Recently, I went on a mushroom hunt with a retired Miami medical examiner.
Dr. Jay S. Barnhart, who worked with metropolitan Dade County, is pretty much an expert on fungi.
There are many kinds of explorers in the world, and mushroom hunters are a rather niche branch. If you think a medical examiner-turned-mushroom-hunting-hobbyist is odd – well, think about what mushrooms are. They’re decomposers. Yeah. There’s that. They break down compounds in the soil into its most basic elements to be used by plants and other organisms.
Dr. Barnhart led his mushroom expedition along a trail in Brevard Country’s Enchanted Forest Sanctuary, as part of a workshop series put on by the Florida Wildflower Foundation. Before setting off to find a selection of fungi, Dr. Barnhart first gave us a short lesson on the basic features of mushrooms.
For example, some mushrooms have gills on their undersides, just like the generic white mushrooms you find at the store. Others are called polypores, and they have tiny pores on the undersides of their caps that can be seen through a microscope or magnifying glass.
Because there are so many undiscovered mushrooms, and because many mushrooms look alike, it’s actually difficult to properly identify them, says Dr. Barnhart. Mushroom hobbyists and mycologists identify mushrooms in several different ways: color, smell, location, physical structure, the color of their milk (yes, apparently mushrooms produce colored milk), and the color of their spore prints – which are made by leaving the caps on white and black paper (or sometimes plastic or glass) for several hours until the spores fall off, leaving a colored print.
Another, inadvisable, method is through taste. Why is this inadvisable? Because not only do some mushrooms taste bad, many of them are also poisonous. And – unless you are a mycologist with years of experience and a lot of bravado – you really don’t want to risk death over a wild mushroom. According to MushroomExpert.com, mycologists who do use this method are advised never to swallow (sort of like gargling with Listerine, only with much worse repercussions).
Dr. Barnhart likes to say, “All mushrooms are edible – some only once.”
He passed around several examples of both benign and poisonous mushrooms – all of which looked pretty similar.
One of the most deadly mushrooms is the amanita (there are hundreds of variations, many of which are the most toxic in the world). Here in Florida, we have the white amanita – and yes, it is deadly, says Dr. Barnhart.
The funny thing about the amanita and other poisonous mushrooms is that you can touch them and nothing will happen to you, says Dr. Barnhart. The mushrooms only kill you if you swallow them and they get in your gastrointestinal tract. The amanita’s “cyclic peptide” trashes both your kidneys and your liver, he says.
After our little fungi class, we went tromping off through the woods looking for interesting mushrooms for Dr. Barnhart to ID – and especially searching for the elusive white amanita.
We found gilled and polypore versions, turkey tails that only grow on wood, earth stars that actually grow in sand, and hexagonal mushrooms and puff balls. Of course all of these have unpronounceable Latin names too.
Finally, when we were almost to the end of our hike, we found one more, lone white mushroom just popping up from the path.
“We found another one! What’s this one?” someone in our group asked.
Dr. Barnhart, the former medical examiner, examined it. It was white with a partial “veil” covering its gills and a “volva” or cup at its base. It looked like your average lawn mushroom.
It was an amanita.
What a find! We were all excited. One of the ‘hunters’ held it in his hand for photos. Dr. Barnhart reminded us it was perfectly safe to touch them… just not to ingest them.
I thought of contingencies. “What if you touched it and then stuck your finger in your eye?” I asked. “How badly do you want to die?” he joked. “No, it has to get into your G.I. tract,” he assured me. Still, I declined to hold it my hand. “No, I’m good.”
“So this would be a good choice if you wanted to poison someone,” a lady in our group bantered. “It would be hard to trace…”
“Do you have any ID with you?” Dr. Barnhart asked.
Living in Florida? Dr. Barnhart is interested in your mushroom finds! Contact him at email@example.com for details on how to send descriptions, photos, and spore prints or your local fungi.
Photo credits: Christine Janesko