Carl Kaster leads a mushroom meander

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Dr. Carl Kaster makes one thing clear before he heads into the woods on his “mushroom meander.”

“I’m not an expert on mushrooms so I brought along a lot of books.”

He’s holding his favorite, Orson Miller’s Mushrooms of North America, but there’s another protruding from his vest pocket and two more hidden from view in the other pocket.

He’s armed and ready to head out from the Stubnitz Environmental Education Center in Adrian to find some fungus.

But there’s one more caution to mention, this time about the ingestion of these interesting members of the natural world.

“Most of the mushrooms we’ll find have gills,” he said, “and most of the gilled mushrooms you don’t want to mess with. Some gilled are edible—the best ones are—but they’re confusing.”

He produces a photo of the showy, pure white Death Angel, a member of the amanita genus.

“I don’t even let students touch it,” he says. “You could accidentally lick your fingers later.”

The small group of hikers sets out into Heritage Park, stopping every so often to collect a specimen. Everything collected so far looks pretty much the same to the untrained eye. They’re all small, whitish mushrooms.mushroom.kaster

But Kaster is pointing out the characteristics needed to identify these confusing fungus. Gills vs. no gills. Gills attached to the stalk. Spacing of the gills. Size of the ring that marks where the cap attached to the stalk before the mushroom opened. Color of the stem. Presence of a stem. Swollen base at a stem.

“Do you have that identified?” a hunter asks about a gilled mushroom found along the Ridge Trail.

“Of course not,” answers Kaster. “I’ll take it home.”

Each mushroom is wrapped in a paper towel or tissue and placed into a bag. Identification will go easier back at the center rather than in the woods.

“You can always tell the mushroom trolls,” Kaster says about serious collectors. “They carry baskets and trowels.

“Mushrooms are a really nice hobby. Most of the plant is underground so you can pick as many as you want without hurting them. You can make spore prints. You can spend your life trying to identify them.”

Adding to the challenge is the change in appearance that a mushroom goes through during its life cycle. A newly emerged mushroom will look much different from a mature specimen. Take the same mushroom in its final days—when the cap expands and starts to turn inside out—and you’d swear it was a different species.

Someone spots a puffball, an item that Kaster has no problem identifying. Occasionally a student will bring in a massive puffball, says the Siena Heights University biology professor, holding his arms out to near bushel basket size.

“They’ll say, ‘What is it?’ I tell them ‘It’s dinner.’”

Kaster has feasted on a large variety of mushrooms over the years, but he thinks there’s nothing better than a properly prepared puffball.

The specimen is identified as Calvatia cyathiformis and Kaster’s book rates it as “choice edible.”

“Even though it says ‘choice edible,’ that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone,” Kaster warns.

Metabolism varies from individual to individual, and he suggests starting out with a small portion. If that goes down well, then go back and collect more.

Mushrooms are everywhere, but they’re blending in with the fallen leaves. Sometimes it seems like the group is walking too fast. Dropping to the ground and slowly perusing the area would turn up a lot more finds.

Kaster bends to the ground, opens his knife and cuts off a mushroom at the base.

“This one’s different,” he says as he presents a specimen to the group. “This is the first one that has a brown stalk.”

A woman of Finnish descent tells how her mother is well-versed in mushrooms. They were an important part of the family diet. Europeans tend to have better knowledge of mushrooms than Americans, said Kaster.

“People often order a meal based on the kind of mushroom.”

Someone spots an odd item with leaf-like waves of gelatinous material. This looks like anything but dinner, but “jelly mushroom” is listed as “choice edible.” Kaster’s field guide makes reference to another book—Kitchen Magic with Mushrooms—that contains a recipe for Candied Red Jelly Fungus.

“I think this one could be really nasty,” says Kaster, holding a new find.

The sack-like cup, the unattached ring—it’s a beautiful specimen, but it looks dangerous.

He points out a branch with shelf fungus and says that some species are edible. They’re usually rather fibrous, he warns. Next up is another troublesome specimen.

“Oh-oh,” Kaster is saying up the trail a few yards. “This isn’t the Death Angel but it’s a close relative.”

He’s not even taking this one back home. Some species are just too dangerous to bother with.

The woods is loaded with sassafras trees and the bright yellow leaves catch the sunlight. The brilliance of them catches the eye and it’s hard to keep from looking up rather than down at the fields of fungus.

The group has collected close to 20 different species, and there are plenty more hiding out among the trees and dying wildflowers.

“It’s interesting because a lot of mushrooms you see all the time,” Kaster says, “but there are other ones that you might see only every few years.”

For Kaster, there are two times of the year to hunt mushrooms. First, of course, is May when the morel abounds. Next is October when there’s a much greater diversity present.

A gust of wind blows through the woods and the group is suddenly showered by falling leaves from elm, cottonwood and black cherry trees overhead.

“Mushrooms are a really nice hobby,” says Kaster, for many reasons.

Since most of the plant is underground, collectors can pick as many as they want without damaging the prospect of more growing next year.

Mushrooms can produce beautiful spore prints when the cap is placed on a sheet of paper. Aside from the interesting designs, variations in spores produce a range of colors.

Mushroom hunting also provides a good excuse to head for the woods, something that always sounds good to Kaster.

The final reason, and certainly the most vexing, gives the hobby longevity.

“You can spend your whole life trying to identify them,” he says.

    - Oct. 10, 2001 
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