- Honestly, Dara -

The Secret Life of Mushrooms

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secret-life-of-mushrooms

There’s a lot we don’t know about fungi.

Swedish super-chef Magnus Nilsson once told me that mushroom hunting in Sweden is so popular that the Stockholm metro system delivers hunters right into the forest. Russians call the search for mushrooms “the quiet hunt” and commonly take vacation time to head into the woods.

This city-raised American kid is not so attuned to the forest floor. I can pick out the caterpillar’s toadstool in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, but I have a hard time even seeing mushrooms outside. A lot of them look like tree bark or lumps of not-much-of-anything at my feet.

This does not disappoint the mushrooms. Unlike roses or tulips, they are not interested in catching the eyes of creatures such as bumblebees or humans. They’re working their own plan, one that Teresa Marrone, author of Mushrooms of the Northeast and Mushrooms of the Upper Midwest, knows better than most.

“The part of the mushroom you see is the fruiting body,” she explains. “I tell people, think of a mushroom like an apple. As an apple is to an apple tree, a mushroom is to an underground mycelium.”

That’s right, mushrooms grow from a “tree” we can’t see.

“Mushrooms basically come in two types — decomposers and symbiotes,” Marrone says. The decomposers eat dead plant matter; you might see them growing on a fallen tree branch. The symbiotes live underground, making deals with their tree host: You give me the sugar you make from the sun and I’ll give you nitrogen, phosphorous, and other goodies I pluck from the soil.

Mushrooms often emerge when something goes wrong. “Morels grow when the host tree is dying,” she says. “The mycelium and the tree have been living together, liking each other, and then the elm tree starts to go. The mycelium thinks, There goes my home, there goes my friend, there goes my life — I have to get out of here! It kicks up a mushroom to get its spores out into the world and start again.”

That’s how apples and mushrooms are similar: Apples are a delicious fruit that the apple tree produces to trick things with legs into moving some seeds around. Mushrooms are what the mycelium makes to spread its seeds.

Some mushrooms are indeed designed for humans to enjoy. Truffles, for instance, are irresistibly, bewitchingly aromatic. How else can a mycelium convince us to literally spend all day searching them out and digging them up? The truffle mycelium does such a good job attracting our attention that we bred truffle pigs and truffle dogs to do its bidding.

Most mushrooms, though, are indifferent to people; they use the wind to spread their spores. The humble button mushroom is perfectly designed to protect its spores (that’s what the round cap is for) and then send them flying in the wind (that’s what the gills under the cap are for). A typical mushroom makes several billion spores, all so microscopically small they can be transported on the slightest breeze. The only mushroom spores people generally see are from puffballs, which let loose a cloud containing a trillion at a time.

Mushrooms may be largely indifferent to us, but that doesn’t mean we should be indifferent to them. Mushrooming is one of the great joys of Marrone’s life. “I was a city kid, too — I grew up outside Chicago,” she says. “When I went to college, in a little town called Ladysmith in Wisconsin, I fell in with a crowd of foragers, including some Ojibwe kids who really knew everything about the woods.

“My love for nature came about after a traumatic canoe trip on the Chippewa River one day. The canoe flipped and I got tangled in some rocks and almost drowned. My canoe partner saw my hand somehow, pumped my lungs, and saved my life.

“When we got to my friend’s cabin in the woods, I was a mess. His mother, who had been out picking puffballs, sat me down by the fireplace and fed me a meal of puffballs fried in butter. I thought, My God, this is restorative. I felt like that’s what made me live.

“The fact of almost drowning — that marked the middle of my life: before I loved the wide world and after.”

From that point on, Marrone has been a mushroom hunter. “I subscribe to the church of the blue-sky cathedral,” she says. “I get my God fix out in the woods. Mushrooming is such a solitary thing. It forces you to get down on the ground. You’re closely studying the woods and you see so many things you wouldn’t see in any other way.

“I’ll be so intensely thinking, looking, moving slowly that I’ll sit down for a sip of water and a deer will come right up, or a chickadee, right next to my shoulder. It happens all the time. Once I saw a little star-nosed mole, just looking right at me from his hole. You’re really in the woods when you’re looking for mushrooms.

“You need perseverance, with morels especially — they’re really a pain in the neck to find. But the mushrooms are persevering, too; they make their life right under your eyes, where most people can’t see them.

“I get calls every year: ‘I had a perfectly manicured lawn; now it’s covered with ugly mushrooms!’ And I always tell them, ‘They’ve been there all the time and there are probably more you can’t see than you can. Now you’ve got a sign.’ ”

This spring I’ve set myself the task of seeing mushrooms. I took the easy route — I bought a log impregnated with shiitake spores at my local garden center. I’m told if I keep it well watered I should get shiitakes all year.

I’m going to take the hard route, too, looking at the trees and at the ground for signs of life surviving in tough places. I might not live in a culture that offers metro service to the forest, but I can still love mushrooms for their strange, instructive wildness.

is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.

Illustration by Paul Hostetler

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