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Missouri - A mycological wonderland

Missouri - A mycological wonderland

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As a lover of the outdoors, I have long enjoyed exploring nature around me via foot, bicycle or kayak. But one outdoor hobby has captured my attention more than all others in the past few years — mushroom hunting.

This combination of hiking, investigating, foraging and biology make for an ideal adult scavenger hunt in the woods. Fungi is a near infinite kingdom of organisms, but the ability to find, locate and accurately identify just one of the more than 2 million species in the world is an addictive feeling of self reliance. To find your dinner in the woods and be able to clean and cook it can make for a stronger connection with nature and an appreciation of our modern comforts.

Now, before I gush anymore about this prized field of study, I must make two things clear: First, you do not need to consume mushrooms for finding and identifying them to be an enjoyable sport. Plenty of people love to study nature, be it trees, wildflowers or fungi, without the intention of ever putting them on a plate. Second, you should NEVER, and I truly mean never with all possible underscores, consume anything you cannot with 100-percent-certainty identify.

While many poisonous mushrooms grow throughout Missouri, there are also common, choice edibles, which can be accurately identified with thoroughness and practice.

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

Like many people in Missouri, I grew up hunting morels in the spring. Morels are prized not just for their delicious flavor but their ease in identification. It has only one near lookalike, the hotly debated but decidedly poisonous Gyromitra. Telling the difference between the two is easy with a few steps, which is partly why morels remain one of the most popular mushrooms in the world.

But it is far from the only edible mushroom species commonly found in Missouri. One day browsing the book section of REI, I stumbled upon a copy of “Missouri’s Wild Mushrooms” by Maxine Stone. Having always been fascinated by fungi, I picked up and was enthralled with the diversity in categories of species growing in our own backyard and shocked how many common edibles there were. And like anyone who has ever read Jon Krakauer’s infamous account of Chris McCandless, “Into the Wild,” and [Spoiler Alert!] learned about the tragic fate he met by poisoning, I was also a bit skeptical.

Since it was July, I went out in search of chanterelles (without much hope of actually finding them, since my years of experience with morels proved them to be more often than not illusive.) So I was shocked when ten minutes

into the hike, I stumbled upon a forest floor full of little golden vases. I gathered a few and brought them home to inspect. And through research (beyond just one book) discovered how easily they could be separated from th eir only lookalike, the jack-o-lantern. The next day, I went back to the same spot and gathered more.

Since then I have found oysters, blewits, milkies, chicken of the woods and many more species. Sometimes I pick several to eat and sometimes I just bring one home to make a spore print. The print can be made by putting the cap or bracket on a piece of paper and waiting for it to drop spores, sometimes a telling form of identification, as well as an interesting and natural piece of art.

START FORAGING

For those wanting to give wild foraging a try, it is recommended to start with what are commonly referred to as “The Foolproof Four”: morels, chanterelles, chicken of the woods and giant puffballs. They are named for their easily identifiable characteristics, making them a relatively safe mushroom for beginning foragers. In the fall, oysters, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods and giant puffballs will all be in season.

Inspecting gills, pores, growing patterns and habitats are all important for properly identifying a mushroom. Joining groups like the Missouri Mycological Society can help you learn more about mushrooms. There are also entire Facebook and Meet Up groups dedicated to mushroom hunting. (Note: Be sure to never rely only on identification via forums.)

Once you start noticing the fungi around you, it is hard to stop. Not just in the woods, but in the park, in your neighborhood and perhaps even your yard. Mycelium are believed to be the largest organism on earth and our state includes a wealth of diversity of its fruiting bodies. This fall, when you go for a hike, slow down and see what just might be growing around you.

This content was produced by Brand Ave. Studios. The news and editorial departments of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had no role in its creation or display. For more information about Brand Ave. Studios, contact tgriffin@brandavestudios.com.

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