Last updated August 17, 2017 at 6:22 pm
Get in touch with nature and ecology! Foraging for wild mushrooms can be a fun – and risky – activity, as Lisa discovers.
It’s a cold and bright Sunday morning as I make my way to a suburban park 6km outside of the Adelaide CBD. I’m here for a Fungi Foray led by Dr Sapphire McMullan-Fisher, co-ordinator of the citizen science Fungimap project. Fungimap aims to map and catalogue fungi species around Australia, and over the 20 years that the project has been running over 200,000 observational records have been submitted.
Our small group wanders through the underbrush of the native garden in the park. Jess Bamford, 21, is also on the walk and I ask her what brought her along. She’s interested in ecology and conservation, and also in gardening and growing her own food, including growing her own oyster and shiitake mushrooms. “Now I’m obsessed with fungus!” she tells me.
As we trudge through the mulch, Sapphire explains that if you’re new to fungi, the best place to start is with trying to learn how to recognise some. “Birdwatchers don’t start with brown birds, so don’t start with brown mushrooms! They’re boring and hard to tell apart!”
She picks up a branch, it looks like a normal stick to me until she points out a small patch of white on it, a paint fungus, and as she rubs the end of the branch it crumbles away. Although there’s only a small white flat patch visible on the outside, the fungi is throughout the wood, breaking down the lignin that forms the cell walls of plants and gives them structure and strength. If you’ve ever picked up a branch and been surprised at how light it feels, it’s probably fungi at work. They are the great recyclers of the ecosystem. Fungi excrete enzymes that break down their meal which they then re-absorb, but that’s quite a leaky process which recycles nutrients back into the soil for other plants and animals to use.
We come across a Brick Cap – an Australian native mushroom that often pops up quickly after rain in woody mulch. Sapphire kneels down (she’s come prepared with knee pads), to pop a small hand mirror next to the mushroom cap poking through the leaf litter. It’s a way you can examine fungi in more detail without having to touch them or damage them by removing their fruiting body.
“Trying to identify a mushroom by looking at it’s cap is like standing on a tall building and looking down at a crowd trying to identify everyone by their hats,” says Sapphire. Using a mirror means you can get closer up to the gills, spores and stems which are much more useful in getting a fungal identification. It also means you’re less likely to end up getting too close to inhaling any stray spores. They can trigger asthma, and we’re told of a particularly grisly case in which someone inhaled spores from a split gill fungus that started to grow in their Eustachian tubes (the tube that joins your nose and ear).
What about foraging? There has been a huge increase in the popularity of foraging with ‘edible weeds’ tours popping up around Australia. “I’d rather people observe and appreciate” says Sapphire. While the foraging trend can lead to more people being interested in fungi, the foraging culture of Europe or Asia doesn’t translate well to Australian environments. Our soils are old and skeletal. Australian fungi have evolved, slowly and steadily, in these thin soils. The fruiting bodies are less common, and some fruit rarely. And while people are not likely to pick a half rotten mushroom full of fly larvae, fungi are also food and habitat for invertebrates. Fungi are often the forgotten part of biodiversity conservation, despite their critical role in the ecosystem.
There’s also the danger of eating something you shouldn’t. Death caps earned their name for a reason, but there are many other species that will also make you very sick. And probably many species still to be identified. Rather than decimating wild populations, there may be a future for farmed native Australian mushrooms. There is a native shiitake mushroom from coastal New South Wales that is not common in the wild but has potential for cultivation.
The last thing that fungi probably need is to become the next food trend and suffer overharvesting. The biggest threats to our fungal biodiversity at the moment are destruction and fragmentation of habitat, and also climate change, with less rain and drier conditions affecting the ability of fungi to fruit and reproduce. Fungimap, a verified data set now containing hundreds of thousands of sightings of fungi around Australia, now can play a role in modelling where target species are and predicting where they could be. As one of the older citizen science projects, it also is a rich data set for exploring how fungi distribution changes as our climate changes. If you want to participate and submit your own sighting you can do so at https://fungimap.org.au/index.php/submit-a-record/record-fungi.
If you’re interested in reading more about foraging for edible mushrooms, I recommend checking out the Fungimap blog: To foray or forage –by Alison Poulit.