Fungi hunting in New Haven

For some Yale students, searching for edible fungi is a fun (and tasty) activity. It’s also dangerous ­— many mushrooms are poisonous.
For some Yale students, searching for edible fungi is a fun (and tasty) activity. It’s also dangerous ­— many mushrooms are poisonous. Photo by Juliana Hanle.

A giant puffball, resting in the grass like a massive white pearl, shone in the springtime light of Edgewood Park. Matt Decker FES ’12 and an assortment of other Yale Law School, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and undergraduate students looked on it with possibility. Decker could have prepared it simply — sleek with olive oil, touched with sea salt, and lightly sautéed — but his foraging guide Wildman Steve said the mushroom would not satisfy Decker’s culinary hopes.

In fact, the white fungi might have sent him and his friends to the hospital.

Decker’s disappointment occurred six months ago, at the beginning of the mushrooming season. But now peak mushroom hunting time has arrived, bringing more puffballs.

Irene left the Northeast power-less and twig-riddled — and she also left a bequest of mushrooms. In the last few years, Decker and other Yalies have begun venturing out in guided groups to forage. They are drawn to the dark, moist corners of New Haven to seek what renewable resources they can pluck with bare hands and then consume. Foraged foods, full of nutrients, appeal to these students who want to protect the environment, and who share a commitment to pursuing sustainable lifestyles. But these intrepid foragers must always use caution — some mushrooms are toxic to humans and others, like the white puffball, become poisonous with age.

“There is a lot of growing interest in not just mushrooms as sustainable agriculture but also more interest in wild-crafting and foraging,” Cody Hooks ’13, who attended this spring’s trip, said to explain the vocation’s growing popularity.

As these students know, foraging for fungi — the majority of whose growth lies underground — does not take place only in the country.

Foraging enthusiast Zaac Chavez, who leads his own foraging tours in the New Haven area, explained that cities such as New Haven, which have experienced a lot of soil disturbance, often host many more kinds of fungi than the countryside. He added that New Haven in particular is great place for mushroom foraging because it grows both southern deciduous trees and northern coniferous ones.

“[Foraging] gives you a very different sense of your urban landscape,” said Stephanie Safdi FES ’13, president of the Yale Environmental Law Association (YELA), which has invited Wildman Steve Brill to New Haven several times in recent years to lead trips.

Students said that hunting mushrooms is fun, and accessible —and more like an adventure sport than some might think. Mushrooms do make good meals, but they might lead to legal problems or poison for dinner.

PICKING YOUR POISON

The New York-Connecticut region plays host to more than 1000 different species of mushroom, but only about 30 are of interest to mushroom seekers, Gary Lincoff, the author of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, said. The rest, he explained, are dangerous for human consumption.

Roughly 95 percent of the Northeast’s mushrooms are poisonous, Lincoff estimated, and while he said he has only heard of a few poisonings in the area, Dianna Smith, president of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Society, said she has seen a number of cases where patients had to stay in the hospital for several days.

The distinction between a choice find and a poisonous one can sometimes be as small as the growth of small green spores several hours after cutting, Smith explained.

“You can’t just rely on your memory, you need books,” Lincoff added.

Smith said she once had to convince a man not to eat his misidentified Amanita Virosa, one of the deadliest species in the field. Indeed, Brill advised that nothing should be eaten that is found within 50 feet of a road because of pollution from traffic.

“Some people want to eat everything. They’re the ones that get into trouble,” Smith said.

But Chavez, who took Lincoff’s COMA mushroom course last winter, said he thinks of mushroom edibility as more subjective than most foraging field guides. He and Brill agreed that some store-bought foodstuffs can be just as poisonous as wild fungi — vegan Brill has sworn off items like white flour and sugar but continues to forage for mushrooms in the woods. For example, Chavez said he met a University of Connecticut biology professor in the woods who ate every single bolete (a kind of mushroom that shares the shape of a porcini) he found, regardless of species.

But sometimes the hunger to forage can place people in more trouble than just an extended stay at the hospital.

FIGHTING THE LAW

Many parks prohibit picking their edible plants — a lesson Brill learned the hard way in 1986 when he plucked a dandelion in Central Park and got handcuffed by two undercover park rangers. Park regulations often prohibit visitors from collecting plants, as they do at both East Rock Park and Edgewood Park, but enforcement can be spotty.

Stephanie Safdi FES ’13 said she could think of no park enforcement during the several recent YELA trips to Edgewood Park. Indeed, some mushroom foragers do not even consider that they might be violating the law.

“I just assumed that it was public and we were entitled to mushrooms,” said Cody Hooks ’13.

Some parks negotiate violations, but at a price, Brill said. Two weeks ago he received a letter from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection demanding a $625 “kick-back”, or fee, for every foraging tour he leads within a Connecticut state park.

“This is dumb,” he explained, “because we’re eating a renewable resource. My tours included environmental experts who would toss me into the first patch of poison ivy if they thought I was doing anything wrong.”

THINKING WITH YOUR STOMACH

Regardless of financial or physical risks, most foragers head into the woods with one thought: what will they prepare for dinner?

Many join the mycological society to learn how to harvest mushrooms, Smith said. And last week’s deluge should make group tours particularly fruitful for the next couple days.

Fungi sprout after heavy amounts of rain, which makes this week ideal for the urban forager, Lincoff said. He said he has already seen large quantities in his specimen-hunts around Central Park in Manhattan, and expects to see even more in the coming days.

East Rock was also flecked with them on Thursday, said Ronit Abramson ’13, who attended Brill’s latest New Haven tour. The city parks should show particular mushroom growth post-Irene, said Brill, because the predators within city lines largely exclude hungry deer.

The ideal mushroom conditions will bring forth some foraging favorites, Lincoff said.

“Hen of the Woods,” for example, is found in Connecticut, but not in the western United States. Cooked up, it has a strong flavor — unlike “Chicken of the Woods,” which resembles chicken, Smith said.

For many, the enjoyment in foraging outweighs the risk of poisoning or arrest. It is an environmentally responsible social experience, and mushrooms simply taste good, the mushroom hunters agree.

“It’s a way of getting food while doing something that you find fulfilling,” Chavez said.

This weekend, Hebron, Conn., which is 40 miles northwest of New Haven, will host a mushroom “foray” of more than fifty people, including Smith and Lincoff.

And for those who do not want to roam the damp corners of New Haven for the perfect mushroom, the Yale Farm may soon provide their own supply of Lioncap mushrooms starting this spring.

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