Much Ado About Mushrooms

It was raining steadily in the woods in Hurd State Park, an hour northeast of New Haven. I stooped down by the base of a dying tree. There wasn’t much to see except for damp leaves carpeting the ground. Then I spotted it: a few clusters of small tan caps. “Coprinellus micaceus, inky caps,” said Beth Karwowski, without missing a beat. Karwowski, whose laugh carries through the forest, is the president of the Connecticut Valley Mycological Society (CVMS). She turned one of the mushrooms upside down, revealing its sooty black under-cap. “This is a wood-decaying mushroom and can be used to make ink,” she explained.

Nearly twenty members of CVMS were crouched by rocks or trees throughout the forest. It was a Sunday morning and the day of the group’s weekly forage, when members come together to search for mushrooms and share their interest in mycology, the study of fungal life.

CVMS was founded in 1975 by Ed Bosman, who led the first foray in Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, Connecticut. Today, the organization’s Facebook group—which anyone interested in Connecticut’s mushrooms can join—has over 400 members. But only official members who pay the annual fee (fifteen dollars for an individual, twenty dollars for a family) know the locations of weekly forays, printed in a blue book. “If we gave away the locations, some people would go a day before and collect them beforehand,” one member warned. Some of the rules are even more strict: “YOU ARE PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE PROPER IDENTIFICATION OF ANY MUSHROOMS THAT YOU EAT!” is printed in bold at the top of the CVMS website and participation waivers.

At the Sunday morning forage, members first met at the park pavilion, then disappeared into the woods in pairs or by themselves. In spite of the chilly air, the pavilion vibrated with the warmth and enthusiasm of those looking to share their knowledge with people from all levels of foraging experience. Karwowski and I continued down the path after finding the inky caps, dodging horse dung and rocks slick from the rain. “It’s been a very strange year for a lot of reasons,” she said, pointing at small white spots on the tree trunks surrounding us. “See that white stuff on there? Gypsy moth egg.” This past year, gypsy moth caterpillars decimated entire forests in Connecticut. Much of the destruction affected oak trees, which are dependent on the fungi that grow on their roots to live, causing the fungi population throughout Connecticut to plummet. Paradoxically, however, gypsy moth populations are kept in check by another fungus, Entomophaga maimaiga, which infects caterpillars with its spores. “It rained enough this spring that E. maimaiga was able to grow,” Karwowski said.

As the clock approached noon, people returned to the pavilion with wicker baskets and egg cartons filled with fungi. Thick orangish-white shelf croppings, Laetiporus cincinnatus. Burnt-red, jelly-like, and brain-shaped heap, Tremella foliacea. Small round puff balls with spiny studdings, Lycoperdon perlatum. “We’ve got about twenty or thirty years’ worth of data on forage findings,” said Walt Rode, one of CVMS’s expert identifiers. “We want to make it accessible and reportable so that we can see how changes in the environment, and climate change, has an effect.” Unlike other forage groups in the region, CVMS not only deals with finding edible fungi, but seeks to contribute to scientific research. Members send fungi DNA to laboratories for further study and have even helped to discover new species.

The weekly forages are also social gatherings. “When I first joined CVMS, I thought, ‘who needs a group?’” laughed Connie Borodenko, another expert identifier. She sported a well-worn mushroom identification guide T-shirt under her bright orange rain jacket. “But this group is so full of scientific minds, I began to learn so much more quickly.” Borodenko’s grandmother from Poland first taught her family mushrooming; Borodenko spent twenty years searching on her own before she found CVMS. “I used to be shy and withdrawn too,” she said, “but the group brought me out of my shell.”

“It’s the best feeling when you come onto something wonderful in the company of somebody else who thinks it’s wonderful. Often those fungi are edible…but even the unusual little fungi [are wonderful],” added Jean Hopkins, one of Borodenko’s friends. People in CVMS hail come from all sorts of occupations, none of which involve mycology. Before retiring, Borodenko was an art teacher and building mechanic at a phone company. Rode has worked as a librarian computer specialist for twenty-five years. Karwowski works in finance. Other people came as couples or tagged along with family members, united by a common curiosity for mushrooms and the fungal world.

“Food, medicine, dye material, taxonomy and systematics, biological and ecological; there are lots of different ways that people become interested in mushrooms, but we try to add more to that too,” said Bill Yule, education director for CVMS. “But mostly we’re here for fun, and food,” he laughed.

Today’s forage wasn’t just any outing––it was the Tailgate Forage, the last major one of the year, complete with a potluck of homemade mushroom dishes. As I waited in line for a helping of hen-of-the-woods soup, someone offered me a taste of freshly sautéed Coprinus comatus. I took a bite; the scaly white mushrooms were buttery, with a subtle, earthy undertone. Raincoats hung from the ceiling near the fireplaces, and people huddled at the pavilion tables, admiring their finds or simply laughing and telling stories.

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