damage to your body. They may even kill you, if eaten in very large quantity.

How, you may ask, does that have any bearing on why the term "false Morel" should be put to death?

Because it muddies the waters, so to speak, regarding edibility of the other species and genera which are saddled with this misnomer.

Out of the dozens of species to which the term is applied, only two or three are acutely toxic. The rest can be eaten with simple cooking, as you should be doing with Morchella, anyway.

That's right, folks - those mushrooms that you've been given all of this conflicting edibility information about are perfectly edible, with the exception of a few species.

Basically, you've been lied to by well-meaning folks.


About "false Morel" edibility

Let's go it genus by genus.


  • Verpa
    Verpa are edible as Morchella spp., with the same caution: They should be considered toxic unless thoroughly cooked.
  • Helvella
    Not all species of Helvella have noted edibility information, and they do contain small amounts of the toxin monomethylhydrazine (MMH). Yes - the "rocket fuel" component that you've heard so much about.

    MMH is a thermolabile toxin, which can be cooked out, especially in the small quantities which are found in Helvella spp.

    Dehydration can also help decay the MMH, but all Helvella should certainly be cooked after rehydration.
  • Gyromitra
    Gyromitra is the "bad boy" of the Pezizales. These are the real "rocket fuel" mushrooms... or at least a few of them are. They contain a prodrug to MMH, called gyromitrin. That means that the gyromitrin is metabolized into monomethylhydrazine.

    Of all North American taxa in this genus, only Gyromitra esculenta and Gyromitra ambigua contain enough gyromitrin to be acutely toxic.

    While G. esculenta and G. ambigua are still eaten in much of the world, doing so requires a bit of preparation, which includes soaking sliced/chopped mushrooms in a large volume of cold water, bringing that to a boil, dumping the water, and repeating the process. That is a bit more work than many want to put into dinner; but, if you decide to do so, please make sure that you read up on the detoxification process.

    The other species in the genus contain little gyromitrin, and some don't seem to have any at all, including G. caroliniana.

    These species can be eaten with no more preparation than Morchella or Verpa spp. require.

So, why should "false Morels" die?

That imprecision that we discussed earlier makes the whole process of identification a bit of a mess, because so many people have hugely different ideas of that a "false Morel" is, and why they should be scared to eat it.

In truth, for the most part they shouldn't; but, it is difficult to be confident in something when such ambiguous terms are applied to it.

The first step in learning about these wonderful organisms is to be able to identify them, to species (or genus, at least) so that you can quell your fear and accept information on each species.

So, let's stop using "false Morel", and start going with Gyromitra, veneratinge Verpa, and hollering Helvella, instead, so that we can all feel more confident in our discussions and learning about these amazing species of fungi.