Thursday, September 25, 2008

Red uprising.

The recent rains have awakened a vast fungal army that has been sleeping in the soils beneath the birch and hemlock trees of our island. The most spectacular species, in appearance and shear numbers, is the bright red, white-spotted fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria.

Amanita muscaria are almost impossible to miss. Nothing else in the forest is coloured like a stop sign. Spread out in vast, bursting numbers among the trees they look not quite real. Nature is supposed to be more subtle than this.

Mushrooms are always with us, and always very busy, but only under the right conditions do they show themselves. They live as vast networks of thread-like mycelia near the surface of the soil. Many species, including Amanita muscaria live symbiotically with trees, intertwined at the roots. I cannot remember when exactly I first learned this, but it was somewhat of an epiphany. Mushrooms do things. They extract nutrients from the soil otherwise unavailable to their tree partners and assist with the absorption of water. In return, they receive needed sugars created by the tree’s photosynthetic activities, which helps produce their fruiting bodies, the mushrooms. Without this cooperative relationship, the trees of our forests would keel over and die, or at least be in very sad shape. Amanita muscaria lives in symbiosis with a number of trees throughout its wide range. In Richmond it is most often associated with paper birches, in woodlots and even front lawns.

Because this mushroom is such an eye-popper, it begs questions. One of the most common is, “Can you eat them?”

Old mushroomer's joke: “You can eat any mushroom - once.”

Real answer: I wouldn’t. It’s toxic to some degree, mildly to extremely. It is known to have hallucinogenic properties, but there’s probably a safer way to explore that part of your brain.

However, notice the bite marks. At least some squirrels can eat them. Forest-dwelling Red Squirrels harvest them and store them in middens (all the better to spread the spores throughout the forest, to the benefit of newly-sprouted trees). I would expect that the congeneric Douglas’ Squirrels, native to this island, also eat them. I don’t know that they are a significant portion of the diet of Eastern Grey Squirrels (the suburb-dwelling, introduced species); I’ve never seen one carrying a chunk of Amanita, but they do take the odd (exploratory?) bite. Perhaps for the buzz?

Still, I’m always a little surprised that the edibility question is the most common immediate response to being shown an Amanita. Why this binary approach to mushrooms? Can/can’t eat.

Love them for being big and red-and-white and mysterious.

1 comment:

Aunt Debbi/kurts mom said...

I admit it. The first thing that came to mind was, "Can I eat it and live?"