Friday, January 19, 2007

Issue 13, Dec. 2006/Jan. 2007

This newsletter, and the next one, will be bimonthly issues. With winter upon us, there really isn’t much local ‘fungal’ news to write about, and with the busyness of the holiday season there is precious little time to write. (With the April issue we will return to a monthly newsletter.)

What a busy month this has been. Between working full time and being the best grandfather this old grump can be, my days have been pretty full. And, with the holiday season, things have become even more hectic than normal.

It is amazing how fast circumstances can change. Three years ago I only knew a handful of people who lived in Alaska. Now, my wife and I, our four adult children and nine grandchildren are all Alaskans. (Six of the grandchildren live next door!)

If you were to ask any of us if we have any regrets about coming to Alaska, our answer would be; “We only regret that we didn’t come here sooner!” Alaska truly is a great place to live, and Soldotna is a great community to live in.


It is December, and there are still plenty of fresh mushrooms to be had. But, you have to go the Fred Meyer or Safeway to find them, and they come at a fairly stiff price. Even Agaricus bisporus (aka A. brunnescens), the common ‘button mushroom’ is between three and seven dollars a pound.

Safeway has oysters (Pleurotus ostreatus), but they are puny little things. I don’t remember the price, but I do recall almost choking when I looked at the tag. I doubt that these poor little oysters ever saw a real tree. They were probably raised on cottonseed hulls or (at best) sawdust. Although I haven’t tried any of them, I suspect that they have about as much flavor as cardboard!)

Have you seen the chanterelles (Cantharellus formosus) they have at Fred Meyer? They are also anemic specimens (the kind that I would have hidden in the bottom of the basket back in my chanterelle picking days), and they want eighteen to twenty dollars a pound for them! Take a look at the two photos below. This is what a chanterelle should look like!

Some of the chanterelles in this basket would weigh nearly a pound!

If you have children or grandchildren and you can get them interested in mushrooming, you will give them a hobby that will hold their interest for a lifetime.

We are extremely blessed to have such a staggering abundance of edible fungi on the Kenai Peninsula, and so little competition gathering them. (By competitors, I mean humans. There are plenty of bears, birds and especially bugs, vying for the harvest!)

I am reminded of a comment I read recently. When asked for some sage advice for beginning mushroomers, David Arora responded, “Don’t poach on my patches.” That is probably good advice if you live in California, as he does, but here on the peninsula tens of thousands of pounds of edible mushrooms go unharvested every season for lack of pickers.

Blanche Tinius sent me a copy of an interesting article which appeared in the Winter 1986 issue of Mushroom, the Journal of Wild Mushrooming. (MTJ is an excellent magazine and I consider myself fortunate to have every issue since it first came out in the fall of 1983. A few years back the publication changed hands, and for a time it appeared that it might not survive. But, it seems to have made a comeback. I hope so, because my sub-scription is paid up for at least another year!)

The title of the article, A Serious Case of Underpick – Alaska Mushrooming, is as applicable today as it was twenty years ago. The author was Ron Sutcliffe, a Kenai attorney and first president of the Alaska Mycological Society which (at the time) was based in Soldotna.

(I don’t know a lot about AMS, but I believe that it was co-founded by two local botanists, Boyd Shaffer and Janice Schofield. AMS later moved to Homer. Harriette Parker (a Homer resident and author of the book, Alaska’s Mushrooms, A Practical Guide), was actively involved in the organization for a time. Although there are still a number of ‘mushroomers’ in the Homer area, AMS has ceased to exist.)

In the article, Mr. Sutcliff made several very good observations that are worth repeating here.

He began by describing AMS as “composed of about 38 members, 30 of whom” he had “never seen.” He went on to say, “Alaskans have this basic mistrust of anything organized, I guess.” Is it really mistrust, or is it free-spirited independence (a quality that Alaskans are famous for)? I personally think it is the latter.

I also found this comment interesting, “Most of the members join up to get the Spore Print, our publication.” I suspected when we selected that name for our newsletter that it was probably not original, but I had no idea this was also the name of the previous local ‘club pub’.

He went on to lament the serious problem of “underpick” here on the peninsula, and to ponder how severe a problem it must be in the more sparsely populated areas of the state. “There aren’t enough people per square mile here interested in fungi to create a run on the stuff.” If you add to that all the other distractions; salmon fishing, clam digging, berry picking, gardening, hiking etc., it is no wonder that so many tasty treats go untouched.

And, if these distractions are not enough to keep you out of the woods, there are other considerations. Mr. Sutcliffe mentions two reasons “why mushroom hunting doesn’t catch on in a bigger way here: bears . . . . . large coastal versions of the grizzly bear patrol the mushroom grounds” and moose, “big, unpredictable and dangerous” and “they’re stupid as puffballs.” He admits that encounters are rare, but even these extreme odds are enough to deter some.

One thing he failed to mention: the endless miles of roadless wilderness and the possibility of becoming lost. A map and compass or GPS can go a long way toward minimizing this danger. I think we all want to avoid the anxiety connected with a night in the woods, alone and unprepared as well as the possible financial obligations associated with our recovery. Search aircraft cost between $800 and $1,000 per hour and ground operations are also expensive. If and when you are fortunate enough to be found, you will probably be expected to reimburse at least some of these costs!

What should a person take with them when they go mushrooming? Of course, there are a number of things we would all like to have, but can’t honestly call ‘necessities’. A four-wheel drive pickup would be nice, a four-wheeler, salt and freshwater boats and our own personal aircraft. We could even use them for other pursuits, like hunting and fishing. While we’re at it, why not add a pair of well-trained and well-armed mercenaries to the list. They could walk on either side of us and we could devote our full attention to ferreting out fungi! Actually, all we really need is a sturdy picking basket with a knife and brush attached, a day pack with first aid and survival supplies, a map and compass or GPS, proper clothing for the weather and terrain and a good field guide or two. Not much, actually. What other hobby is so gentle on the pocketbook?

Typical gear? Left to right, shotgun and/or bear spray, day pack, basket with brush and knife attached, candles, lighter, tender etc., canteen, first aid kit, TP, map and compass or GPS, mosquito net, waterproof tarp and flashlight.

November Mushroom of the Month

Betty Idleman is the winner of the ‘November mushroom of the Month’ contest. She correctly identified the UFO (unusual fungal oddity) as Phaeolepiota aurea and will receive the English coffee mug. This is her second win, but we can hardly accuse her of ‘hogging’ the prizes. She was gracious enough to wait nearly two weeks before submitting her entry. As you can see from the photo below, this is not your typical ‘Alaskan gold’. Congratulations, Betty!

The photo (which came to us through Blanche Tinius) was such an unusual specimen that we also had a second prize category for the best and most original title. Blanche donated a beautiful 18” x 24” color poster featuring an Alberta mushroom, Leccinum boreale to be awarded to the winner. The entries were forwarded to her, and she selected the winner - "Derriere gigantius" submitted by Cliff Cullings. Congratulations, Cliff!

December Mushroom of the Month

This is a mushroom that is wide spread, but not common. Where it is found, it can be locally abundant. I have not personally harvested it on the peninsula, but have heard of at least one instance where it was collected here. This is a gilled mushroom that has been parasitized by another fungus. It is edible and has a very good texture and flavor. The spore print (when obtainable) is white. The spore deposit is that of the parasite and not the host, as the latter has been rendered sterile.

If you are the first to correctly identify this species, you will receive an English china coffee mug bearing a woods scene which includes a number of fungi.

I recently read some interesting facts about the dangers associated with eating raw mushrooms. I was aware that many mush-rooms which are commonly eaten raw contain enzymes that block the absorption of proteins by our bodies. But, I was not aware that most, if not all mushroom species contain chemical compounds that metabolize into hydrazines. Though the amounts may be small, hydrazines are significant carcinogens and should be avoided at any levels. Fortunately, they are destroyed in the cooking process.

In addition to the protein blocking enzymes and hydrazines, there is also our body’s inability to digest chitin. The cell walls of mushrooms are composed of chitin, a derivative of cellulose. The result is some degree of digestive discomfort (often increasing exponentially with the amount consumed). Cooking does not destroy the chitin, but it does render it less of an irritant to our digestive tract.

The bottom line is that no mushroom should be eaten raw. This shouldn’t be much of a hardship, as mushrooms taste better cooked, anyway!

I was watching a program called “The Origins of Christmas” on the History Channel the other evening. They showed a sketch of the first English Christmas tree. Queen Victoria had just married her German cousin, Prince Albert. Albert brought the custom of ‘decorating the tree’ to England with him. What caught my attention were the ornaments. Many of them were mushroom shaped. This started me on an internet quest to see if mushrooms were in anyway a part of the Holiday celebration.

The first thing I discovered? Almost all northern European countries incorporate mushroom dishes into their holiday fare. Many of these are time-honored dishes that have been served for centuries! If you go online, you might be surprised how many traditional German, Polish and Finnish mushroom recipes you will find!

I also found that mushroom shaped ornaments are still commonly used to decorate the Christmas tree in these countries. It seems that red and white ornaments resembling Amanita muscaria are especially popular.

But, what I found most surprising was the supposed link between Santa Claus and A. muscaria. Of course, Santa Claus has nothing to do with the true meaning of Christmas. In fact, if it were not for the manger scenes, there would be little evidence that Christmas was a Christian celebration or had any biblical basis. Most of what is called Christmas today has been ‘borrowed’ from various Pagan religions.

Today’s Santa Claus is a metamorphosis of ancient mythologies and folklore. Santa has much in common with the Norse Odin or Thor (the German Donar) who wore red robes and rode through the heavens in his golden chariot pulled by horses or goats. The horses have been replaced by reindeer, but much remains the same. (Here is an interesting side note: In folklore, the exertion of Odin’s horses caused a blood tinged froth to drip from their mouths, falling to the earth below. Odin would then strike the earth with his mushroom shaped hammer and mushrooms would grow from the spittle.)

There also appears to be a link to the ancient Lapp shamans of Siberia who used Amanita muscaria as part of their mystic religion. They wore bright red garments and commonly entered home to perform their rituals through a hole in the roof. They would bring their ‘present’ (dried Amanita. muscaria) with them, in a bag.

It is claimed that reindeer have a great fondness for A. muscaria and that if the Lapps want to gather any of these mushrooms they have to find them before the reindeer. A. muscaria evidently has the same effect on reindeer as humans. One result is exaggerated movement (hence the flying reindeer of folklore). Supposedly, each Lapp shaman was also protected by a pair of mushroom-crazed, super reindeer.

Is there really any connection between Amanita muscaria, and Santa? Well, you have a chubby, jumbo-sized, overly-jolly, magical elf (of all things) dressed up like a giant ‘fly-agaric’ going ho, ho, ho all over the place. He is in the company of eight wild-eyed reindeer who can gallop at warp speed and take him anywhere on the earth in the ‘twinkling of an eye’. He is not only the master of time, but space, as well! In spite of his considerable girth, he is an unrivaled contortionist who can enter any home through the roof, fitting his body through the smallest of openings. Once inside, he leaves his brightly wrapped gifts strewn about under the ‘tree’, much like one would find the ‘fly amanitas’ scattered among the forest conifers.

Is there any connection? I’ll let you decide that for yourself.

In spite of the modest turnout at our November meeting, we had an excellent chat session. The two main areas of discussion were 1) potential topics for the upcoming winter and early spring meetings and 2) our dues structure.

There was interest expressed for a microscope workshop, a lichen presentation and field trip, and a polypore presentation and field trip.

Janice Chumley has contacted Dr. Wartenbee, and he has graciously consented to conduct the microscope workshop. We don’t have a firm date at this time, but it will probably be in February at the college. The lab facilities limit the class size, so if you are interested in participating, it is important that you let us know.

Janice has also offered to contact Lori Trummer, a plant pathologist with the Forest Service, about the possibility of a polypore presentation in March or April.

Dr. Berg has expressed an interest in conducting a lichen workshop for the club. Dominique will be contacting him and working out the details.

We should have more information on all three of these programs at our January meeting.

The matter of club dues also came up at the November meeting. I think most of our members are aware that one of our chief goals at KPMS has been to offer them the opportunity to purchase quality resources at affordable prices. Some things we have been able to offer free of charge, others at our cost. Because we buy in quantity, the publishers give us a very generous discount on our book purchases, and since we have a strong membership base we have the funds to purchase in quantity without needing to first collect the money up front.

We do occasionally have expenses that diminish our funds, but these are relatively small. Currently our account is adequate to meet our infrequent expenses and provide the finances for our book purchases.

With these facts in mind, it was decided that we would retain our current dues structure for new members ($10 for students, $15 for singles, and $20 for family memberships), but reduce the sustaining membership to $5 annually.

Our January meeting will be devoted to the election of officers for the 2007 service year. At present the only candidates for the office of president and vice-president are our current office holders. There are two candidates for the office of secretary/treasurer, Janice Chumley and Cliff Cullings. Anyone who wishes to run for one of these offices is encouraged to do so. The deadline to notify us of your candidacy is December 31, 2006.

Janice has ordered 10 copies each of Mushrooms Demystified and All That The Rain Promises And More. We should have them available at the January meeting.

We hope to see you at the meeting. Until then, have a safe and happy holiday season,



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