Fun Gal Seeks Fungi
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
Well, folks, we've arrived. We've reached the part of summer in the Ozarks when it can be a struggle to heed the call of the woods. It's hot, it's humid, it's spider-y, and most of the really interesting flowers are done for the season, passion flowers notwithstanding. I know otherwise avid hikers who simply do not venture out in the summer months - they kayak or go rock climbing. While I don't blame them in the least, I can't stay off the trail, regardless of the weather. Besides, this muggy weather can be a great time to spot mushrooms. In fact, fungus fans can find them year-round here, but it's during the drowsy days of August that they start to become the highlight of my hiking.
For foragers, mushroom season starts in the spring with the arrival of morels. Morel hunters are a secretive bunch, and the location of a forager’s morel patch is treated with national-security-level secrecy. So don't ask. I do not, myself, go looking for edible mushrooms of any kind, but I do understand the impulse for wanting to keep a special place unspoiled. Hen of the Woods and Chanterelles are also big on the mushroom forager's menu. The locations of these are less jealously guarded, as both will pop up just about anywhere. Turkey Tails and Lion's Manes are two more that prompt foragers to reach for their frying pans. In the fall, people get very excited about Puffball mushrooms. There are quite a few mushrooms referred to as Puffballs but just one, really, that people seek out to eat. It's no longer classified in the Lycoperdon genus with the other Puffballs, instead going by Calvatia gigantea, the Giant Puffball to its friends. Die-hard ‘shroom hunters claim that these large, white, dense mushrooms make an excellent substitute for bread in French Toast. You will never convince me that a mushroom is better than a nice, thick slice of brioche.
Know that if you decide you'd like to stalk wild mushrooms for your dinner, foraging is not permitted in state and national parks, and that many tasty, edible mushrooms have "evil twins" - mushrooms that look very similar, but that can be unpalatable or even toxic. Find yourself a good in-person guide (don't rely solely on a book or the internet), or take a class like those offered at Ozark Folkways. You can also take a look around your local farmer's market. Here, Fat Top Farm and others grow a variety of mushrooms you'd usually need to head into the wilderness to find, and they bring them to the Saturday market for you. While "foraging" with a cup of coffee in one hand and a locally-made pastry in the other might lack the thrill and romance of the hunt, it's much easier, and your success is guaranteed.
Above is the very first mushroom I every really took note of. This neat little guy prompted me to join the Arkansas Mushrooms and Fungi group on Facebook so I could ask what it was. Friends, meet Lycoperdon pyriforme, the Pear-Shaped Puffball, or Stump Puffball. Most puffballs will, at the right time of year, release a "puff" of spores when poked. This fact leads logically to (but will probably not prepare you for) the translation of their genus name: lycos = wolf and perdon = to break wind. What we've got are Wolf Fart mushrooms. File that away for the next time you need to make a five-year-old giggle while stealthily teaching them some Latin.
It was 2 years ago, almost to the day, that I spied that little pear-shaped wolf fart on a hike around Lake Wilson. Since then, I've seen all sorts of amazing fungi in the Ozarks, many of which I can even maybe-almost-a-little-bit-sort-of identify. Mushroom identification can be pretty complicated, if you really get into it. Some mushrooms can be distinguished from similar species only with the use of a microscope. I'm content to find, observe, and possibly narrow the mushroom's ID down to the family level if I can. I also don't go so far as to take spore prints, not because picking the visible "fruiting body" of the mushroom is harmful (it isn’t),but because if I pick it, then it's not there for the next hiker, and there's no telling who that little fungus might inspire.