By Cory Chase
The Highlands of West Virginia hold many treasures. One the most diverse–and least understood–is the world of fungi. Modern research is revealing the intricacies and importance that fungi play in ecosystems the world over. Our third outing for the year had over 35 people in attendance, mostly due to the well-deserved fanbase of our trip leader, Dr. Kristen “Kay” Wickert (and partially due to me not turning off the RSVP page in time…oops!). She has a popular Instagram account with over 32,000 fans that is chock full of interesting woodland flora and fauna.
Kristen is a professional naturalist, botanist, forest entomologist and plant pathologist. She holds a Bachelor’s in Forest Biology from Penn State and a Master’s and PhD in Plant Pathology from WVU. She studies the interrelation and interdependence between fungi, arthropods, and plants.
For those who don’t have that hard-earned PhD, fungi includes eukaryotic organisms (meaning they have cells with a nuclei and nuclear membrane) like mold, yeast, and mushrooms. Arthropods are animals with an exoskeleton like a crab, spider, insect, millipede, etc. Arthropods are the largest phylum in the animal kingdom. Then there are the more familiar photosynthetic eukaryotes, commonly known as plants. While we humans do know a lot, the more we study the interrelations in nature, the more we can become humbled by knowing that we are still just scratching the surface.
Kristen is also the President of the West Virginia Mushroom Club, a “non-profit organization that was founded to promote fellowship, communication and education for anyone interested in fungi. We are an amateur club and, although our skills range from beginners to world renowned experts, the majority of our members are beginners just like you.”
We were also joined by two other board members from the Mushroom Club, Kyle Rooke and Chip Chase (my father, a fun guy indeed). We rallied at the Main Lodge at Canaan Valley Resort State Park and did not have to walk more than 100 yards or so to find a patch of woods filled with various and sundry fungi. Perhaps we didn’t put the “out” in outing, but we really did live up to the event title by meandering through a couple patches of woods and finding more and more species every step of the way.
Kristen tried her best to keep us moving but on multiple occasions as soon as the group began to move someone would find a new species and we would stop and discuss. Naturally, the children in the group were good at procuring different species of mushrooms. I assume their eyes are sharper than mine and they are closer to the ground, to boot. But not all mushrooms are on the ground, so don’t forget to look up, too!
Late July and early August were quite fantastic for mushrooms here in the Highlands. The WV Mushroom Club held its Annual Foray at Blackwater Falls State Park and it was overflowing with mushrooms discovered from all over Tucker County. The chance combination of ample rain and warm temperatures seemed to supercharge the mycelial networks beneath our feet.
While this outing was not so blessed with the moisture end of the equation, we still found plenty of mushrooms, although some were getting a little dehydrated. We found puffballs, waxy caps, cordyceps (talk about fungi and arthropods!), death angels, turkey tails, and the coveted (and overharvested) chaga. There was even a lone chanterelle–a choice edible–that was spotted, albeit a little late in the season.
There were literally dozens and dozens more species. Some of these mushrooms are food and/or medicine. We found loads of mushrooms right at the entrance to the Main Lodge, proving that we don’t have to look far to find the plethora of fungus interacting with plants, insects and trees.
Speaking of edible mushrooms…it may come as some disappointment to many budding (or…sporalating?) mushroom enthusiasts that there is not a simple answer to what to eat and what not to eat. If anything, the main takeaways are that there is usually no hard and fast rule, minus that you be very mindful and do your research before making that stroganoff for the community potluck. Mushroom lore is rife with misinformation and sometimes dangerous advice. Sayings like “if it stains blue it is not edible” or “most white mushrooms are edible” are simply inaccurate…and could land you in the ER or six feet under. The deadliest mushroom around is a gorgeous all white amanita mushroom, the Destroying Angel.
Another reason to be careful when planning to eat wild mushrooms is that there are lookalike mushrooms that are not edible. One should do their best to review distinguishing characteristics like gills, stem, cap, color and even smell.
Mushrooms offer a wide range of flavors, smells and consistencies. Think almond, lemon, chicken, anise…and less desirable qualities, as well. Not all of them are mushy, either. Chicken of the woods is a firm shelf fungus that often has a bright orange top and vibrant yellow underbelly. But as far as digestibility goes, there are body types that can react less kindly to certain kinds of edible mushrooms. There are chemical compounds that may give you an upset stomach but can sit fine with others.
And one final thing to mention: just because it is edible does not mean it is flavorful. I am pretty sure that cardboard is “edible” but I don’t recommend it. If you are using a mushroom guide, note that some varieties are considered “choice edible”. Those are prized for their flavor. Learning how to identify and distinguish the edibles from the non-edibles…that is not as easy to impart in a two hour outing. As for mushroom guides, Kristen recommended Mushrooms of the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canadaby Tim Baroni; other Highlands-centric guides include Appalachian Mushrooms by Walt Sturgeon and Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians by William C. Roody. http://www.mushroomexpert.com/ is also a good resource.
There was informative discussion about the evolution of fungi to break down lignin in wood and how important that is for forest ecosystems. One attendee mentioned that many millions of years ago trees and plants were not broken down by fungi, which resulted in the oil and natural gas deposits that we so dangerously build the backbone of our society with…for now.
Thank you to Canaan Valley Resort State Park for hosting our outing. And special thanks to Dr. Wickert, Kyle and Chip of the WV Mushroom Club. You can become a member of the WV Mushroom Club on their website. https://www.wvmushroomclub.net/join-us. We plan to do more mushroom outings next year and into the future. And if you meandered this far, please take a look at our Annual Fall Review, which will be held at North Bend State Park on Oct. 14-16. There will be fun outings and a full day of speakers on that Saturday discussing Energy in WV. Hydrogen, solar, nuclear, pipeline permitting, etc. Learn more and RSVP here. Come for the day or stay for the weekend. Bulk room rate is available. Hope to see you there.