Mush­room hunt­ing on the trails

The Weekly Vista - - Community - KEITH BRYANT

A crowd es­ti­mated at 100 peo­ple stepped into the Back 40 trails to check out fungi last Satur­day.

Jay Jus­tice, a “free range” my­col­o­gist with a bach­e­lor’s in chem­istry and a master’s in nat­u­ral sciences as well as 30 years of ex­pe­ri­ence study­ing mush­rooms, led the hike and helped hik­ers iden­tify mush­rooms — in­clud­ing lion’s manes, honey mush­rooms, for­est hens and oth­ers — along the way and af­ter the fact.

Jus­tice said he be­came in­ter­ested in mush­rooms when he was study­ing chem­istry in grad school. He was re­search­ing tox­ins, he ex­plained, and be­came fas­ci­nated by the deadly tox­ins in amanita mush­rooms, which do not de­na­ture read­ily from heat.

“You can cook deadly mush­rooms and it doesn’t make them edi­ble,” he said.

There was also a lot less read­ily avail­able when he started study­ing, mean­ing he had to learn more in the field.

“Back in the 70s there were only two or three mush­room books,” he said.

Fungi are also an es­sen­tial part of the ecosys­tem, he ex­plained. Fun­gal growth on the roots of plants, for ex­am­ple, is not par­a­sitic but rather es­sen­tial for the plants to sur­vive.

But hik­ers would be look­ing at macro­fungi, the larger kind of mush­rooms that can be seen by the naked eye.

Kay Curry, trails co­or­di­na­tor for the city, said she was glad Jus­tice could come out.

“He has a huge fol­low­ing,” she said.

The hike has been planned since ear­lier this year, she said, and the cool, rain-free day was per­fect for it.

“It’s a great day to be in the woods,” she said.

One hiker, Dusty Love, of Bella Vista, said she was hav­ing a great time for­ag­ing. She’s been a mush­room hunter for about a year, she ex­plained, and it started with for­ag­ing for morel mush­rooms to eat.

She’s joined a Face­book page, Ar­kan­sas Mush­rooms and Fungi, mod­er­ated by Jus­tice, where she’s learned to bet­ter iden­tify mush­rooms, par­tic­u­larly edi­ble ones.

Love said she went on the hike in part be­cause she’s a fan.

“He’s leg­endary,” she said. “I was so ex­cited he was com­ing here.”

She ap­pre­ci­ated the chance to meet Jus­tice, she said, and had a good time for­ag­ing.

It’s a fun hobby but it can be risky, Love ex­plained. Eat­ing the wrong mush­room is a mis­take peo­ple tend to only make once, but it can be hard to tell which mush­rooms are the right ones — some have looka­likes, oth­ers are safe un­less they’re grow­ing on conifers.

But it’s also one that al­lows her to bring her four-year-old daugh­ter along. It’s a good ex­cuse to get her kid out­side, she said, and pick­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing fungi keeps her en­ter­tained.

“We’re very lucky to have all these trails that cut into these woods be­cause it’s like a mush­room Mecca out here,” Love said.

Keith Bryant/The Weekly Vista

Bella Vista trails co­or­di­na­tor Kay Curry leads a group of hik­ers into the Back 40 trails for a mush­room pick­ing group hike.

Keith Bryant/The Weekly Vista

Kelly Hock trims a mush­room off the side of a fallen tree.

Keith Bryant/The Weekly Vista

Hik­ers ex­am­ine the mush­rooms they har­vested along­side the Back 40.

Keith Bryant/The Weekly Vista

My­col­o­gist Jay Jus­tice speaks with hik­ers be­fore set­ting out on the Back 40 trails.

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