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Collecting Mushrooms for Study
by Michael Kuo
We mushroom hunters are fortunate that our hobby doesn't require lots of expensive equipment. I recently decided to take up fly fishing; $400 later, I managed to catch a few six-inch brook trout. By contrast, collecting mushrooms for identification requires a pocket knife, some waxed paper bags, a Sharpie, insect repellent, and a basket.
You will need the pocket knife in order to dig up the bases of some mushrooms (see "Collection Methods," below), and the waxed paper bags are what you will use to store your mushrooms. Several companies make waxed paper sandwich bags; these are the best mushroom holders. If you cannot get waxed paper bags, brown paper sandwich bags are the next-best option. Plastic bags are a bad idea. Mushrooms tend to sweat, especially in hot weather, and you are likely to have a wet mess on your hands if you put them in plastic bags.
The Sharpie is for taking notes; though you are welcome to use a pen and a notepad, I have found that writing directly on the waxed paper bags is the most convenient method--especially when it comes to sorting out, later, which notes correspond to which mushrooms. I will say only this about the insect repellent: I have rarely used it in my life, but as I am typing this I am recovering from over 300 deer tick bites I received a month ago. I still scratch myself constantly, I had to take a Lyme Disease prophylactic for three weeks, and I will never go mushroom hunting without insect protection again.
Ecology, Ecology, Ecology!
Mushrooms have evolved along with plants and animals as integral parts of complex ecosystems. It should be obvious that understanding mushrooms, therefore, depends on understanding the whole picture. However, to make a very long story short, mycologists have never paid much attention to the ecology of mushrooms and are only recently discovering their mistake (for more on this topic, see "Ecology, Shmeecology," "Mushrooming in the Age of DNA," and "The Evolution of a Great Big Headache"). Since you will not be making this mistake (and since mushroom identification depends in large part on such information and will in the future rely on it even more), I have listed below some things to consider as you take notes on your collections.
Is the mushroom growing from wood? If so, is the wood dead or living? If the tree is still alive, where on the tree is the mushroom growing--near the base of the tree, or around the roots, or higher up? (To show you that I'm not just giving you woodland busy-work, notice that Laetiporus sulphureus and Laetiporus cincinnatus can be handily separated with the answer to that last question.) If the wood is dead, is it a log or a stick? Is the bark still attached to the wood, or has it been decaying for a long time?
What kind of tree is (or was) it? No, successful mushroom identification does not usually depend on the ability to identify living and long-dead trees with 100% certainty, but this information can often make the process much easier. You may want to purchase a good tree identification book, and visit this site's section on North American Trees. (As another quick example to show you I'm not just making this stuff up, note that to separate Flammulina populicola from Flammulina velutipes you would need one of four things, any of which would work: a microscope and the ability to use it; a mycological laboratory and the ability to conduct fungal "mating studies"; a DNA sequencer and a degree in molecular biology; or the ability to recognize a Quaking Aspen tree.)
At a minimum, record whether you are under hardwoods or conifers. However, recall that an old, dead log in a hardwood forest may have belonged to a conifer (and vice versa), especially since much of the continent has been logged within the past century and a half. It is often possible to determine whether a fallen tree was a hardwood or conifer by observing the way the tree’s branches were arranged; many conifers develop branches in “whorls” (radiating clusters aligned at roughly the same point on the trunk) each year.
If the mushroom is terrestrial, is it really terrestrial, arising from the soil, or is it actually attached to a buried root? Or is it loosely attached to leaves or needles on the forest floor (in which case there is often--though not always--a pale, moldy-looking mass of material surrounding the mushroom’s base and binding the leaves or needles together)? What trees are in the vicinity of the mushroom? (If you are collecting in a yard or another setting where humans may have influenced things, be sure to consider the possibility that a tree has been recently removed.)
What is the growth habit of the mushroom? Is it growing alone, or in clusters with others? If there are clusters, are they tightly packed, so that the bases of the stems are touching, or even fused? If the mushroom is growing from a log, does it stick out laterally from the log (in which case it may lack a well developed stem), or does it sit on top of the log--or does it have a curved stem that comes out of the side of the log but aligns the cap so that it is perpendicular to the ground?
Choose mushrooms you feel you have a reasonable chance of identifying. Trial and error will help you make this decision; after a few trials with, for example, a tan Cortinarius, you may decide that there is a reason some professional mycologists specialize in a single genus that contains thousands and thousands of species.
In order to have much success at all in identifying mushrooms, you will need to have multiple specimens representing all stages of the mushroom's development. Pick mushrooms in good condition, selecting buttons, medium-sized specimens, and mature mushrooms. Most mushrooms make substantial changes in their appearance during their brief lives, and you will frequently need to know what these changes are in order to identify them. While this "all-stages" rule applies pretty much all the time, it is especially important with species of Russula, Cortinarius, and boletes.
Successful identification of some mushrooms will depend on whether or not you know what is going on with your mushroom at the base of its stem. Many species of Amanita have a characteristic volva enclosing the base of the stem; other mushrooms may have a tap root, like Xerula furfuracea or Polyporus radicatus. So you will need to "dig up" mushrooms--but, as you do, do not cause unnecessary damage to the soil or wood they are growing in!
Place four or five specimens in the same waxed paper bag, leave the top of the waxed paper bag open or very loosely folded, and place the bag in your basket. Avoid piling things on top of one another. If you are hunting mushrooms on a hot day, be sure to store your basket in a shaded and ventilated place for the car ride home.
As you begin to develop your mushroom identification skills, you will find that some details may need to be checked "in the field" for some mushrooms. Some Lactarius species, for example, contain a very scant amount of milk, or "latex." Since you will probably need to know what color the latex is and whether it changes color on exposure to air, you may need to record this information when the mushroom is still very fresh, especially if the mushroom has a long ride in a hot car ahead of it. There are several other examples of mushrooms that may require information be recorded in the field; experience will help you decide what you need to do immediately and what can wait.
If you happen to be collecting mushrooms on Mushroom Wonderland Day--say, during the monsoon seasons of the Pacific Northwest or the Rockies, or during a rainy summer week in northern Michigan--count your blessings. There will be mushrooms everywhere. Once, during the monsoons in the Four Corners area, my mother and I entered a spruce forest that contained so many mushrooms we literally had to be careful not to step on them. Sadly, though, you can only carry so many mushrooms--and attempting to identify a single species you have collected can take well over an hour when you get home. In your eagerness to pick every mushroom in sight, you may want to remember these details.
Cite this page as:
Kuo, M. (2006, November). Collecting mushrooms for study. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/collecting.html