Pushing Up Mushrooms

by
Copyright 1998, all rights reserved.

Summer's here! Azure skies, serenading birds, brilliant sunshine in cloudless skies, golden brown hills and crackly forest floors, warm evening breezes, and all those damned pesky flowers covering dried and shriveled fungi-in short, the pits. What's a mushroomer to do when you long for gloomy skies and a good drizzle? The answer in the Bay Area: microclimates.

It's a fact that it can be hot and sweaty in Walnut Creek while a few miles over the hills in Berkeley you can freeze to death of fog while wearing a sweater. Palo Alto can sizzle like the chips of a Wintel computer calculating Bill Gates' net worth while just over the ridge in Half Moon Bay the air is as chilling as Kenneth Starr's smile. There is no bright and cheerful spot here that doesn't have a drizzly and gloomy counterpart somewhere a few miles away.

This August, sweltering in the 90+ heat of Oakland, I reckoned it was time to visit Oakland's dour doppelganger, a parallel universe of fog and drip somewhere along the breath of the chill Pacific. Fred Stevens, a denizen of often dank Daly City offered his service as guide. Fred met Mike Wood, his wife Jane Wardzinska, and me on a ridgetop overlooking a fog bank roiling below. The fact that it was sunny and 92 degrees here was a bit unsettling, but we were in a cemetery, which cheered me up a little. Cemeteries can be fungally fabulous. They are typically a vast expanse of grass surrounded by stately pines, cedars, and oaks. They have running sprinklers whenever necessary to keep the grass green, and if they're located close enough to the coast they can get a constant drizzle of fog condensation. If there happen to be no mushrooms there, you've always got some reading material nearby on the tombstones. This particular cemetery was promising for many reasons, not the least of which was a gentile shabbiness. The grass was a little shaggy, there were tufts of grass around tree trunks, and occasional swampy spots where the watering system was out of control-nothing like the well manicured turf surrounding the graves of the rich and fabulous at more tony cemeteries. There's nothing worse for fungal grass inhabitants than a regular lawn mower and a fastidious gardener wielding trimmers.

The day was off to a promising start when Mike found a small Agaricus augustus underneath a Monterey pine. It was sweet and golden with the perfume of almonds, but not what we came for: We were in search of Marasmius oreades, the fairy-ring mushroom, also called the scotch bonnet.

If you're unfamiliar with M. oreades, it's a humble lawn inhabitant that merits closer attention. True to its common name, it often grows in rings on the lawn. Its mycelium starts in a central spot and grows outward, eating nutrients in the sod. The area immediately behind its expansion, no longer fungally nutritious, doesn't support the mycelium, so it dies off there. As a result, the mycelium expands in a ring, reaching further and further until it hits an obstacle, the end of the lawn, or an overly ambitious gardener.

The mushrooms that fruit forth from the mycelium are a classic example of the Marasmius genus. They drop a white spore print, something you can often see in the grass as you pick them. The gills issuing the spores are well formed, widely spaced, and are never decurrent-they may be attached directly to the stem or free from the stem, but never run down the stem. If you look closely between the gills in a mature specimen, you can often see slight ribbing between the gills that look something like veins or the blunted gills of chanterelles.

The cap of M. oreades begins life with the shape of a bell, but as it grows and spreads it becomes broadly umbonate, a plane disc with a small dome rising in the middle. To my eyes it looks very much like an old-fashioned Chinese broad-rimmed straw hat. Because the cuticle (covering) of the cap is hygrophanous, the cap can have two different colors: a delicious caramel brown when wet and a pale buff when dry. If you look at the cap while it's drying, you can sometimes see both colors simultaneously: a center of light tan (the dry area) surrounded by the dark brown of the moist edges. If the edges are moist enough, they may be striate so you can see the lines of the gills below through the top of the cap.

The stem of M. oreades doesn't look particularly unique-it's relatively long, thin, even, and usually the same buff color as the dry cap. When you try to separate the cap from the stem, you come directly up against a special characteristic: it's damned hard to pull the stem off! Marasmius stems are typically wiry and tough, which is why you don't want to eat them. It's also why you hunt M. oreades with scissors.

The taste of M. oreades (you were wondering when I'd get around to this, weren't you?) is nothing like its smell, at least to my nose. When I put a fresh scotch bonnet up to my nose and sniff, I usually detect overtones of chlorine, not a particularly appealing smell. It fortunately disappears when the mushrooms are sizzling in a sauté pan, leaving a panful of mushrooms that have a rich, mushroomy taste that-to my palate-has overtones of butterscotch without any cloying sweetness. It's a mushroom that's not to everybody's taste, however. It's one of the few mushrooms that ace mushroom hound David Campbell will walk by, and there are others who share an equally passionate disinterest in scotch bonnets.

Finding scotch bonnets in a cemetery is primarily a matter of walking around with a basket and scissors looking for small whitish mushroom caps. In a shaggy lawn like the cemetery where we were looking, it was important to look deep into the grass where large clusters could hide.

And sure enough, we started to find scotch bonnets. Where we found one, we usually found many more, some in slug-eaten tatters past their prime, others just starting life as tiny bell-shaped caramel dots, others just right for the dinner pot. If you stepped back to look at the pattern of their growth, you could often see they were part of a ring; by projecting the ring to other parts of the lawn you could find many more. After some experience, we began to look for the dark green rings of the lawn. For some reason, Marasmius mycelia stimulate lawn growth, a good tip-off for scotch bonnets within.

It's important to be sure of your identification when picking Marasmius. There are many other lawn-loving mushrooms, including some that we saw in the cemetery: small Coprinus, Panaeolus, Agrocybe, and other Little Brown Mushrooms that were hard to identify. Some look very similar to scotch bonnets if you don't look closely at gills and spore color, and many of them grow in rings. Although we didn't see anything poisonous in the lawn, it's best to avoid unpleasant surprises and liver transplants.

Other important aspects of Marasmius hunting in a cemetery: sun screen for the hot sun on an open lawn, something cool to drink, and a serious demeanor on your face so you don't disturb the families there to visit graves. Many folks in the cemetery come with gardening tools to spruce up their relatives' tombstones, so we didn't stand out as much as you might think. We did, however, get a few odd stares. I found that it helped my sombre visage to read the tombstones as I sat next to them scissoring Marasmius heads: the arc of a lifetime condensed to a couple of lines in marble or bronze. "Beloved husband," "Daughter and wife," or my favorite, "Gone fishing." If I have a tombstone at my death, I hope it reads "Pushing up mushrooms: please help yourself!"

(Marasmius oreades recipes)