Food for Thought
With our warm late summer temperatures, moist conditions from humidity and evening thunderstorms, this is certainly the time of year to spot mushrooms in the woods. Growing up in the area, I’d always took note of mushrooms, but rarely given them more than a passing glance. Then a few years ago, I overheard a biologist remark that fungi are arguably one of most important organisms in existence, as they are the predominant decomposers of all organic matter. Without them, leaves and other forest matter would just continue to accumulate and important nitrogen would remain stored there and unavailable for new growth. Now that’s something to think about – these tiny toadstools have a huge role – a good reminder when we consider how every organism has a part to play.
A few weeks ago I had the unique opportunity to attend a Wild Mushroom Foraging Workshop hosted by Central Park NC, and organized by StarWorks Garden coordinator Anne Pärtna. This workshop was led by Asheville's Alan Muskat, a graduate of Princeton University, who also currently serves on the faculty of the Appalachian School of Holistic Herbalism, and author of "Wild Mushrooms: A Taste of Enchantment".
At the event, Alan began the discussion by asking those present what interested them about foraging for mushrooms. One common response was “free food” or natural foods – and Alan emphasized the importance of healthy forests in providing this natural commodity. He described how certain mushrooms are even associated with certain tree species, such as pines or oaks. One of the first questions he posited to the group was what is the most expensive food that exists? After some quick thought, one attendee responded with the correct answer – truffles. And one of the reasons for this is that truffles are almost impossible to cultivate – they grow underground in forests with certain types of trees and specific soil conditions. This has and is successfully replicated, but can require intensive time and effort. A healthy ecosystem provides this delicacy free of charge.
The mushroom walk took place on The LandTrust for Central NC’s Low Water Bridge Preserve in Montgomery County. This unique property that was protected in 2006 boasts over 1200 acres of primarily mature hardwood forestland. A forest must reach a certain age before the underground fungus which produces mushrooms can develop, and that’s one additional great thing about healthy forests and ecosystems – they produce items like mushrooms – which are often referred to as secondary forest products. They are free to us and folks like Alan, who makes his living collecting mushrooms and selling them to restaurants; however they are only readily available in natural environments where forests are healthy. The many benefits that natural ecosystems provide are called “ecosystem services” – and these are typically thought of in terms of clean water, air, and even nutrient cycling – so in this sense fungi play more than one role and provide multiple benefits.
You probably already know that there are mushrooms that are good for eating, there are some that are edible but not preferable (i.e. they taste bad), some that will make you sick, and a few that are deadly. But you may not know that there are many other uses of mushrooms as well. Certain mushrooms can also be used to make teas, and others can be used for dyes for clothing or other materials, and still others for medicinal purposes. Before collecting any mushrooms for eating or otherwise, it’s wise to consult experts, study field guides well, and make sure you are confident about identifying mushrooms. Hopefully Central Park NC will host this workshop again in the future, and you can learn more about these fascinating fungi – certainly food for thought.