WEEK TWENTY-FIVE - The Fungus Among Us

August 14, 2017

Back in my fifth week on the island, I got lost. I spent hours trying to line up the symbols on an outdated map with markers nailed to trees so long ago that some of them had nearly been consumed by growing bark. It was - I’m not going to lie - a bit scary. The experience was enough to deter me from spending much time in that neck of the woods again. But somewhere between scaling huge logs and finding the road back, I found something I haven’t stopped talking about since. It was the biggest lion’s mane I’ve ever seen.


A lion's mane - for those unfamiliar with this culinary delight - is a mushroom. It’s white and shaggy looking and tastes a lot like lobster if you fry it up in butter. If I’d had a knife on hand at the time, I still would have had to climb nearly twenty feet up a tree to collect it. Since I was in the middle of god-knows-where, I had no way to mark the site on a map for a future foray. So it was that the legend of my lion’s mane was born. Like a fisherman’s lost catch, the size of the mushroom gets bigger with each retelling of the story, but I swear this thing was the size of a basketball. It was pristine and glowing like an angel in the dipping sun. I spent a moment looking up longingly before I marched on, cursing my luck both at being lost and not being able to collect the mushroom. Not only did I fail to find that fabled fungus again but, I never saw another one anywhere on the island.


If it’s not already apparent, I am a fungi fan. Mycology (the study of fungi) is my first choice of grad school subjects, should I decide to try for a PhD. At first blush, most people who don’t love eating them cringe at the words “mold” and “fungus.” But, fungi are such a huge part of life that I can’t help but appreciate them almost as much as I can’t help being around them. I love beer and since yeast is a fungus; no fungus, no beer. Likewise with bread, tempeh, cheese, champaign, miso soup, kombucha…the list is long. So, even if a huge portobello steak isn’t their thing, most people eat some form of fungi every day. Fungi do other cool stuff, like save lives. Penicillin - the antibiotic that changed the world - was derived from the genus of fungi called penicillium. Plants thrive because of fungi at their roots, which help them reach further for water and nutrients. In fact, the forest I got lost in would most likely not exist at all without fungi. 


St. Catherines Island is a great place to see fungi of all kinds, especially in the lemur enclosures where moisture and “compost” provide great habitat for mushrooms to grow (incidentally, this is also a great place for slime molds - which despite the name, are not a form of fungus, but are usually talked about in conjunction with them). Fungi don’t need sunshine to thrive, since they don’t photosynthesize (i.e. get energy from the sun). They may look a bit like plants, sprouting up from the underbrush, but they’re not even close. Fungi are genetically more related to animals than they are to the foliage they sometimes resemble, but different enough to warrant their own kingdom. The parts of the fungus called mushrooms are a small portion of the organism, though they’re all most people get to see. A fungus shoots up a mushroom when it’s time to sporulate, which means that it pops up a toadstool when it wants to release spores and reproduce. 


The lion’s mane I saw so many weeks ago is one of the few species I can identify with enough confidence to eat (if I can reach it). Morels are another. But, most of what I see peeking out from under fallen leaves or forming brackets on the sides of trees aren’t things I’d take the risk of putting in my mouth. Without a positive ID from someone who knows what they’re doing, it’s risky munching on wild mushrooms. That’s not to say a good mushroom foray can’t be fun. In fact, it seems to be only in the United States that people are so fearful of fungi. It's pretty common in Eastern Europe for folks to go out picking baskets of ‘shrooms for their dinner tables. In the windowsill nature museum I've cultivated, several species of mushroom lay dried, waiting for me to identify. One of them might be a medical cure, the next culinary trend, or even a cleaner of toxic waste. Now if only they'd pay me to research the brackets, boletes, and buttons on the island, I'd be occupied for years.



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