The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Why wild mushroom foraging has ‘exploded’

- By Jordan Fenster

About twice a week, 6-year-old Eli Galaise goes out hunting for wild mushrooms.

Eli, who lives in Falls Village, is enthusiast­ic about mushrooms. So much so that he, with some encouragem­ent from his mother, started a YouTube channel where he’s known as “the Little Mycologist.”

“Maybe a year ago or so, we were going on hikes constantly during the pandemic. That’s how we handled it. Every single day, we were outside,” his mom, Carla Galaise, said. “Eli would stop every person we’d walk by and show them mushrooms and teach them about mushrooms.”

In the videos, Eli is visibly excited about every mushroom he encounters. “I’m never gonna get tired of it,” he said during a recent interview.

He knows most of the Latin and common names of each, and though he’s interested in the edible mushrooms, Eli’s also interested in the odd ones, as well as the poisonous ones.

“I have a bleeding tooth in my yard,” he said. “It’s this really cool one that looks like it’s bleeding this red or sometimes orange watery stuff. It’s cool.”

More mushrooms and more foragers

On the whole this has been, according to Bill Yule, one of the better mushroom hunting seasons in recent memory.

Yule has been foraging for mushrooms in Connecticu­t for the past 30 years or so. The Haddam resident was a science teacher and environmen­tal educator before retiring two years ago. But mushrooms have been and remain his passion.

What made this year so good for mushrooms was the rainfall. Experience­d foragers, he said, “spend a lot of time looking at rainfall maps.”

“If you look at Connecticu­t as a whole, and southern New England as a whole, this was an excellent mushroom season,” Yule said. “You have to follow the exact rain

patterns to figure out where the mushrooms are.”

It’s also been a banner year for mushroom hunters. There are more foragers out in the woods now than Yule has ever seen before.

“In the past three years, the popularity of this hobby has exploded in ways no one could have predicted,” he said.

There are two kinds of mushroom hunters. There are foragers, who primarily look for edible mushrooms in the wild, and there are amateur mycologist­s, who, Yule said, are more interested in cataloging biological diversity and preserving ecology.

For the first group, Connecticu­t is home to some well known and tasty mushrooms. There is the so-called chicken of the woods, which has a yellow, orange appearance and grows on trees. There are maitake mushrooms, sometimes called hen-of-the-woods, as well as chanterell­es and button mushrooms, and many more.

“Just now we’re going into the fall season and people are starting to collect the hen-of-the-woods, the honey mushrooms and the yellow footed chanterell­es,” he said. “They are the best edibles.”

Many foragers search for mushrooms for personal use but there is,

Yule said, “a whole shadow economy going on.”

Though it’s technicall­y illegal to sell wild mushrooms, Yule said foragers often “sell the mushrooms to brokers from out of state, or on the back steps of restaurant­s.”

The ‘destroying angel’ and the ‘death cap’

There are many thousands of types of mushrooms growing wild in Connecticu­t, Karen Monger, the newsletter editor for the North American Mycologica­l Associatio­n and membership coordinato­r for the Connecticu­t Valley Mycologica­l Society,

“We have an incredible diversity of mushroom species,” she said. “That is due partly to the fact that we have such a diverse group of trees.”

It can be difficult, sometimes, to tell the difference between edible mushrooms and the ones that can kill you. The so-called “destroying angel,” for example, looks like an innocent button mushroom when it’s young, but eat enough of it and you may need a liver transplant.

In the best of cases, a toxic mushroom might “send you to the bathroom for a couple hours,” Monger said. Other mushrooms might require a trip to the emergency room for intravenou­s fluids “from your fluid loss from vomiting and diarrhea.”

In the worst cases, “You may need a liver replacemen­t because you’ve eaten the wrong mushroom and the toxins in that particular mushroom have destroyed your liver,” Monger said. “So you know, you don’t gamble with wild mushrooms if you’re going to eat them.”

The destroying angel is common across Connecticu­t. Julie O’Grady, a Westport forager, said she often sees them in town.

“I see them every day,” O’Grady said. “I mean, every day, every time I go out, we see one somewhere.”

“The sad thing is that it’s an awful death, because what it does is it makes you really sick for a day or two, and then you feel better,” she said. “And then it attacks your liver. You have to have a liver transplant to survive, or it kills you.”

Yule cautions that proper identiBut fication is key. There have been about 80 calls so far this year to Connecticu­t’s Poison Control Center for exposure to potentiall­y poisonous mushrooms.

That’s about on par with last year, when there were 105 calls, and far higher than the 53 mushroom-related calls there were in 2019, perhaps due to the weather conditions and increased number of foragers.

But even edible mushrooms are not always tolerable. Yule is often called to identify which mushroom an ill patient has ingested. Sometimes, it’s a destroying angel or, less often, the toxic death cap mushroom.

But most of the time, it’s because a mushroom has not been prepared well, or because an individual was susceptibl­e in a way another might not be.

“People think that they can lightly saute some mushrooms and eat them, and you can’t,” Yule said. “That’s what the major poison control issues are about.”


Monger, from Norwich, said it can be difficult to make a precise identifica­tion.

“You can’t kind of say, ‘Oh, I wish I could find this mushroom,’ and I find something that kind of looks like it, but this feature doesn’t match up, but I’m gonna overlook that fact,” she said “That could be a very bad mistake.”

Monger said to correctly identify a mushroom, a forager needs to pay attention to any number of factors. “Is it growing on the ground? If it’s growing in the ground is it associated with a bunch of conifer trees or hardwood trees?”

How a mushroom looks, it’s morphologi­cal features, are perhaps the first thing to note, Monger said: “Are you looking at the colors of the mushroom? You see if it has gills, pores, teeth, a smooth underside, does it have a stem? Does it not have a stem? Are you looking at features on the stem? Is there a ring? Are there leftover pieces of a cortino, a waxy substance? You look at the base of the mushroom, is there a bulb, is there a vulval sack?”

smell is also an important factor. “You can pick up different odors that are an identifica­tion clue for the mushroom,” Monger said.

Taking a spore print is a “more ambitious” way to identify a mushroom, Monger said, but it is a helpful way to identify one.

“Taking a spore print is pretty easy,” said Matt Pulk, of Storrs, who is an administra­tor of several mushroom identifica­tion Facebook pages. “Generally, you just put the spore bearing surface, facedown. Usually, depending on the mushroom, some of them will let you know in 10 minutes whereas, other ones, you might leave for 24 hours just to have more of a dense spore collection.”

It’s best, Pulk said, to abstain from eating a mushroom until you’re sure.

“I tell people, unless you can identify for yourself, unless you’ve done your research, unless you’ve consulted with other people who you trust and consider to be as close as an expert in that scenario that can be, then that’s basically the only time you want to eat a mushroom,” he said.

2 percent of what’s out there

There are, in fact, so many species of fungi in the world that it’s possible to discover new ones.

“We probably only know about 2 percent of the species on this planet,” said Rachel Koch, a research assistant professor at the University of Connecticu­t and an expert in mushroom evolution and mushroom diversity.

“So it’s very possible that when people are collecting mushrooms that they might have a new species that hasn’t been described yet, just because morphologi­cally, there’s not a lot of factors that differenti­ate them.”

Koch said fungi have been on the planet longer than complex plant or animal life.

In fact, she said fungi “make plant life possible, either through associatin­g with them, or returning the nutrients to the soil again, fungi were what allowed plants to come on to the earth really, to evolve.”

 ?? Carla Galaise / Contribute­d photo ?? Eli Galaise, 6, of Falls Village, known on YouTube as “the Little Mycologist,” holds some lactarius indigo he found.
Carla Galaise / Contribute­d photo Eli Galaise, 6, of Falls Village, known on YouTube as “the Little Mycologist,” holds some lactarius indigo he found.

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